This reading from Paul's second (third? fourth?) letter to the church in Corinth is always the epistle lection for Ash Wednesday in the Revised Common Lectionary.
A reliable study bible will provide the preacher with the necessary introductory material to be aware of the complications surrounding the interpretation of this letter, but hopefully not enough to steer her away from working with this text.
The verses designated for the beginning of the season of Lent conclude a long section in the letter concerning Paul's ministry (2:14-6:10). Paul's definitions and descriptions of his ministry, however, are not entirely in defense of his apostleship. Rather, they are for the sake of deepening his relationship with the Corinthians and for the sake of the Gospel. The section can be divided into three parts that each seem to revolve around one grounding theme. After an introduction (2:14-17), 3:1-4:6 situates the concept of ministry through the image of the new covenant. The next section (4:7-5:10) discusses the realities of ministry set within the context of trials, affliction, and suffering. In the final segment of this part of the letter (5:11-6:10), Paul casts his ministry within the creative and life-giving concept of reconciliation.
The text for Ash Wednesday follows on the heels of this call to be reconciled to Paul, and through Paul's mediating ministry, to God through Christ. As a result, Paul's call with which the pericope begins, "be reconciled to God" (5:20b), is not only a plea for reconciliation with the apostle himself but also to the meaning and mission of his ministry. The final exhortative words round out the lesson with an announcement that now is the time for this reconciliation as that which carries on God's work through Christ.
Establishing the context of 5:20b-6:10 within Paul's understanding of ministry underscores the power and poignancy of the life of Paul as representative of the Gospel, but even more so, the life to which we also are called as fellow workers (6:1) in service to God (6:4) and on behalf of God's world (5:19). While Paul has devoted this section to his own apostleship, throughout his discussion there is a sense that he is moving toward the claim of being fellow workers in ministry.
At 6:1, the NRSV translation "as we work together with him" and the NIV's "as God's fellow workers" supply what is not in the Greek text. The Greek does not include "with him" or "God's" but simply reads "fellow workers" or "working together." The present plural active participle of synergō introduces an ambiguity that effectively renders the reconciliation for which Paul is asking. In other words, it is not entirely clear who the plural participle represents: Paul and Timothy as joint addressers of the congregation or, because of the reconciliation made possible through Christ, Paul, Timothy and the Corinthians together. Moreover, it may be that the command "be reconciled to God" (aorist passive imperative) will have its full meaning only when the Corinthians see themselves as working together with the apostles, trusting that God in Christ is about reconciling the world to God's self. Then, the grace that has been given to the church at Corinth will not have been in vain, but rather, toward the continuing action of God's grace in the world.
Through the lens of Ash Wednesday, preaching this text calls attention to several important and meaningful themes as we move into the Lenten season. Paul's quoting of Isaiah 49:8 in 6:2 is the prophetic wake-up call we sometimes need especially in the winter months, when New Year's resolutions have failed and new promises are ever more in the distant past. Reorienting life before God often necessitates a radical call outside of oneself to be reconciled to others. Being reconciled to God is not just another individualistic resolution or self-improvement step. Instead, it means being messengers of reconciliation, working together in a cooperative grace, and participating in God's reconciling activity to win back the world.
Focusing on the concept of reconciliation would mean extending the assigned pericope back to 5:17, for it is in verses 5:17-5:20 that the possibility of reconciliation is given its foundation and sure footing. It is because of God that we can be reconciled to God. God's action in Christ and through Christ makes it possible for us to imagine what it means to be reconciled to God. On its own, the imperative in 5:20b is a command that we cannot obey or live out. It is only by knowing the promise put forth in 5:19 that we can begin to fathom being brought together with God in a relationship defined by and known in reunion, resolution, and understanding. Eugene Peterson's interpretation of 5:20b is not far off, "Become friends with God."
When God entrusts the message of reconciliation to us (5:19), it is not simply about handing over the goods. The Greek here is better translated "in us" and the verb tithēmi generates a number of interpretive possibilities. Quite literally, it is the word of reconciliation that is established, put, placed, laid, arranged, or fixed in us. As Bultmann notes, God's placing of the message of reconciliation in us "is an erecting, an arranging, disposing, a 'determining.'"1 Reconciliation is something we are about, something that we do, and something that makes us a new creation (5:17). "Be reconciled to God" is an invitation "to faith in the message that the reconciliation has been carried out."2
What if this was a way to move through the season of Lent?
When we receive the cross on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to remember that it is in Christ (5:17, 19) and through Christ (5:18) that reconciliation is possible. Yet, we are also invited to remember that as we leave the church with the seal of the cross of Christ, we are Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation. We are sent as representatives for Christ, in Christ's stead. Like Paul, we are apostles, sent ones, messengers, and our calling as servants of God (6:4) "belongs to the work of atonement itself."3 This is what ministry is all about.
Only one month after the inaugural address of a new President of the United States of America, reconciliation might still be an issue -- for our country, for our communities, for our congregations, for our relationships, and with the world. When a decision has finally been made, how does reconciliation happen? In what sense is reconciliation possible? To be reconciled in Christ, therefore, is not an empty platitude or a moral obligation. In the context of the need for real and immediate reconciliation, i.e. a context which Paul and the Corinthians experienced, and which we know now, societally and individually, we understand that reconciliation cannot fully be achieved on our own, yet at the same time it is not a future atoning act. It is that which we are called to preach, now, right here, in this place. For now is the acceptable time, and in those moments of reconciliation, we will indeed witness the dawn of the day of salvation.
1Rudolf Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians. Trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 163.