In the name of God ☩ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is a unique day in the Christian year. On every other day of the year, our focus is outward – we focus on caring for those in need, or the environment, or the Church and we focus on glorifying and praising God. Certainly, we praise God in all things, Ash Wednesday included. But today is unique because our focus is not outward, but rather inward. On Ash Wednesday we come face to face with our sinfulness, our mortality, and our neediness. It’s important that we spend one day a year doing this sort of introspection because, for one, it’s honest, but also because such reflection prepares us to receive more fully the grace of God.
We can hear this inward focus in St. Paul’s words to the Church – “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” When we look inward it becomes clear that we need reconciliation because there is brokenness within and among us. It’s interesting that the word St. Paul uses isn’t the typical word for reconciliation that is used in religious contexts of sacrifice. Instead, the word he uses is political, it’s the word you’d use to describe trying to find common ground after a political or legal dispute. When we look inward we see that the situation isn’t a small imbalance in the register. The sort of reconciling that needs to be done isn’t like reconciling a checkbook that is out of balance where you just need to find a transaction or two that are wrong. Sin is so much bigger than that. Sin is something like a cancer that is foreign to us, yet is still very much a part of us. And sin infects all parts of our lives. As St. Paul writes elsewhere, Sin makes it so that the good that we want to do, we do not do; and the bad that do not want to do is exactly what we do. Sin is not a few transactions being out of alignment, sin is being so in debt that the bank won’t even do business with you anymore. What is needed is not a quick fix, but rather a radically new relationship.
And this is exactly what God gives us in Christ. When St. Paul tells us to “be reconciled,” it’s in the passive mood. We are not told to reconcile ourselves to God, but rather to be reconciled. It’s an incredibly difficult phrase to translate because English doesn’t have the same tenses as the Greek of 2 Corinthians. This word is what a grammarian would call an aorist passive imperative.
When we think about an imperative, we think of future action. But the verb here is actually a past-tense form, signifying a completed action. So it’s a command that’s already completed and its passive which means that the action is done to us, not by us. And as complicated as that all is linguistically, it is spot on theologically. Reconciliation is something that has already been done for us by Christ. Just before today’s passage began, St. Paul writes “God reconciled us to himself through Christ.” That’s the easy part – that’s the passive in the past tense. That’s essentially the message of grace – that God does all of the work in overcoming Sin.
But the radical part is that “be reconciled” is also imperative, meaning that reconciliation is not something that happens to us, but within us. St. Paul tells us that we are “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” and further says that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” We might skip right over that phrase, but it’s an incredible claim – not that we receive the righteousness of God, not that we are declared righteous by God, but that we become the righteousness of God. This is where the imperative kicks in – it’s not simply that we are reconciled to God, but rather that we become the reconciliation itself.
Now, what allows St. Paul to make such a claim as this is what he says just a few verses prior to today’s reading. He writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” It’s not merely that Christ has fixed the problem of Sin and Death for us, it’s that he’s brought us into a new reality where Sin and Death are robbed of their final power to condemn us forever. Christ has brought us into himself – his love, his grace, his Resurrection are where we live, and move, and have our being. Because of Christ’s reconciliation, we no longer belong to this world, rather we belong to God. This is why looking inward isn’t narcissistic navel-gazing – because when we look inward we find that our need for reconciliation has been taken care of by Christ who has made us the righteousness of God.
Where this proclamation that we are in Christ impacts our lives is in how we see ourselves. On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, the Church talks a lot about Sin, not because we think it’s a topic people are clamoring to hear about, but because though Sin has been defeated, it still has a gravitational pull on our lives. And if we are not firm in our understanding that we are reconciled to God, we might fall into the despair of thinking that we are stuck in Sin. It’s important to remember that though each and every one of us are sinful, sin is not who we are. Rather, we are the righteousness of God. That is to say that we are all caught up in sin, but sin is not our identity. Our identity, as St. Paul makes clear, is that we are in Christ, and in Christ, we know that there is no darkness at all.
So the message of the Gospel is not about hearing that we are forgiven, it is not knowing that we are forgiven, it is not believing that we are forgiven, but rather the Gospel is about us being forgiven, exuding forgiveness, being a symbol of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not merely something that happens to us, it becomes our identity.
Faith, then, is about enjoying our forgiveness. It’s about being unshackled from the laws and customs that weigh us down. Being forgiveness, being the righteousness of God means that we don’t have to live in such a way that we try to earn our righteousness. God isn’t going to love you more if you give up chocolate for the next forty days or if you read the Bible more in Lent. God’s love isn’t a meritocracy. Rather, Lenten disciples are done for two reasons. The first is that you’re probably going to fail to keep your discipline or really struggle to keep it. And that reminds us of our reliance on God to save us. If we struggle with giving up meat for a few weeks, how are we going to take care of the problem of death? The difficulty of fasting brings us closer to God not because it makes us holier, but because it makes us needier and when we are aware of our need, we are more ready to encounter the God who meets us in our needs.
The second thing that a Lenten discipline is good for is that it helps to remind us that we are, indeed, in Christ. Though we live in this world, we are not of the world because we are citizens of Christ’s New Creation. So, making a commitment to come to a service of Morning or Evening Prayer at least once a week in Lent is about having our calendar reflect our in Christ-ness. And being reminded of that, it will change how we see ourselves and others. Coming to Confession on a Wednesday in Lent is about coming to get off of your chest those things that are weighing you down and be reminded that God loves you and forgives you. Fasting, or giving something up is done to remind us that because we are in Christ, we don’t really need other things. Instead of giving up something trivial, like a kind of food or drink, you might consider giving up something that makes you feel prideful or self-sufficient. Such practices help to remind us of our identity in Christ.
And our being in Christ and being the righteousness of God is given to us for a purpose. The word that St. Paul uses for “be reconciled” is the root word katallasso, which is where we get our word “catalyst.” Our reconciliation with God changes things, it sets off a reaction of grace in our lives. As we look inward on Ash Wednesday, yes, we see our great need for God because we are infected with Sin which leads only to Death. But deeper than that, we see the righteousness of God planted firmly within us. In being reconciled to God, all things are made new. This Lent, let grace be a catalyst in your life, have righteousness as your identity, and enjoy your forgiveness.