Wednesday, February 18, 2015
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
I remember in high school, some kids, mainly Catholics who went to morning mass, would show up to class with ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. We always went to church at 7 in the evening, so I thought this was strange. The readings for today seem to indicate that we perhaps ought not walk around proudly with an ashy cross all day, but to pray and worship privately. That’s what we good Lutherans did anyway – go to service at night, sneak out of church in the dark, and wash off the cross as soon as we got home. One time I remember I didn’t even wait ‘til I got home, I marched right to the church bathroom after the service so that the ashy cross would be gone as soon as possible. In high school, I was severely tested by the Bible’s instructions to “judge not lest ye be judged” on Ash Wednesday, because as I looked at some of those people who wore ashes proudly on their heads, I thought, “So you’re a Christian? Huh, INTERESTING. I would not have guessed that!”
Ash Wednesday is complicated. It’s complicated because on the one hand we hear the scriptures today urging us to return to God in worship and with repentance. And on the other hand, we hear the scriptures calling us to do these things in secret. So, why the public display of ashes on our foreheads? Is Ash Wednesday a day for personal, private renewal, or a communal act of worship? Can it be both?
I think Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, our second reading for today, can help us discern what Ash Wednesday can mean for us as Christians today. In verse 20, right before the first sentence we heard today, Paul writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” We are ambassadors for Christ – messengers of Christ’s reconciliation, representatives of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross. Paul reminds us that faith is personal, but never private. As baptized Christians, we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever. Whether others can see it marked on our foreheads with oil or ashes, or not, we are ambassadors for Christ and carry his name, “Christian,” wherever we go. So Paul reminds us that through our actions, “through great endurance…by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” people will learn more about what it means to be a Christian and will learn from us what it would mean for them to wear that same mark of the cross of Christ on THEIR foreheads. Like it or not, Ash Wednesday throws us into the public sphere of living publically as a Christian, marked with the cross of Christ forever.
We are ambassadors for Christ, and you know, ambassadors are not always popular public figures. Have you ever been put on the spot or in the limelight, where you knew people were watching you? Parents, I think, learn quickly that their children are watching them and emulating both good and bad behaviors, whether they like it or not! I remember the first time I wore my clerical collar in public. I was so worried about what I was saying, how I was acting, what people would think of me. When we lived in Stromsburg, I couldn’t get gas or go to the grocery store without people commenting on what was in my shopping cart or letting one of my parishioners know what I was up to. Being in the limelight isn’t easy or desirable. Both Jesus and Paul are asking us to be representatives for Christ, not to draw attention to ourselves. And when you’re put on the spot long enough, you start to realize how powerful that mark of ashes in the shape of a cross on your head really is. Because we all slip up and fail to live up to God’s expectations for us – sometimes we fail to meet our OWN expectations. We lash out in anger and say something we shouldn’t have said. We behave in unchristian-like ways not just to strangers but to people we love, to family and friends. We look at ourselves, and see a heap of dust – no WAY can we possibly faithfully be an ambassador for Christ, the son of God and savior of the world, we think.
The ashy cross on our forehead is a personal and public reminder that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We are servants of God – we most certainly are not the master himself. We are ambassadors for Christ because we are not and cannot BE Christ. But for our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Through the cross of Christ, mortals though we may be, we are able to represent Christ and his way of life. We are able to share with people how God can work through and for imperfect people like us. Perhaps it can even be encouraging for some to hear how God works through everyday, normal people – that indeed, you can be quite normal and live a thriving life of faith. And that cross on our foreheads also reminds us that we may be dust, and to dust we shall return, but to God we are not just dust. We have been united with Christ in a death like his, and we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Christ has named us and claimed us as his own – warts, flaws, public gaffs, ashes, and all. In our living and in our dying, we belong first and foremost to God. So let us wear our crosses today proudly, not because these symbols point to ourselves and to what good Christians we are, but because they tell the story of a God who will go even to the cross for us. Amen.