Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 58.1-12Psalm 51.1-172 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10 Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

By David J. Lull

Focal theme:
The “imposition of ashes” on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of Jesus’ death on a cross, and a sign of mourning and repentance. As the ashes are “imposed” on our foreheads, we are told “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This ritual marks the beginning of a special time of introspection and self-denial, and meditation on the promise of resurrection, as God’s response to sin and death. The focus of Lent should be not only on human sin, but also on God’s desire for the creative transformation of our embodied lives and of the whole creation.

Ash Wednesday readings can lead us beyond an individualistic and inward piety toward a wider and deeper relational piety—one in which our innermost solitude is formed by God’s desire for the wellbeing of all creatures—all without any exceptions. A more relational piety is also one in which this love of God—God’s love for the whole world, and our love for God—is “worked out” through our love for all whom God loves (Gal 5.6).

For most preachers, the sermon will focus on the Gospel reading, perhaps with a connection to Isaiah’s “fast God chooses.” But don’t overlook Psalm 51: its message of the steadfastness of God’s love is the “good news” that is muted or in the background of the other readings. In some ways, the odd text out is the epistle reading, but it turns our attention to Jesus’ death “for our sake,” and recasts the traditional focus on our mortality (“all have died … we are treated … as dying, and yet, look, we are alive!”). So, I’ve given extended attention to all the readings for Ash Wednesday.

Isaiah 58.1-12
The emptiness of “giving something up for Lent” is obvious to most people, even those who engage in such rituals. The temptation is to make people feel guilty for “giving up” simple things, like sweets or movies, or things that aren’t good for us in the first place, like smoking or too much red meat or alcohol. But guilt at that level isn’t likely to lead to personal, creative transformation.

A more promising topic is what John Wesley called “social holiness,” to which Isaiah so eloquently calls the people of Israel—and us. Here we also need to resist the temptation to condemn people for failing to live out a life of justice. Isaiah 58.1-5 seems to lead us in that direction, but then verse 6 asks, “Is this not the fast that I choose?” Isaiah invites Israel, and us, to desire what God desires. Preaching on this text could explore how the beauty and perfection of what God desires draws us to it. Preachers could focus on Lent as a time of meditation on, and the practice of, “the fast” that God “chooses”: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (verse 6).

A poignant illustration of that kind of “fast” is a scene in the 1982 movie “Gandhi.” We see Mahatma Gandhi fasting in Calcutta to bring an end to violence between Hindus and Muslims, when he tells the Hindu man who had killed the father of a young Muslim boy: “Promise me you will raise this boy to be a good Muslim and then I will stop my fast.” Gandhi’s fast was not an end in itself, nor was it only an act of personal piety: it was integral to his bold call for Hindus and Muslims to live together in harmony, and his nonviolent movement to bring independence to India.

We can’t all be just like Gandhi—and very few will ever be in a situation calling for such a dramatic “fast.” But how different would our lives be if we were to keep in mind the kind of “fast” God “chooses”? If we were to view the people and other creatures around us—indeed, the whole world—with the lens of God’s chosen “fast,” we would be more likely to make life choices that create justice for all of God’s creation.

Psalm 51:1-17
Wow, a powerful and famous monarch admits to a wrongdoing and expresses genuine contrition—that grabs my attention! Whether this “Psalm of David” was written by him, or written for him, as a meditation on his violation of Bathsheba, is unimportant. Its profound theology has stood the test of time.

The petition for “mercy” is based on a firm belief that God’s “love” is “steadfast.” God’s love is not something God does only in response to the petitions of the contrite. God responds to contrite petitions with love because God’s love is “steadfast.” God’s love is God’s eternal nature. God’s love is always responsive to actual, concrete events, but it is also always characterized by love.

Paul had God’s “steadfast” love in mind when he wrote that Christ’s dying “for us” showed God’s “love for us … while we still were sinners” (Rom 5.8). God’s love is “steadfast” because it not a response to the “lovability” of the object of God’s love. God loves even God’s “enemies” (Rom 5.10) because it is God’s nature is always “love” (1 Jn 4.8 and 16).

God’s “steadfast love” is not naïve about who we are and what we have done. On the contrary, God’s love knows us and passes judgment on the evil we have done (Psa 51.4). The psalmist petitions God not to dwell on the evil we have done, but to regard us from God’s “steadfast love” in terms of the better possibilities God desires for us. A “contrite heart” is more likely to be open to better possibilities coming from God. The presence of better possibilities in our hearts is the presence of God and of the Spirit’s power to create transformed hearts (verse 10). It is the presence of God’s “steadfast love”!

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
This text is a goldmine for preachers! I’ve identified six focal points. Unless you are able to cover all five briefly, clearly, and engagingly—or your congregation is accustomed to lengthy sermons—you will want to select one, or no more than three.

(1) The first focal point is Paul’s claim that “we work together with God” (6.1)—a claim he explained in more detail in the first part of 5.20a, which the lectionary cut out. Paul does not share the popular view that God always acts alone and has no need of “partners”; instead he claims that he and his co-evangelists “are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making God’s appeal through us.” Like Israel’s ancient prophets, who made the same claim, Paul’s claim was challenged in his day and tested by the passage of time.

Some of his contemporaries strongly questioned whether he and his co-workers were authentic “ambassadors for Christ,” and whether it was God who could be heard in their preaching. The Corinthian correspondence is shot through with Paul’s defense against charges that his words were weak and empty. The crux of the matter (pun intended) was his insistence that God’s good news is found in “the message of the cross” (1 Cor 1.18). Some thought this gospel was foolish, not “good news.” They preferred to identify “ambassadors for Christ” by signs of power and eloquent speech.

(2) The second focal point is one of Paul’s more cryptic and dense statements of “the message of the cross” in 5.21a: God “made” Christ “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul’s formulation of the gospel has become a traditional test of whether a preacher has faithfully given voice to “God’s appeal.” Sacrifice, ransom, satisfaction atonement theories have hijacked “the message of the cross,” but they are not the only interpretations preachers can consider, and they have little or no basis in scripture (e.g., see recent books by David Brondos). Since verse 21a seems to be an exception, let’s study it in detail. All interpreters agree that the phrase “he who did not know sin” refers to Christ and means that Christ did not sin (i.e., he did not succumb to the power of sin). Everyone also agrees that the phrase “he made him to be sin” refers to God’s act with reference to Christ. The rest of this half of verse 21 is debated. Some see here a reference to “sin” as a cultic “sin-offering”; however, the non-cultic verb “made” virtually rules out a cultic interpretation.

Others think that the term “sin” is an instance of the use of an abstract concept (“sin”) for the concrete (“sinner”), so that it means God “made” Christ a “sinner.” This too is open to diverse interpretations. Some, under the influence of substitutionary atonement theories, think it means that God made Christ endure the punishment all sinners deserve. The prepositional phrase “for our sake” or “for us” (hyper hēmōn) would seem to support this reading, except that a few verses before this Paul explained that “one died for all” means that, in Christ, “all have died” (verse 14). If “all have died,” Christ did not die “instead of,” or “in place of,” all. Paul also explained that these phrases have to do with the creative transformation of “all” when they participate in Christ: they “live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (verse 15), so that they are “a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (verse 17). God does not regard them in terms of their “transgressions,” but in terms of their new creation “in Christ” (verses 18-19; see the third focal point below, which has to do with the last clause in verse 21).

Taken together, these considerations suggest that verse 21a means that God treated Christ in the same way God treats a sinner. Paul’s readers, and many Christians, might think Paul had in mind the death sentence God has decreed for sinners (see, e.g., Rom 1.32). God’s wisdom and love, however, is “foolish” according to the standards of the world’s faux wisdom and love: God raised the crucified Christ from the dead, which shows that God promises that all sinners will be raised to new life “in Christ” (compare Rom 5.6-21 and 6.1-11, 1 Cor 1.18-25, 2 Cor 5.15). God overturns common standards of justice and love, because God prefers creative transformation over a death penalty.

The witness of the Gospels and Paul’s letters is that “the message of the cross” is also a message about Jesus’ faithfulness to the “fast” God “chooses,” even to the point of death on a cross. It is about how Jesus’ faithfulness even to death on a cross is a witness to how God suffers with those who suffer. It is about how “God’s appeal” is made through those who speak truth to power, even to imperial power.

(3) The third focal point is Paul’s statement of the purpose and/or result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death: “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (verse 21c). This final clause of verse 21 is the delayed conclusion and climax of 5.14-19, briefly interrupted by verse 20. Here again the preacher has to weigh alternative readings. One set of readings hang on the meaning one attributes to the phrase “of God” or, in Greek, to the use of the genitive form of “God,” and the meaning one attributes to the Greek word all the English translations render with the word “righteousness.” The latter term, like the earlier term “sin,” is an abstraction used for the concrete (“righteous people”). I begin with three interpretations based on taking “righteousness” as a moral or ethical quality:

  1. If “of God” is possessive, it refers to the “righteousness” God is or has. Then Paul says in verse 21c that “we” will be transformed into people who are morally righteous like God, as a result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death.
  2. If “of God” identifies the origin or source of “righteousness,” it speaks of “righteousness” that comes from God or that God gives, bestows, or imparts. Then Paul says in verse 21c that “we” will be transformed into people whose righteousness comes from God, as a result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death.
  3. If “of God” is the object of “righteousness,” it refers to “righteousness” directed toward God, in the sense of either obedience to God or righteousness before or in the presence of God. Then Paul says in verse 21c that “we” will be transformed into people who are treated by God as, or who are really, morally righteous before God, as a result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death.

The different nuances of the phrase “of God” are insignificant in interpretations based on taking “righteousness” as a forensic term at home in a courtroom: “justice” or “justification,” in the sense of acquittal or declaration of innocence, or in the sense of the dismissal of a sentence. Here too the term is an abstraction used for the concrete (“justified people”). The differences between following are slight:

  1. Paul says in verse 21c that “we” will be transformed into people whose new life is created by God’s justice or justifying action, as a result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death.
  2. Paul says in verse 21c that “we” will be transformed into people whom God declares to be innocent, or who are declared innocent before God, as a result of God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death.

The difference between these two sets of interpretations seems to be that the former speak about the real transformation of sinners into people who are actually righteous (traditionally attributed to Roman Catholics), whereas the latter speak only about God’s declaration of their innocence (traditionally attributed to Lutherans). Recent dialogues between Roman Catholics and Lutherans—and affirmed by Methodists—nuanced and clarified both views. Roman Catholics affirmed that a real change requires that God’s righteousness be received “by faith.” Lutherans affirmed that God’s declaration of innocence must result in a real change in those who receive it “by faith,” because God’s word cannot be untrue or ineffective.

What’s at stake in all these hair-splitting distinctions is the claim that God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death has something real to do with people’s lives. Many people today, including many in our churches, have difficulty understanding how Jesus’ death is in any sense “good news,” and how it has anything to do with them. The deeper meaning of these two sets of interpretations offer two intertwined proposals.

One is that God acts toward sinners the same way God acted toward Jesus’ death: namely, God makes them a new creation, by seeking to conform them to God’s own righteousness seen in Christ’s faithfulness. Through faith, Christ’s faithfulness, even to the point of death, becomes part of who we are at our very core, where our thoughts, emotions, and actions take shape.

Another proposal is that God regards us, not in terms of our failings, but in terms of Christ’s righteousness, as the righteousness that God envisions for us and offers as a possibility for us. In that sense, Christ’s righteousness is our true self. Through faith, how God truly regards us becomes part of who we are at our very core, where our thoughts, emotions, and actions take shape.

(4) The fourth focal point is Paul’s call to “be reconciled to God” (5.20b). As is Paul’s habit of thought, this imperative is based on a statement about what God has already done toward the same end. In verse 19, Paul said “in Christ God was reconciling the world to God.” That means that God’s reconciling action is only part of the story. We must also get involved in being “reconciled to God”! God’s action calls for a human response. But it would be a mistake to think that the failure to respond appropriately would have the effect of erasing God’s prior action. God’s reconciling love is not conditioned on responding with reconciling love. Our response, though, is critical to how effective God’s reconciling action is in our life.

It also important to remember that verse 19 spoke of God’s reconciling action in Christ for the world. That moves us to think beyond a solitary “me” and an exclusive “we.” For Paul, reconciliation for “me” is impossible apart from reconciliation for “the world,” because I am part of a world captive to forces and purposes hostile to God (see Rom 5.12). Paul envisions the whole creation, and not “we” alone, yearning for freedom from “bondage to decay” (Rom 8.21).

For the same reasons, Paul does not limit God’s reconciling action in Christ to “us,” narrowly and exclusively understood to mean “us Christians.” Paul intended the second person plural “you”—embedded in the imperative “be reconciled to God”—for those who were part of Paul’s community in Corinth, but that’s because he addressed this letter to them. Also, those who put their life “in Christ” especially ought to “be reconciled to God.” To borrow a favorite phrase of John Wesley, the world was Paul’s “parish”! He was busy calling everyone in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire to “be reconciled to God,” and he wanted to continue his mission in the Spanish west (Rom 1.8-15 and 15.18-24).

Sensitivity to the religiously “other” has prevented some Christians in our day from emulating Paul’s mission. We might regret the loss of the religious diversity of “paganism” due to the success of the Pauline and post-Pauline missionary activities. But it’s important to notice that Paul’s missionary activity was based on persuasion, not coercion. Those who listened to him speak were free to agree or disagree (see 1 Thess 2.5-12). The challenge for preachers today is to find ways to proclaim the Christian gospel of reconciliation with God as good news offered to all in the context of deep reflection and dialogue with religiously “others” including those who have been turned off by “religion” but consider themselves “spiritual.”

The fifth focal point is Paul’s belief that “now is the acceptable time … now is the day of salvation” (6.2). Is Paul’s confidence about this “now” credible 2,000 years later? It is, in two senses, after we clarify the term “salvation.” As long as “salvation” refers to the transformation of all creation into a new creation free from “decay” (Rom 8.18-23), Paul’s confidence about this “now” isn’t credible. For Paul, however, that “salvation” was in the future—immanent, to be sure, but still not “now.” This “now” is pinned to God’s action toward and in Christ’s faithful death, which defines the present “now.” This event brought new possibility of being human with others, in the world, and before God: a possibility in the form of Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death (see Rom 5.12-21 and 7.24-25a). This event calls for a response “now.”

But responding to this new possibility of being human with others, in the world, and before God is not simply a matter of saying, “We can do that! Let’s go for it!” It’s more a matter of letting Christ’s faithfulness to God for the benefit of others overshadow, take the limelight, and silence lesser possibilities. Reflecting on the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona, might illustrate this point. Whatever the sources were of the possibilities the shooter considered and acted on, they could not have come from the God who was reconciling the world in Christ. It is easier to understand how the God who spoke through Israel’s prophets, who is the same God who was reconciling the world in Christ, could have been the source of the possibilities acted upon by those who, without hesitation, came to the aid of the wounded and dying, even at some real risk to their own lives. It is possible that those people responded out of a sense of obedience to some sort of “law” (like “do to others as you would like them to do to you,” or you must be a “good Samaritan”). But it’s also possible that a “love-for-others-even-at-the-risk-of-one’s-life” so formed the core of their being that they acted out of that love without hesitation. Paul was confident that, when God’s love manifested in Christ’s faithfulness even to the point of death informs and forms the core of one’s being through faith, that faith will “naturally” inform and form one’s thoughts, purposes, and actions (compare Rom 2.14 and Gal 5.6).

The sixth—and final!—focal point is Paul’s description of his apostolic ministry. Working “together with God” did not protect Paul from a long list of “hardships” (6.1-10)! It didn’t protect Jesus from the violence of imperial power either! Sin is evidence that not even God can avoid opposition! That’s what happens in a relational world: God does not control events.

We must not pervert the meaning of Paul’s “boast” in his “great endurance” of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings,” etc. Paul certainly did not have in mind that people were supposed to stay in relationships marked by domestic violence! The focus is on faithfully proclaiming the gospel even in the face of opposition. Few of us will face the kind of opposition Jesus and Paul faced, but we might reflect on how a desire to please everyone, to be “successful,” to be financial secure, and so on conflicts with life informed and formed by the gospel.

What is the good news in this? It is that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15.58). With these words, Paul sums up what’s at stake in the hope of “bodily” resurrection. It is the hope—faith—that God will take up and transform all that we do and experience in our body and spirit or soul (see Beardslee/Lull, 1 Corinthians).

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
This Gospel reading begins with a warning: “Beware…!” This text seems to authorize prophetic sermons, critiquing our culture, society, and even our congregations. God knows our culture, society, and our congregations deserve prophetic critique! But therein lies a preacher’s trap: the risk of sounding high and mighty, above the reach of prophetic critique. One of the things this text warns against is the idea that the “pious” are safe from divine judgment. But, instead of losing your nerve for prophetic critique, first apply the critique to yourself, then make the critique appropriate to your context and your congregation’s context. For instance, we all participate in a consumerist, ecology destroying, and world dominating economy, including our churches, and God is calling all of us—individually, collectively, and as churches—to repent, change our ways, and work to pull the world back from the brink of disaster. On the face of it, Matthew’s prophetic critique in his time does not seem to have much to do with that kind of prophetic critique, much need in our time. His critique addressed a false, self-serving “piety.”

The relevance of Matthew’s prophetic critique becomes clearer when we take into consideration two aspects of his critique: (1) his critique of “hypocrites” outside his faith community and within it, and (2) the connection between “piety” and “justice.”

(1) The people Matthew calls “hypocrites” (“play-actors” or “pretenders”) seek recognition for their charity to the poor: instead of genuinely caring for the poor, they care only about tooting their own horn (verse 2). Instead of opening themselves to God in prayer, and instead of fasting as a sign of genuine grief or in preparation for authentic prayer, they only want to be seen and honored for their public demonstrations of religious devotion (verses 5 and 16). Of course, Matthew does not forbid giving to the poor, praying, and fasting, but neither does he command them; rather, he gives guidance on how to do them properly, when you do them. The focus is not on required acts of “piety,” but on examples of pious play-acting.

One danger this poses for Christians is that it looks and sounds like Matthew is critiquing Jews in the synagogues as the religiously inferior “other,” measured by the truer “piety” of Matthew’s community of Jesus-followers. This danger is double-sided. For one thing, it passes judgment on all Jews. But we know that general condemnations of whole groups of people are always false. Besides, Matthew and his community of Jesus-followers were most certainly also Jews who participated in synagogue life. So the other side of this danger is the way it is so easy to deflect criticism of “them” so that it misses “us.” The very fact that Matthew includes these warnings in his Gospel for his community indicates that he intended the criticism to apply also to the Jesus-followers in the synagogues. So, first we need to be careful to avoid vicious stereotypes of “others”—for Christians that especially means avoiding anti-Jewish stereotypes, but in these days it also means avoiding anti-Muslim stereotypes. We also need to point Matthew’s criticism our own religious practices and those of our churches, where and whenever repentance is needed.

(2) The Greek word the RSV and NRSV translate as “piety” is better translated “righteousness” (as in the NET), “acts of righteousness” (as in the NIV), or “righteous deeds” (as in the NAB). It is a term that is also used for “justice,” and in this context it applies to acting justly toward God. To seek honor for oneself instead of for God—as in faux prayer and fasting—denies God the honor that God desires and deserves. That is an injustice to God, because it is an act of religious theft: it takes for oneself what belongs to God. In the same way, charity to the poor is supposed to honor the poor and God, so faux charity takes for oneself the honor that belongs to others: that is an injustice to God and to those whom God loves, the poor.

What matters is pleasing God, not gaining honor from others. “Piety” does not need to be self-serving. Today’s challenge to us religionists, then, is to recovery a “piety,” or “spirituality,” or even a religiousness that contributes, not to creating and furthering economic, ecological, and world crises, but to pulling the world back from the brink of disaster (see Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy). Also, when you recount the brutal facts that call for our repentance, remember that contrite hearts open to God’s creative transformation begin and end with God’s steadfast love.

A final note: In Matthew, “heaven” is not somewhere we might go after death. Since Matthew follows a common Jewish practice of refusing to name God, he uses “heaven” as a circumlocution for “God.” So “treasures in heaven” (verse 20) are not “treasures” after we die, but the honor and value God attributes to our acts of authentic “righteousness,” here and now, and in God’s everlasting memory (in contrast to the temporary, passing honor we receive from others for our “play-acting” acts of “righteousness”).

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.