Hello followers! It has been a while. Part of my lenten discipline for this year is to write a sermon/reflection every week. This week you get my Ash Wednesday sermon–complete with #ashtag reference. Please excuse grammatical errors as this is a speech manuscript meant to be heard, not read.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Grace for the Work
I like to argue with Paul. Most of the time my arguments with Paul’s writings go a little something like this—Paul, I don’t really like what you said here, and this is why. It seems to go against things elsewhere in the Bible and/or it conflicts with my values and my society’s values of personal worth. Then, I study the scripture even more to figure out why Paul may have said this thing that I don’t like. Most often, I hear Paul through the text saying remember where I am and who I am writing this to. When I read today’s scripture, I also want to argue with Paul, but it’s not because I do not like what he is saying, it’s because it is convicting.
When Paul says “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” I remember all of the times that I have given into that vanity in one way or another. The Greek word that Paul uses here for vanity is kenos. Kenos has a couple of meanings. The first is meaningless or empty. Paul urges the Corinthians, and us here through them to not accept the grace of God as meaningless, as emptyness, as nothing. This grace that we are given is of incomparable value—Paul explains in the verses before that this grace is what Jesus Christ became sin for, that we are who Jesus Christ became sin for. With that as the case, we are gravely mistaken if we take this grace for nothing, if we let it become meaningless for us. Have you ever seen a raw gemstone? They look like rocks. They might have a mild shine, but no more than you would get from a rock that had been beaten in the ocean. They look like they have no value to an eye that is not sensitive to what each gemstone looks like in its raw form. Those that work in the gemstone business know what to look for; they know what is of value, and they know that once the gemstone is shined that it will be beautiful and valuable. When we view the grace that God has given us as meaningless, we are sorting gemstones with an untrained eye. We are likely to throw out a priceless ruby because it looks like a rock. But, if we realize it’s value. If we realize that this grace needs to be accepted as valuable, so that we can work with God and God can work with us, we become vessels of grace. We become like gemstones ourselves—once ugly rocks on the outside, but worked by God to bring out that grace—that beauty—that was always there all along.
The other meaning of Kenos that can be interpreted here is the vanity associated with pride. This type of vanity has the ultimate result of meaninglessness. It means working for no ultimate gain. With this reading we are warned not to work in vain, not to let our pride get in the way of the work that we are doing with God. I think that this is easy to do in a place like Washington, DC. You think I’m going to talk about working for personal wealth here, but I’m not, because this happens to Christians in a way that we don’t often think about. How many of us here are working where we are working, or doing what we are doing, not because of the money, but because we want to help people? How often do we forget that God is in that work too? Paul is reminding us here that we are not alone. That working for the sake of working is accepting the grace of God in vain. Paul tells us in Chapter 5 verse 20 that “We are ambassadors for Christ.” If we are not acknowledging that God is with us in the work that we do, then we are not fulfilling that task. If we are not being ambassadors for Christ, if we are not spreading the gospel with our actions, then that list of things that Paul gives in the latter part of today’s scripture? that’s meaningless. It’s vanity. There was an interesting blog post that came across my Facebook news feed just a few days ago, bringing to light the vanity of the #ashtag. Last year, there was a social media phenomenon on Ash Wednesday where people posted selfies with the ashes on their heads—the ashes that we will receive in a few moments. The article accused this social media craze of this kind of vanity. The #ashtag was not something that promoted the grace of God, but promoted self, personal brand, and social media brand of churches. The #ashtag removed all meaning from the ashes, and from the day itself. This example is not to say, “don’t post #ashtag selfies.” Social media can be a place that all of us live the gospel, but in contributing to #ashtag, let’s make sure that it isn’t meaningless work. We need to let the grace of God shine through our lives—and even our #ashtag selfies.
As we receive our ashes and move into the season of lent, we may be still asking ourselves, what will I give up? What am I going to fast from? First ask, why are we fasting? Are we fasting because we feel like we are supposed to? Are we fasting because our coworkers are fasting, and we don’t want to look like we aren’t doing anything, or look like a “bad Christian?” Are we fasting because we think that it’s important? Notice that the focus of all of those questions is we. If we are only focused on ourselves, we are playing into that vanity that Paul warns us against. God has given us grace for the work. God has given us the grace to keep us moving and working through this season. That grace is going before us, is with us, and is continually preparing us to meet God where God is working in the world. So as we are preparing to fast, we must remember that grace, moving into a better question of, “are we fasting because we believe that fasting prepares us for the work together with God?” A professor of mine said about fasting, “fast first from sin and then from food.” By that he meant, fasting is always about relationship with God, and if our relationship with God is already damaged by sin, then fasting from food is self-serving instead of God-serving. How are we fasting from sin this season? Are we focused on the grace that covers that sin? And are we using that Grace for our work with God? That work is painful as Paul says in Chapter 6 verse 4-5, it’s one of great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; But Paul goes on in verse 6 to say that it is also good work involving 6purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, and genuine love. We have grace for the work. Let us prepare for it during the season of Lent.