Ash Wednesday

Even Paul is far from perfect

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Photo by Antoine Rault on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 2, 2022

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

Ash Wednesday is grounded in two theological claims that stretch across the Scriptures. The first is that we are mortal creatures, whose beginning and ending belong to our Creator  The second is that we are in perpetual need of repentance and reconciliation with our Creator and one another. 

The Comfort and discomfort of Ash Wednesday

These two theological claims are both comforting and discomforting. They offer comfort because they remind us that there is something greater than ourselves—that is beyond our wisdom and strength—at work in creation and in the renewal of creation. Moreover, the Creator has already extended grace to us so that we might repent with confidence and find in repentance the courage and humility we need to pursue reconciliation with the Creator and with one another.

They are discomforting because they remind us that we are mortal or, as Paul would say, we are flesh. We are made of dust and to dust we will return. As a reminder of our finitude, our flesh, which is born into the world with seemingly infinite potential, moves relentlessly towards decay. It doesn’t matter how many products, surgeries, exercise regimes, diets, or stress reduction plans we pursue to delay this process. We will, eventually, return to dust.

Our mortality requires us to face our limitations. We are not in control as much as we would like to think we are. And what we are in control of, we often do not control well. Our assumptions and presumptions, our fears and insecurities, our hopes and desires will lead us into situations where we behave in ways of which we will later need to repent: to admit that we were wrong. Reaching that moment can be a painful process, requiring intense honesty and humility: a letting go of our overwhelming desire to control so that we might be able to see how true reconciliation can be achieved.

2 Corinthians 2 as a word of comfort

These verses from 2 Corinthians illuminate both the comfort and the discomfort that we encounter in Ash Wednesday. Verses 5:20b-6:2 offer comfort by reminding us that reconciliation ultimately comes from God. It is not something we earn or achieve, but something we receive as a gift (“for our sake”) when we embrace the spirit of Christ (“so that in him we might become righteous”), who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Hebrews 4:15). Christ, who became flesh and who dwells eternally with God, becomes our companion and compass, leading us towards God.  

The Greek for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark”: to aim for something and fail. Aristotle uses hamartia in his discussion of tragedy to describe a person who is not wholly virtuous, yet not wholly evil, who suffers misfortune because of a mistake (hamartia) [Poetics 53a8-13]. We have a propensity to “miss the mark,” not because we are evil but because we are easily misled, by our own thoughts and desires and by the thoughts and desires of others. Christ, whose spirit faithfully conforms to and reflects God’s righteousness, does not fail.

On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge that we are born of flesh and miss the mark. We also give thanks for God’s gift in Christ, whose spirit leads not to tragedy but to God. This is not transactional (something we earn, buy, or achieve), but relational. It means that every day we recommit ourselves to living in relationship with God in Christ, embracing Christ’s spirit, God’s long promised gift of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2 // Isaiah 4:8).

2 Corinthians 2 as a word of discomfort

These verses from 2 Corinthians offer not only comfort; they challenge us to face up to the discomfort that is also part of Ash Wednesday. In 2 Corinthians 6:3-4a, Paul writes: “we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants (literally “slaves”) of God have commended ourselves in every way.” The phrase can be heard as a simple statement of fact; yet verses earlier in the letter suggest that Paul has, in fact, created obstacles between himself and the Corinthians: 

  • he said he was coming to Corinth a third time and then, to their consternation, did not come (2 Corinthians 1:15-17), and
  • his second visit to Corinth resulted in pain on both sides that has not yet healed (2 Corinthians 1:23, 2:3). 

Paul’s claim that “no fault may be found with our ministry” does not quite stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, the larger narrative that stretches across the Corinthian correspondence is filled with missteps, tension, and hope of reconciliation.

Although Paul earlier made a point of the fact that he doesn’t commend himself as others do (2 Corinthians 6:4; 3:1; 5:12), here he changes direction to do just that. This suggests that he is having to work hard to be reconciled with the Corinthians. The list that follows describes not only what he has endured, but the qualities of character he has sought to embody, and ultimately, the hope that sustains him and which he wants to pass on to the Corinthians. 

It is a summation of the ways in which Paul embraces the spirit of Christ. 

Yet Paul still lacks one thing. He nowhere acknowledges that he has “missed the mark.” This is not intended to discredit Paul’s ministry; it simply reminds us that even Paul is far from perfect. He seems to hope that by drawing attention to the many ways he has been faithful, the Corinthians will overlook where he has failed. But this hope is not always sufficient to achieve reconciliation. The discomfort we experience in such moments is what Ash Wednesday invites us to explore with honesty and humility within the embrace of God’s grace.