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Our Rich Liturgical Heritage:


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The Rt Revd Dr Peter Brain

There is no other place I would like to be on a Sunday than in church with fellow believers. Doubly so on the first Sunday in the New Year where we heard an excellent sermon from the gospel reading on repentance. I was reminded of its importance and began reflecting on how helpful our public liturgies are in keeping fundamental truths like repentance before us.

Repentance is so easily diminished when it is confused with remorse or regret. Regret so often has to do with sorrow for being found out and remorse with sorrow for our own failure, particularly when hurting someone else, or letting ourself or others down. But repentance goes far deeper, and unsurprisingly, brings us much more hope. Unsurprisingly, because something commanded of us by both God and our Lord and Saviour, as it is, will always be our best course of action. Repentance is required because our sin offends God.

This is why our liturgies are so rich. Take for example the opening Scripture quotations in BCP and AAPB Morning Prayer from Ezekiel 18:23/32. ‘When a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God; so turn and live’, and Mark 1:15 ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’.

The double action of repentance mirrors the truth of these verses, and is clearly set forth in our baptism services with the questions: Do you turn to Christ? and ‘Do you repent of your sins?’. To become a believer we must own our rebellion against God, evidenced by our many sins and our chief sin of rejecting the Lordship of Jesus. When we own Jesus as our Saviour and embrace him as Lord, we are doing a U turn, that involves a new Master and a new direction. There can be no pardon without our turning from sin and embracing Jesus as our sin-bearer.

When we do, we receive pardon from God, adoption as his beloved child and the Holy Spirit.

Each of these is the result of our repentance toward God and trust in Jesus. As God’s children we want to keep short accounts with him. We want neither to let our Father down, grieve the Holy Spirit, show scant regard to our Lord for His sin-bearing sacrifice, nor letting our local church teams down by unrepented sin. This is why we have the general confession in our services which serve as a reminder and pattern for our personal repentance. In one way or another they emphasise repentance, not because we cease to be believers when we sin, but because we do not want our fellowship with either God or our fellows to be broken. Having become a believer when we confessed Christ as our Lord and Saviour we don’t want our sin to darken our relationship with God, instead we deal with it as soon as the Holy Spirit convicts us.

The order of our services is vital. There can be no declared pardon of our sins without our prior repentance. The second order has ‘who has promised forgiveness to all who turn to him in faith’ and the first order exhorts us ‘You, then, who truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to live a new life, following the commandments of God and walking in his holy ways, draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to strengthen and comfort you…’, as the condition for receiving God’s grace in the sacrament.

Three thoughts have come before me this week. Each brings a challenge, but when heeded brings comfort. William Barclay warns: ‘The gravest disservice anyone can do for a fellow is to make him think lightly of sin’. John Owen’s advice is life-givingly realistic: ‘Be killing your sin, or it will be killing you’. John Murray’s wise counsel keeps us from complacency and despair: ‘There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin and the unregenerate complacent to sin. It is one thing for sin to live in us; it is another for us to live in sin’. Repentance will keep us on track as it remains one of this essential means of receiving our Father’s daily grace.

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