By Rev. J.C. Austin
“We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” You, the people of the Corinthian church, you need to take action and be reconciled to God; that’s what Paul seems to be saying. Maybe he was having a bad day when he wrote this. Did Paul make a mistake? He talks a lot about reconciliation, but everywhere he talks about it as something that God is doing to us through Christ, not something we do to God.
“Be reconciled to God.” That sounds pretty clear: do something in order to be reconciled to God. What’s he talking about? What happened to “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift” (Rom 3:23)? What about “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom 3:28)? Be reconciled to God? What are we supposed to do with that?
I’m willing to bet most people here have at least one unpleasant story of somebody who worked really hard entreating you to be reconciled to God. A friend of mine, we’ll call him Tom, tells the story that one of his high school buddies unexpectedly announced that he was “born again” during their senior year. He had been a very boisterous, fun-loving sort of guy, harmlessly mischievous, always the center of attention, always someone you wanted to have around.
But after his conversion experience he became harder and harder to spend time with. He was constantly talking about how much time he spent reading the Bible or the miraculous ways God was always intervening dramatically in his life. It got to where Tom didn’t even want to go out for pizza with him, because he’d spend what seemed like hours praying loudly and extravagantly over our food in the restaurant, thanking God in a booming voice for the bounteous pepperoni he had blessed them with that day.
Finally, Tom asked him whether he thought it was really that important for everybody in the restaurant to hear him bless their pizza, and he simply sat up in his chair and bellowed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel! We are ambassadors for Christ!” Tom leaned over and said, “I agree with you, I just think you’re causing a diplomatic incident. Now everybody here thinks being a Christian means being a jerk!” I think that was probably the last time they went out together.
The thing is, though, I don’t doubt his intentions. He thought that he was being faithful, that he was doing what God expected him to do. He believed that it was important to make other people in public places listen to him, to witness his deep piety and be moved by it to change their own lives and “turn to God.” He was trying to be an ambassador; he thought he was encouraging others to be reconciled to God by showing them what that meant.
The thing is, though, the true practice of our faith, whether it’s worship or prayer or study or service, is never directed towards ourselves or others in the first instance. It often involves both ourselves and others but it is directed toward God, and as a response to what God has already given us. That’s what Paul has in mind when he says, “be reconciled to God.”
Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul has made clear the order of things in these familiar words: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:17-18). Being reconciled to God does not mean doing something in order to make God be reconciled to us; being reconciled to God means allowing God’s reconciling grace to find us.
Have you ever gotten lost? I don’t mean lost in the sense of turning the wrong way in an unfamiliar city and not being able to find your way back to the main street easily. I mean lost, really lost, lost in the sense of being alone in the wilderness, having no idea where you are, no clue what is the way back or how to get to where you want to be.
If you find yourself in that terrible situation, it’s important to know what survival experts tell you to do. First, you have to realize you’re lost. That sounds obvious, but it’s easy to keep telling yourself that you actually know where you are and what you’re doing, and you can be very tempted to match almost anything with what you see on your map: “that little hill over there could be the summit of this mountain right here; maybe I’m just already really high up!” You have to allow yourself to accept the fact that you’re lost.
The second rule is almost as important: once you realize you’re lost, STOP. Stop right where you are. Sit down. Make a fire, draw messages in the dirt, whatever you like, but STOP MOVING. If you’re really lost and continue to move, you will almost certainly go further and further from where you’re supposed to be, and you’ll make yourself much harder to locate. If you stop moving and wait for the rescue teams, you will be found.
But you have to give up trying to save yourself. Being reconciled to God means giving up trying to save ourselves, whether through our career achievements or our family lives or our philosophical precision or our righteous and pious passion. It means stopping and allowing God’s grace to find us, envelop us, and bring about a new creation in Christ.
But that’s not where it ends. Paul doesn’t simply entreat the Corinthians and us to be reconciled to God; he urges us not to accept the grace of God “in vain.” Experiencing God’s grace is not simply passive acceptance. If it is to mean anything to us and for us, God’s grace has to have an effect on us; it must make a difference in our lives. In Christ there is both new life and a new way of living.
As Paul said, not only has God reconciled us to himself through Christ, but he has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Accepting God’s grace without sharing it with others is to accept it in vain; it is to keep it from having an effect on us, from making a difference to us, from transforming us into who and what God intends us to be.
And that is a big part of what we are doing here today. Ash Wednesday, beginning the season of Lent, is about repentance, the spiritual discipline of realizing that we are lost on our own, stopping our current direction, and allowing God to lead us back to the path God has blazed for us in Christ. Repentance is a vital spiritual discipline; it is one of the fundamental ways that we respond to God’s grace and allow ourselves to be reconciled to God.
Observing this season, the season of Lent, then, is itself a helpful spiritual discipline in reminding us to be good stewards of God’s reconciling grace at work in our lives, neither taking it for granted nor claiming it as our possession. It begins with the discipline of repentance, opening ourselves to allow God’s grace to take root in us in new ways and lead us in new directions.
What other disciplines might God be calling you to take up in this special season, this acceptable time? What ways is God calling you to be a better steward of the grace you have received? Do you need to spend more time in prayer, in devotional Scripture reading, in Sabbath-time of rest and fellowship with family and friends? Do you need to try to reconcile with someone whom you are estranged from?
Do you need to be more intentional or generous in giving of your time, your attention, your money? Consider your call; embrace the gifts of this day and season that confront us and remind us that now is an acceptable time to accept God’s grace in our lives anew; now, and every day, is a day of salvation.