Ash Wednesday

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 is no “Ask not what your country can do for you,” kind of moment.

February 17, 2010

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

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 is no “Ask not what your country can do for you,” kind of moment.

Talk about backwards; if Paul is trying to inspire us to answer the call to ambassadorship for Christ, his description may well leave us disinterested, dismayed, or downright disgusted. In fact, while Paul may well be employing irony at this point (“we are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way”), the commendation of the servant of God looks like the exact opposite of the kind of calling anyone would want.

Paul lays out a series of opposites to characterize on the one hand what it looks like to be an ambassador, and on the other hand what it is to be an ambassador. The repeating pattern is “as _______ and yet _______.”1 These opposites, then, are used by Paul to redefine reality, and to re-create it.

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true:
as unknown, and yet are well known;
as dying, and see-we are alive;
as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;
as poor, yet making many rich;
as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Preach these pairings on a stewardship Sunday or make them the mission statement for the volunteer coordinator and watch those sign-up sheets fill up and the offering plates overflow. It is backwards. It cannot possibly be in keeping with the gospel, can it?

And yet this is precisely the way the reading begins, with a line that is in a sense another example of the Pauline gospel in shorthand: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). These too are examples of opposites, the pairing of things that are antithetical–first is Christ, in whom there is no sin, who is made to know it intimately; and as a result is a second, we who are with sin (down with it, down in it, down for it) are, in Christ, made the righteousness of God.

The reality that Paul describes in the gospel he preaches is exactly the opposite of what we often feel or think we see. This does not mean, of course, that when we are struggling with our punishments, when we labor and our works go unknown, when we are filled with sorrow and are poor in spirit, and yes even as we are dying, that we simply don’t have the right worldview. Quite the opposite; it is precisely in those moments, in those life threatening moments as they really are, that the gospel is spoken by Christ’s ambassadors, and by that speaking a new reality is not merely envisioned, but created.

In the first verses of 2 Corinthians 6 Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, “‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.'” He then takes these indefinite time and day (an acceptable time…a day of salvation), and makes them definite, specific, and immediate: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Now is the acceptable time. There is, for me at least as I read 2 Corinthians 5-6, an important resonance with other Pauline phrases about the “right time ministry” of Christ. In Romans 5:6, 8 Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The acceptable and right time for Jesus to do his work is, according to Paul, while we are weak and sinful; the one who knew no sin is made sin to keep company with sinners.

At the right time. Again in Romans 11:5, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. ” The present time, not down the road, not when one is ready or deserving, but now.

Now is the day of salvation. Similarly in Ephesians 2:11-13 we read, “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! This too is an opposite of sorts–the proclamation that the preacher as ambassador for Christ brings is a declaration not just of some future day when Christ returns, but of a transformed reality right now. Today, when the good news is proclaimed to the poor and sorrowful, today when the poor are made rich by compassion and charity, today those who fear they have nothing (the poor and the wealthy alike) are told the good news that they possess everything, in Christ Jesus. Now; here at the beginning of the Lenten season, is there a better time for us to make God’s appeal entreating this world–so often defining itself in ways exactly the opposite from the ways of God–to be reconciled to God through Christ.

And here again, in the lectionary position in which we find this text, we have another opposite. On Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, of reflection and even of sorrow, we find a message which points not just to the other end of the Lenten season, but which declares an immediate, present, in-this-very-moment word of gospel. Now is the time–not later, we need not wait, but now; now is the day of salvation.

1“And yet” in pairs 1, 3, and 6, “yet” 4 and 5, “and see” in the second.