Related Sermon(s): Mini Sermon #44 Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday kicks off the Season of Lent in the Christian Calendar, which itself is the forty days preceding the Christian holiday of Easter. It is notable because the palms from the year’s previous Palm Sunday are burnt to ash and then placed ritually on a believer’s forehead with the words “Repent and Believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In some congregations, oil is used instead of ash.
To the Text (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:2)
The Christian’s proud privilege is also his terrifying responsibility: the honor of the Church herself. Paul begins his message with a universal message, we must be reconciled with God. This message is particularly poignant as we begin our forty-day journey toward Easter—the day when we celebrate the forgiveness of our sins and the reconciliation with Christ Jesus.
It is important to note that humankind needs to be reconciled to God. It is not the other way around. God is already reconciled to humankind. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. God is, therefore, fully reconciled to us. God fully knows us and understands us as we are. Any breach of closeness between us and the divine is our fault, not God’s. Paul’s message, that he brings in 2 Corinthians, is a message of love from God the Father.
We must remember that God gave Jesus so that our reconciliation to him could happen. With the words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,” Paul refers to Jesus Christ, who himself was sinless, but took upon himself the sins of the world at the time of his crucifixion. At this point, reconciliation became possible because Jesus and humankind became one.
Furthermore, we must accept God in full knowledge of this divine gift—of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice—otherwise our reconciliation would be hollow and meaningless.
How would it be hollow?
How would it be meaningless?
Without the sacrifice of Jesus, we do not fully appreciate the full love and caring that God the Father has for us. We do not know the lengths he will go for full reconciliation and for our love.
Moreover, the time for reconciliation is Now. It is present. It is here. Salvation is upon us and it is imminent.
Continuing (2 Corinthians 6:3-10)
The next part of the passage is a series of lists involving early Christianity—what must be endured and what a Christian should be. Paul is describing the world as he sees it, and is telling the Corinthians (or the Christians of the City of Corinth) what they should expect as Christians.
Christians should not place obstacles in other people’s ways. To do such would be to hinder them.
They should show endurance in adversity, including afflictions (physical and spiritual), hardships, calamities, beatings, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. Later he notes that Christians are treated as impostors. Early Christians were often persecuted for their faith and would face such tests and difficulties. In Florence, MA, we exist in relative comfort. No one stops us on the street and arrests us for being Christian. We’re not thrown into prison without trials or denied food on the basis of religion. We may have our difficulties, our own trials of the 21st-century, of course we do, I do not deny it, but the state is not actively persecuting us by beating us in the street.
Paul next lists the virtues by which Christians may be known—purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love (agape, for those who heard my sermon last month on Sunday, February 20th), truthful speech, and the power of God. He speaks of the power of righteousness.
He maps out how Christians live, in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute, as unknown and yet well known. Christians are in a state of limbo.
Christianity in Limbo
At this time, there was a bit of a legal dispute as to the status of Christianity. I mentioned earlier that Christianity was persecuted, and this is true. It was persecuted based on the fact that it was a religion that had no protected status within the Roman Empire and was clearly not the approved state religion of Emperor Worship. As such, all Christians were heretics (according to Rome) and also criminals.
However, when Christianity first started to spring up in Israel and various Jewish diaspora, some viewed it as a Jewish sect. After all, Jesus was a Jew. The first Christians were converts of Judaism (and wouldn’t that make them Jewish?). Was Christianity, then, not a form of Judaism? Never mind the Greek converts, they were just converting to a new Jewish sect—strange as it was. If this was the case, then Christianity, as a Jewish sect, would have had protection under Roman law. Its practitioners would be free to worship as they pleased.
The problem, however, was that Christians proclaimed that they were not Jews. They were, instead, something else entirely, and because of this they quickly lost their protected status.
That doesn’t mean that Christianity wasn’t in limbo just because they knew they were separate from Judaism. There was a Jewish variant of Christianity in 1st– and 2nd-century Palestine and then there were the Greek cities that began to practice Christianity. Which was right? Paul and his converts of Greeks? Or Peter, a Disciple of Christ, with closer roots to Judaism?
As I said, the early days of Christianity were in limbo and it didn’t sort itself out for centuries, arguably until the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Back to Ash Wednesday
Many view Ash Wednesday as a day to repent their sins. It marks the first day of Lent, where there is a common practice to give something up (such as chocolate or wine) so that we might deprive ourselves the way that Jesus did the 40 days and 40 nights he was in the desert being tempted by Satan.
However, repenting our sins is just a stepping stone. It’s not meant to be an end game. We’re not supposed to self-flagellate until our souls are bloodied and bruised from excessive repentance.
Instead, repentance is a step towards our reconciliation with God. That’s where we’re going. We’re traversing the forty days of Lent so that at the end of it, our sins may be forgiven, and we may rise again with Jesus Christ in the resurrection, new and whole and complete.
Think on that this Ash Wednesday, if you choose to have ashes placed on your forehead. Be repentant, but know that its meant to bring you one step closer to joyful union with the Lord our God.