Download or listen to Ash Wednesday, “Reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To talk about reconciliation, as Paul does, means that something is wrong. Two people, or more than two people, are separated from each other and the relationship between them is so broken that there is only hostility where love and kindness used to be. Depending on what it is that has caused the relationship to be broken, it may be easier or harder to fix that relationship. It may be as simple as apologizing or as difficult as spending years regaining trust. But how do you reconcile two people when one of them refuses to be reconciled? How can a relationship be repaired when one half of the relationship has turned so completely away that he or she has already entered another relationship? It sounds like some marriages that are ending or have ended. But what happens sometimes in marriage is what happens always between people and God. It is not a coincidence that God often describes His people as a bride that refuses to confine herself to the marriage bed. She is always restless, always discontent, always seeking her pleasure and happiness elsewhere than in the Home her Groom has built for her. This relationship is so broken that the bride has no intention of remaining faithful. She doesn’t even really want to. How can God and people—God and you, God and me—be reconciled? Unlike when human marriages end, where there is always fault with both the husband and the wife, in the marriage of God and His people, the fault only goes one way: from us to God. Our Husband is always faithful, always loving, always forgiving, always generous; He is patient and kind; He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. We are everything He is not.
Just as all the fault goes from us to God, all the reconciliation comes from God to us. This is not how it works in human relationships, where each must admit his own fault, and each must forgive the other. In this case, it is only us who have faults to be confessed and only God who is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Only God forgives, in Christ. It is Jesus who enters the fault that runs through this creation and through each of us and is made what He was not and could not be in Himself: He was made sin. All sin. Your sin. My sin. And because Jesus is made what He was not, we are made what we were not and could not be in ourselves. “The One who did not sin, for us He was made sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21). In us, in our flesh, Jesus is the very sin that rightfully belongs only to us. In Jesus, we are the very righteousness that rightfully belongs only to God.
There, at the cross, where sin and the Law rule for a moment over the sinless Son of God, reconciliation is made. If not for our crucified Lord, the fault-line, the rift, between God and people would only grow; the chasm would only yawn wider and wider, impassable and irreparable. But God has crossed it. He has taken up human flesh and blood, body and soul, in to His very Self, never to be separated from us for all eternity. And where there was only death and separation and hostility before, now there is life and communion and peace. If anyone is in Christ: new creation! The old things have passed away; look! It has become new! (5:17). “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11, ESV).
Ashes are of the old age. We wear them briefly to remind ourselves of what we are in ourselves, what Christ became for us: sin, and death, which is always where sin ends. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” are the words of the curse. By such reminders, perhaps we can learn to number our days aright and get a heart of wisdom. But ashes are only a reminder. They do nothing. They change nothing. Ashes on your forehead will not change your heart or your actions. We control symbols; we make them mean whatever we want them to mean. Like ashes. But Lent, along with the entire Church year, are not about mere symbols. They are about the reality of reconciliation in Jesus. In fact, while the Church must speak the word of death to sin and sinners so that each one of us may know the depth of our adultery with the world and our unfaithfulness toward God, that is not the reason the Church exists. You can see symbols of death and sin all around you, from the ways your body does and will continue to betray you; to the fact that, no, we can’t all just get along. We deal in sin and death, and the Church simply has to point it out. No, the reason the Church exists, the reason Christ put His word in the mouths of apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors is one thing: reconciliation. The Church exists to constantly and continually, no matter what happens, to put to you a single word: for the sake of Christ, be reconciled to God. You have His own promise through the mouth of Isaiah: “In an acceptable time I listened to you and in the day of salvation I helped you.” Look! Now is the favorable time! See! Now is the day of salvation! “[T]hese are the days of redemption, this is the time…of heavenly medicine, when we shall be able to heal every stain of our vices and all the wounds of our sins” (Maximus of Turin, ACCS, 1-2 Corinthians, 253). The Church exists because it is in her midst where the unfaithful are made faithful, the adulterous chaste, the sinner holy, not in themselves—at least until the resurrection—but always in Christ. Symbols like ashes are things we can make what we’d like, but not so with the actual means of grace God has given us:
“The Lord’s sacraments are under His control, His mandate and institution, and they actually are what they say they are, even if they don’t look like it or we don’t feel like it. Baptism isn’t a symbol of
rebirth, it actually is your rebirth. The Lord’s Supper isn’t a symbol of Christ’s Body and Blood as food and drink, it actually is that. Holy Absolution isn’t a symbolic gesture of forgiveness, it actually is forgiveness. You actually are forgiven as those absolving words enter your ears and perfuse your mind and heart” (Pr. William Cwirla, http://tinyurl.com/a4hgvjq).
God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, as His word of reconciliation goes out in the mouths and bodies of those who are in Christ, where He has caused the new creation to take root and grow. He has put in us the Word of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19), made us ambassadors of this Word, and ambassadors can only speak and act as their Lord has given them to speak and act. According to the Gospel, Jesus has no enemies. According to the Gospel, we also have no enemies now. Wash your heads, serve your neighbors, love your enemies. Forgive those who have sinned against you. Speak mercy instead of hatred. Because God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, in Christ He does not count your sins against you. They have already been counted against Christ. Do not count anyone else’s sins against him, either. Those sins, also, have been counted against Christ. This is the very ministry of reconciliation, acted out by God’s own command in water, word, bread, and wine. “You are in an embassy of reconciliation. You have come to the ministry of reconciliation, where enemies are declared friends, where weapons are checked at the door, where the flag of the King of kings flies high declaring the mercy of the cross. You have been rescued from the dust of death by the second Adam, Jesus the Christ, who in His own perfect, human flesh went down into the dust of your sin, your death, your grave, to pull you up from the dust. Dust you are, and to dust you will return. Yes. This is most certainly true. But there is a yet greater truth: From the dust you shall rise to eternal life in Christ Jesus, who though sinless became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. He has washed away the dirt of your death in your Baptism. He has cleansed your lips and your life with His own Body and Blood. He has forgiven your sins. He has given you a new heart, beating the rhythm of His own heart that was broken to save you. He has given you a life you could not have on your own, a life overflowing with the undeserved mercy of God. He has taken away those rough garments of sackcloth, the itchy abrasiveness of sin, and swapped them with a seamless white robe of righteousness” (Cwirla, ibid.)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/13/13