Ash Wednesday Readings
First Reading Joel 2:1-2. 12-17
The day of the Lord is near. The people come together, and the priests ask God to be true to the promises made.
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Paul entreats his readers to be reconciled to God, and not to accept the grace of God in vain.
Gospel John 8:1-11
When Jesus is challenged to pronounce upon a woman charged with adultery, he challenges anyone who has not sinned to throw the first stone. Alone with her, he cautions her not to sin again.
HOMILY “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Traditionally, to sin is to put space between us and God: to offend against God, commit an offence, transgress, do wrong, commit a crime, break the law, misbehave, stray from the straight and narrow, or fall from grace. Sin can be thought or action - what a list! The truth be told, we don’t like talking about sin, probably because we feel uncomfortable reflecting upon our own mistakes and personal challenges. The essential Christian doctrine is that sin separates us from God, and that Jesus bridges the gap with his self-less death upon the cross. He does this because He loves us – God loves us. This love was not lost on former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, who wrote: ‘God loves us in our sin, and through our sin, and goes on loving us, looking for a response.’
What a wonderful image that is: First, God sees everything but still loves us, regardless. God’s love for us is unconditional and always there. In other words, the gap created by our sin is our distancing ourselves from God not God withdrawing from us. And then, even if we have created a separation from God, the Creator looks for us, longs for us, loves us back into relationship with him. When we talk of the cross as reconciliation, when we receive the ashen cross upon our foreheads, God is looking for us, loving us back into relationship, reconciling us through the death of his Son Jesus upon the Cross.
In today’s Gospel reading, the teachers and Pharisees bring to the Temple precincts a woman caught in ‘the very act of committing adultery’. She is an object of scorn, disgust and humiliation and about to have an extra-ordinary encounter with the Lord of life in the outer temple precincts. The religious elite think they can trick Jesus into doing or saying something wrong, perhaps in order that they may bring some souped-up charge against him. They miss the point of God’s love, for Jesus doesn’t condemn her but calls upon anyone present who is without sin to cast the first stone. By posing this question He invites her accusers to review their own lives, their relationship with God, their human frailty. At the same time, Jesus affirms his humanity and how God sees us as good. By protecting this woman, despised and in the dust of the temple floor, he offers her the same space for reflection that he gave her accusers. They all go away, one by one, beginning with the elders, for they must have realised deep down inside that God is looking for a sinner to reconcile, loving them just as He loves the woman before them. Everyone in this Gospel account is called to face the reality of their own human weakness – their sin – and they have the chance to turn to Christ and be reconciled back into the love of God. So, do we, and I hate to break it to you, but like the characters in today’s Gospel, we are all human; we all make choices and we are each responsible for our actions and indeed accountable. As Christians this is the work of reconciliation we have been entrusted with and the message we must share, that everyone can have a restored relationship with God through Jesus. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) This is a ministry of reconciliation.
The ashen cross we will receive in a moment is a visual reminder of that call to reconciliation, God’s great desire that we should draw closer to him in love. There is no greater example of that very love than the cross itself, the honest, faithful sacrifice of the Lord of life: the same Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, who forgives his persecutors from the cross, whose suffering is etched upon our heads today.
Friends in faith, Lent is a time to make space in our lives to reflect upon all that separates us from God, and that is not easy. Today marks the start of a 40-day journey to the Cross where all our sins are forgiven. (This Lent we will reflect upon lament Psalms and the words of Christ from the cross.) As we journey towards Good Friday, we face the reality of our own weakness, and are rightly challenged by all that separates us from God and prevents us from being Christ-like. We make this Lenten pilgrimage of reconciliation in the hope of forgiveness and renewal that are promised by Jesus, our Saviour. As St Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “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)
That call to repentance is at the heart of our Lenten observance. Facing the reality of our human condition, making space to reflect upon who we really are, can be painful; it might require new eyes and ears for seeing and hearing the truth, because often sin is hidden and we choose not to recognise it. Know that the Creator is longing to reconcile you into his love. Remember that Jesus died so that you may be freed from all that holds you back and all that could ever separate you from God’s love. Therefore today, step forward with confidence to receive the mark of the cross upon your head and hear the words, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Amen.
1. Sin affects us all. We are not immune to it or temptation.
2. Jesus sees everyone as equal, both those who accuse and the accused, and he challenges the one without sin to cast the first stone. Before we condemn, we should ask ourselves the same searching question.
3. The love of God longs to reconcile us, to bridge the gap of sin and forgive us.