Ash Wednesday

On a seasonal liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is a movable feast, marking the beginning of the season of Lent, which concludes with the joyous reality of Easter.

February 13, 2013

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

On a seasonal liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is a movable feast, marking the beginning of the season of Lent, which concludes with the joyous reality of Easter.

Ash Wednesday is celebrated globally in many ways. Most Americans know of it from public ecclesial indications, whether or not they engage in its forms of worship or practices. For example, a reminder of the day is often visible to the public who can see the sign of the cross, marked in ashes, on the foreheads of those who received the sign by attending an Ash Wednesday liturgy (which generally incorporates the ritual of the act of the imposition of ashes).

Indeed, this form of the cross offers a non-verbal public witness to the Lenten focus on Jesus’ ministry and journey to the cross. Since ashes are considered a biblical and historical symbol of repentance and an intention to lead a renewed faith life, those bearing this form of the cross indicate a willingness to publicly affiliate with the meaning of Jesus’ sufferings and his cross.

This personal response can be explored in a sermon, along with other examples, as reflection of what it means to be a “new creation” (5:7) and an ambassador for Christ (5:20, 21). This latter phrase could also be of interest to listeners given the increased, and sometimes troubled, global awareness about those who hold representative positions as ambassadors in different countries. What are the functions of an ambassador?

Given the complexity of this text, it is critical to study a variety of commentaries that can yield exegetical, historical, and rhetorical information. One classical commentary any serious preacher must peruse is the monumental work by biblical theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1874-1976).

The Voice of Paul
Paul’s distinctive leadership voice permeates this text. As strident as some of Paul’s comments seem to be, anyone preaching this passage must not overlook the role of the Pauline persona and the purposes of Paul’s intense pleas, which serve several functions; namely, he wants the Corinthians to remember God’s intentions for them, which originated in God’s eternal will and purposes (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Paul also describes the contours of the reconciled life (5:17-20). Lest the task of reconciliation devolve into a matter of “works,” Paul’s words are clear that reconciliation is not simply only generated by well-intentioned believers, but finds its rationale and anchor in the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s rhetoric reiterates his ministerial history with the Corinthians and he asserts his authority pastorally and theologically to remind them of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. He underscores his history with the Corinthians by reminding them of his ministry with them, which prompts him to speak bluntly to them. He does not refrain from noting his personal sufferings on their behalf for the Gospel (2 Corinthians 6). He is not aloof from the Corinthians in his sharp discourse. One wonders how many contemporary preachers would be willing to speak with such impassioned conviction to a congregation. Paul’s words indeed raise the question about how committed Christians are today in engaging in the work of reconciliation, personally and corporately.

Crafting the Sermon
Several verses in this passage are familiar to many listeners and could even provide one with the preaching direction for a sermon on Ash Wednesday. As with many festivals, the preacher will need to decide on the balance between preaching the text and the day.

Paul addresses various faith issues to remind the Corinthians of what the reconciled community in Christ looks like. In preaching this text, the sermon might respond to several issues this passage raises.

  • First, what does Paul mean about reconciliation in this passage? How does the church today demonstrate in various ways the practice of reconciliation — including liturgically, ethically, practically and theologically?
  • Do these practices extend to the world behind church doors?
  • How does Paul’s thinking apply to the multiple liturgical meanings of Ash Wednesday?
  • How does our particular faith community respond to what Paul is saying about salvation and reconciliation? How can it respond?
  • As ambassadors for Christ, what examples can the preacher offer of reconciliation as the work of an ambassador for Christ?

For many faith communities, reconciliation is often a problematic topic given the existence of conflict everywhere. It is certainly a matter of pastoral discretion as to what kind of examples the preacher chooses in this regard in offering examples of reconciliation! Many people resist reconciliation as personal experiences show. The vulnerability required for GENUINE reconciliation is often difficult to muster. How to preach in the face of such barriers?

Theologically, Paul’s discussion of reconciliation should lead the theologically astute preacher to a sermonic articulation about Christology. A homiletical description of the Christology of this text is critical both liturgically and textually to do it justice. Such a Christology will address questions like

  • What role does Jesus Christ have in reconciliation?
  • How do Christian communities understand reconciliation? How are they to do the work of reconciliation?
  • How is Jesus the central manifestation of God’s reconciling love to the world?

Two sections of Paul’s word in this text can be linked to emphasize a Christology: 2 Corinthians 6:2 and 5:1-20. Both verse sets contain the elements that must be understood together to effect true reconciliation. With an Ash Wednesday emphasis, this text is laden with many possible themes and images for proclamation:

  • What role does suffering play in creating reconciled communities?
  • When might suffering block reconciliation?
  • What does sacrifice have to do with reconciliation?
  • Could sacrifice for a community weaken efforts for reconciliation?

A preached Christology also depends in part on the denominational perspective of a preacher’s tradition. Key biblical texts and traditional theological descriptions of atonement theory will form a sermon’s Christology, in addition to the text’s perspectives itself. The sermon’s contents should explore the historical and contemporary significance of the day so that the community is alert as to how they can understand themselves as a reconciling community in view of the themes and worship practices of Ash Wednesday.