(2 Corinthians 5.20-6.10 )
‘we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God’ (2 Corinthians 5.20) writes Paul to the church in Corinth. In the six words it takes Paul to write this in Greek he encapsulates both his calling and the Gospel he worked so wholeheartedly to share with those he met. There is an urgency in his message: ‘we entreat you’; there is a diagnosis of our need: be reconciled to God and there is the person at the centre of both our healing and our calling: Christ. I wish to spend a few moments thinking about these three elements as we celebrate Ash Wednesday today with the hope that that we can enter Lent with clearer minds about what Christ has done for us and what Christ calls us to do for him.
We only need to look at the world around us to see the mess we are in. Yes there is much beauty and many things to be thankful for: our family and friends, our homes, our work, the privilege of living in the Itchen Valley. But we do not need to look far to see pain and brokenness; war and hate; suffering and despair. Sin has become an unfashionable word these days but these signs of darkness are a consequence of sin. Sin is what causes the world to not be the perfect place God created it to be. Your sin and my sin. Every time we choose to go our way and not God’s way, that is sin. Every time we turn from what we know is true and opt for the lie, that is sin. Every time we choose hate over love, that is sin. All these sins damage us. All these sins damage our relationships. All these sins damage the world. All these sins separate us from God because he is perfect and righteous and just and cannot look on sin.
Traditionally, the Church sees Lent as a penitential season and the language of this evening’s service reflects that. Lent is a time to reflect on our lives and see what is good and see what is not. A time to notice where we are walking in God’s ways and where we need to turn back to him. That is what repentance is; a turning round from the wrong direction we are walking in; turning round to face Christ and follow his way.
The 40 days of Lent echo the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry on earth. Having been baptised in the River Jordan by his cousin John, and heard a voice from heaven declare that ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Luke 3.22), Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. During his time there, Jesus fasted and prayed and was tempted by Satan. Jesus was tempted to choose the easy way and turn stones into bread; tempted to take a short cut to establishing his rule on earth by worshipping Satan rather than journeying to the cross; tempted to doubt God’s love for him by demanding proof and putting God’s love to the test. Yet Jesus did not give way before the lies of Satan, he remained true to the word of God. He responded to each of Satan’s lies with ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6.17) and ‘knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 21).
We however have all sinned. Our sin had separated us from God and God provided the means by which our relationship with him can be restored. God is righteous but he is also merciful and out of his great and unfathomable love for us he sent Jesus so that we could be reconciled to him. As we heard in our first reading: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). When we recognise our sinfulness and need of God’s help, when we choose to trust in Christ, a great exchange takes place: instead of our sin, we receive Christ’s righteousness. Jesus carried the sins of all who believe in him when he hung on the cross. We are clothed in Christ’s righteousness when we turn to him. This is what we mean by atonement and this exchange enables at-one-ment with God.
No wonder that John Newton wrote
‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.’
We have been reconciled to God not because of anything we have done. This is not a restoration we have earned but a free love-gift from God. It is free but we are not to take it in vain because it was not cheap. This free gift of reconciliation with God cost him everything. This free gift was paid for by the pain and suffering Jesus endured during Holy Week. The cost of our reconciliation with God was nothing less than the death of his Son.
So Paul entreats us on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. He entreats us because there is an urgency about the situation: ‘See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Corinthians 6.2). We are not to put off turning to Christ, we are not to be like Lord Sebastian Flyte who prayed ‘Lord make me good but not yet’ (Brideshead Revisited), we are not to put off receiving the gift of reconciliation whilst we try to earn our way back into God’s presence because the day of salvation is today and we need to receive the gift God is offering us today; we need to be reconciled with God today.
We need to accept God’s gift to us today and accept out calling today. We also need to be sharing the good news of the gospel, the good news of Christ, the good news of the reconciliation we can have with God. Earlier in his second letter to the Corinthians (5.11ff) Paul explained how we have been giving the ministry of reconciliation. Once we have been reconciled with God through Christ, we are to be ambassadors for Christ. Like the ambassadors of Great Britain who work for the good of our country and promote its values and interests, we are to be ambassadors of Christ, sharing the values of his Kingdom with those we meet and encouraging others to receive the gift of grace for themselves. The Queen and her Government use her ambassadors to share their message with those in other lands. Likewise, our Heavenly King calls on us to share his message of reconciliation with those who have not yet received it, share it with those who have not yet turned to him.
So this Lent, let us recognise that now is the time: ‘So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ (2 Corinthians 5.20). Amen.