Ash Wednesday

“It’s time to go,” Paul calls, “now is the acceptable time.”

March 9, 2011

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

“It’s time to go,” Paul calls, “now is the acceptable time.”

Lent is about a journey, the journey to the cross and ultimately to Resurrection and new life. Lent is about Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem and our walk with him. The church, in its wisdom, gives us a time to make that journey and a particular date on which to begin, Ash Wednesday.

We need to hear his call, this reminder. If it was up to us to begin the journey toward reconciliation on our own terms, for what we considered an acceptable time, I suspect that we would never begin. Jesus warned us about that. Jesus told us about the excuses people gave for not accepting God’s call. They had to plow fields, care for sick and aging parents. They had to bury the dead. All good excuses, but excuses nonetheless.

So, here we are, starting off, with hesitant, tentative steps. But why give us this text as we begin? Do we really want, when it is so easy to turn back and quit, to hear from Paul what his journey was like and what might lie ahead on our journey? I can assure you that women, in the excitement of the first few weeks of pregnancy, do not want to hear what labor and delivery are like.
God’s Ambassador
What we describe as the Second Letter to the Corinthians is really a collection of fragments, parts of various letters that have been pieced together into one, not always eloquent or elegant, whole. Paul seems frustrated and concerned that the new Christians at Corinth are fighting amongst themselves and rejecting what he taught. He wants to remind them that they are not rejecting him, Paul, as much as they are rejecting God and the grace that has been given to them. He is only the messenger, the ambassador. They heard his voice, his words appealing and entreating. But it was God who was “making his appeal through us.”

Paul then reminds them of all that he had gone through to be a servant of God. He offers a long list of ways that he, Paul, has commended or offered himself to others in the service of God.  He writes of his hardships and beatings, imprisonments, sleepless nights, and hunger. To use contemporary language, Paul is offering us his resumé, his ambassadorial credentials. And he has been willing to endure all of that so that people would hear that God wants to be reconciled to them.

The reconciliation for which we strive for on our Lenten journey does not come about because we have worked hard or taken those first steps. No, Paul is telling us that reconciliation comes by and through God. God has declared this the acceptable time. God has declared this is the day, these are the forty days, if you will, of salvation.

We are Alive
Do you think that Paul, sitting in Damascus, speaking with Ananias, had any idea of what awaited him in the years to come? Do you think that he knew what it would mean to be an ambassador for Christ? Yet it seems that in those years that followed, no matter what happened to him, he persevered. He kept on his journey and this letter nearly glows with joy. No matter what people said or did to him; no matter how terrible it got, he continued on.

I am fascinated by the lists Paul offers. There are actually three different lists in just six verses. The first is a list of all of the things that Paul did to live out his call to bring God and God’s people back together. This opening list tells us of all of the terrible things that he had to endure. What are we to do with this list of potential terrors? I think that I prefer Matthew’s admonition to pray, fast, and give alms properly. I can pray, fast, and write a check. I am not sure about beatings, imprisonment and hunger.

Next, Paul gives us a list of the ways that he interacted with people; those who welcomed him and those who rejected him. This is a list of behaviors. But it is more than just a code of conduct for one who would be an ambassador for Christ. Paul seems to be telling us that these were the things that got him through. Holiness of speech, genuine love, and truthful speech are wonderful things for which to strive for during our Lenten journey. 

Finally, Paul offers us a syncristic list; contrasting the way he was perceived and treated by women and men with the reality of who he knew he was in the sight of God. Those in power may have accused him of being an impostor, but he always knew that his message was the true good news of God. And in these contrasting descriptions of his experiences he challenges us to see that, even though the powerful try to ignore, punish, or even kill us, through the power of God we are able to rejoice in the knowledge that we possess everything, the righteousness of God.

The Acceptable Time
“It’s time to go,” Paul calls, “now is the acceptable time.” It is time to set off on our journey as servants of God. With Paul’s witness before us we know that we can face whatever hardships, stumbling blocks, adversities, or discouragement we face along the way. For in the end we know that we will, like Paul, be reconciled to the God who has reached out to us.