Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Several years ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Some of the people there were in their 40's or older, some barely in their 20’s. There were black and white people, men and women. Everyone there needed help staying off drugs. Some attended 5 or 6 meetings each week. I thought it was excessive. I was wrong. Heroin, cocaine, crystal meth: under that spell, you can't will yourself free. You're a slave to the substance. Only by the grace of God and the help of others can you claim victory over the addiction. Every person there admitted he or she was an addict and would be an addict the rest of his or her life. But, being an addict does not mean you have to stay under the influence of the drug. Going to 5 or 6 meetings, spending time with others who are also fighting the addiction, praying, and appealing to the Lord can bring freedom.
I was a total outsider at that meeting. I am not an addict. When these people, who had bodies broken down from years of drug use, gave their testimonies, I felt distant. I lacked knowledge, and I was glad that I didn't know how they felt. But, I am not any cleaner or any more innocent or virtuous than those regulars at NA meetings.
I may not sin by getting high, but I sin in a 1000 other ways. I am guilty of sins. We all are. Even the faithful parent, the devout Christian, the good citizen falls short of God's glory. We're all in the same boat. We may not go to Narcotics Anonymous, but we have our own group. It is called church. It is where are reminded of how much we need Jesus. We are also reminded that because Christ is in us, we have joy. He gives abundant life. In Jesus Christ, we are redeemed, born again.
Confession is an ongoing part of our lives as followers of Jesus. In Romans, Paul sets the course. We are in Christ, free from sin’s clutches. He writes in chapter 6,
8 As surely as we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. 9 We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die. 10 When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. 11 In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God.
12 Don’t let sin rule your body. After all, your body is bound to die, so don’t obey its desires 13 or let any part of it become a slave of evil. Give yourselves to God, as people who have been raised from death to life. Make every part of your body a slave that pleases God. 14 Don’t let sin keep ruling your lives. You are ruled by God’s kindness and not by the Law.
22 Now you have been set free from sin, and you are God’s slaves. This will make you holy and will lead you to eternal life. 23 Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yet, though we are free from sin, still we make mistakes, let God down, and do things to hurt ourselves and others. We sin. We are being made perfect, but the work of God in us is not finished. God’s work is complete in that Jesus has accomplished all that is needed for salvation with his death on the cross. Yet, we still stand astride two worlds – the fallen world where sin roams, Satan rules, and death threatens, and the Kingdom of God were our hope is resurrection. Too often we live oriented toward the fallen. We don’t realize who we are in Christ and who we are becoming in Christ.
One of the ways to face the reality, the truth about ourselves, is to make confession a regular practice. Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter is a special time of acknowledging sin, turning away from it and turning to God. Confession is painful but it is also a time of renewal. Who we are and who are becoming in Christ becomes clearer.
At HillSong, our theme through Lent, then Easter and then into the rest of the year 2014 is identity. Who am I when I see myself as one who is “in Christ?” I am free. I am free to be completely honest with God – honest about all that is in me, my hopes, my failures, my uncertainties. I am free to love and free from embarrassment. I am free to invite people to turn to Jesus; How they respond is between them and Him. I am free to worship, to pray, to laugh, to cry; and to confess. The Father of beckons us to come to Him.
One of the speakers at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting I attended was celebrating her 16th year of being clean and sober. She gave the glory and the credit to Jesus Christ. That's what Jesus does. He frees us from the shackles of sin and when he does, life changes for us and people who know us.
This freedom and the changes that are part of it are themes in Paul's letter to Philemon. The last of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, situated between Titus and Hebrews, Philemon is a story about three men. Paul is an evangelist and church starter. Onesimus is a runaway slave who becomes a Christian when he meets Paul in prison. Philemon is the slave's owner and also someone led to Christ by Paul. In the relationship of these three men, oppressive social structures of a sinful class system fade to the background. The light of Christ and who we are in Christ shines.
Paul begins the letter like this.
From Paul, who is in jail for serving Christ Jesus, and from Timothy, who is like a brother because of our faith.
Philemon, you work with us and are very dear to us. This letter is to you 2 and to the church that meets in your home. It is also to our dear friend Apphia and to Archippus, who serves the Lord as we do.
Pauls’ words inspired by the Spirit and containing truth for all Christians, have specific ramifications for Philemon’s life. He owns Onesimus. This man is his property. He can punish Onesimus for running away. He would be expected to, at the least, issue a severe flogging. He might even be justified in killing Onesimus. Paul has something else in mind. Paul never offers social commentary on the institution of slavery, much though we wish he had. Instead, he speaks to his brother in Christ, Philemon.
“Philemon, you're a Christian now,” He says. “So too is Onesimus. The world may treat sin with anger and punishment. But, Jesus doesn't do that. Jesus forgives all who humbly seek forgiveness. You Philemon must treat your slave's transgression with love and forgiveness.” Because of the freedom we have in Christ, the relationship changes. The world will not recognize such a change as something good. Philemon gains nothing if he loves Onesimus as a brother. His peers won’t be impressed. His social status will not improve and might actually decline a bit.
But, we are in Christ. Impressing people is no longer important. We love people; people who have wronged us, stolen from us, hurt us. We are free from guilt and free from grudges. We are free because of Jesus’ forgiveness. We are free to give forgiveness.
At the end of the letter, Paul speaks of hope. He hopes that Philemon will exceed the minimum requirements in his Christ-love for the former slave, Onesimus (v.21). He hopes he can come and visit Philemon (v.22).
Epaphras is also here in jail for being a follower of Christ Jesus. He sends his greetings, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, who work together with me.
25 I pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will be kind to you!
All this is written by Paul, from prison. Because of Christ he is free not to wallow is in squalor. He is free from self-pity. Forgiven he is free from his own sin; born again with the promise of resurrection, he is free from fear of death. He doesn't know if he'll get out of prison. He doesn't know if he will ever see Philemon again. All he knows is that God is in control. What the prison officials and Roman authorities say is inconsequential to Paul. He will hope in Christ and live in Christ. He wants Philemon to do the same.
Can Philemon do that? He is being challenged to change the way he sees the world. Love Onesimus, a slave? Can he do that? He can if sees that he himself is one who has been freed from slavery to sin.
You and I can change the way we see the world if we first understand the lesson from those who battle addiction. We are all enslaved and our only hope is Jesus. Once we have that hope, once we live in the freedom he gives, we become new people. Yes, Philemon can love the one who was his slave and is now his brother because he is in Christ. Yes, the addict can have joy, freedom, meaningful life, life that contributes to the greater good of God’s world. That happens for the addict who is in Christ. Yes, you and I are in Christ when we receive forgiveness, die to self, and recognize that He is Lord – Savior and Lord. We absolutely need Him. He comes to all who recognize their need for him.
Confession is a spiritual discipline that enables us to see who we are in Christ. Already this evening, you have written down sins in your life. No one knows what you wrote. Those cards have been burned up. We will now take the ashes and form the cross on our foreheads. We are reminded that our sins have gone up flames, flames of love, the love of God. Jesus has taken our sins and the punishment for them on himself. We take Him into us.
After tonight, I encourage you to explore ways that confession can be your Lenten discipline. Maybe it involves specific reconciliation. You go to someone to attempt forgiveness and the restoration of the relationship. Maybe you will read Psalms of confession throughout Lent. Maybe fasting will be a way of drawing to the surface buried guilt that needs to be given to God. Maybe you’ll continue keeping a God notebook where you read scripture, learn about God, write the insights, and to it add what you learn about yourself as you seek God and walk with the Spirit.
This season, these 40 days leading to Easter, is a call. God invites us to give our hearts to Him. May this be a season of confession and discovery. We don’t just list the mistakes we’ve made. We receive the grace of God.
As I think about confession and the occasion of Ash Wednesday, I close with the comments of Professor Debra Dean Murphy of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Ashes are the residue of death. They are the ruins, the remains of something no longer alive, no longer with us. Ashes are all that’s left when a house burns down or when a body is cremated. And so it is fitting that we wear this sooty tattoo as we identify with Jesus and his journey toward death. A journey into, not around, suffering.
We don’t receive this sign of the cross as a symbol of our own righteousness. We receive the ashes because we’ve been asked to confront death—and the death-dealing ways of the world.
The black sooty cross that we wear on Ash Wednesday is ultimately a sign of love, for it is love alone that conquers death. Among the rubble and ruin of Wednesday’s ashes is a black, organic substance that marks us as God’s own beloved.[i]
We stand as people forgiven, free to live joyfully in Christ.
Pastor Heather will now lead us in the service of receiving ashes.