Servants Between Ashes and Dust: 1 John 1.5–2.2

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 1, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

Grace and peace to you, First Christian Church, and isn’t it great to be back in this sanctuary together, Ames UCC?

In addition to being a joy, these July services we share are also unique.

There are six different churches downtown—our two, First United Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Body of Christ, and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox—six churches all professing devotion to God in Christ Jesus with this same scripture as our teacher, yet we continue to maintain our own buildings and pastors and services and ministries. We are so insistent on practicing that love of God in Christ Jesus with distinct music, art, liturgy, and theology, that we mostly remain out of touch and independent.

But here we are, every July, as well as at the beginning and end of Lent, together. During the highest of holy days and the most ordinary of times, for over fifty years, we have come together to give God our united thanks and praise.

Thank you.

Because of the unique and long-standing nature of this relationship, the amount of flexibility 2018.7.1 no atonementand openness to difference it demonstrates, and the trust I hope that I’ve personally earned, I’m going to risk being completely transparent with you about my theology of the cross.

Namely, that I completely disagree with this reading. Not all of it, and not all of 1 John, but its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Which puts me in good company, if not in terms of theology, then in the fact of disagreement. This essay, 1 John, is part of an early schism about whether Jesus’s body matters or not. One side said it does not, that it is only a mask. The side represented in 1 John said it does, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, so his body is essential to the teachings and the gift. Which I do agree with.

But I cannot accept the authors’ theology that God intentionally had Jesus die as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world.Instead of an individual bull or goat or dove, the traditional sacrifices for individual sins, they argue that Jesus was a universal lamb to compensate for a whole a universe of sin. Which makes God a murderer and the “structural, civic violence”1 of an empire necessary and holy.

That’s the theology and the God that I grew up with and that is most commonly professed. 2018.7.1 lifeIt is not, though, the theology I can stake my life on or the God that I can love.

Am I saying Jesus didn’t die? No. Am I saying Jesus’s death is inconsequential? No. Am I saying we don’t sin? No way.

I’m saying that it isn’t Jesus’s death, but his life and his resurrection, that are the mechanisms which might redeem us from sin. It is what he did before and after that ordinary, brutal day that may give us means to stop deceiving ourselves and have fellowship with God and each other.

Might and may are probably the most important words there. Jesus’s life and his resurrection might redeem us, if we remember to allow them to.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been using this season of Ordinary Time to explore how our other seasons and holy days are a part of every day. So far, we’ve done Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Today I want to look at Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of repentance in preparation for Easter. The idea is that we slow down, get quiet, and attend to what is keeping us from returning to God.2018.7.1 earth

The distinguishing ritual in our worship service is the imposition of ashes. On Ash Wednesday we receive ashes and oil on our foreheads. We are anointed with small portions of refreshment and grave while hearing the words “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” or “from dust you come and to dust you shall return.”

Not “from sex you come and to an afterlife you might go” or “from woman you come and if you believe on the Lord well enough to heaven you may go” but ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

From the earth first revealed when God invited the water to part, to the earth that might again be covered by the waters, the earth gives us life and our lives we will return back to it some day.

The earth serves as bookend to our mortality, and our mortal life is the field in which we address the sins of what we have done and what we have left undone.

So will we? We don’t have to. We can judge those who touch lepers of the HIV+, we can refuse to share our riches, we can offer the vulnerable a cage or an internment camp rather than room at an inn.

Or, we can look to God and ask for the power of the Holy Spirit so that we will be strong enough to follow the Christ from mangers to rivers to weddings to gardens to crosses. And as we survive the crosses threatened by humanity, we can continue to be the hands of Christ because the tomb on the other side of those crosses is no threat: It awaits us all.

As I speak of our mortality, I can’t help but be aware of the absence of Jim Gaunt. Though Jim was a member of First Christian (and for over 30 years), I had the good fortune to get 2018.7.1 judge notto know him and work with him through our shared membership in AMOS, another blessing of collaboration. Whether at an AMOS event or here at First Christian or over at Ames UCC, Jim always had a kind word of welcome and a shared concern for us to talk about.

And that was just a fraction of the dedication and leadership he showed to his faith, this community, and his family. Jim made such good, such generous, and such redemptive use of his time between dust and ashes. Rest in peace, Jim, you good and faithful servant.

That’s all I think any of us can hope for in the end. I hope that whether our theologies are right or wrong, our service to God in Jesus Christ has been as sincere, thorough, and worthy as Jim’s.

Jesus was always going to die because humanity kills what heals, liberates, and unites. We will die, too, hopefully having worked toward healing, liberation, and unity.

My prayer is that each of us, no matter the day, feel the precious oil of God’s love on our heads, freshly reminding us during these earthly and earthy lives of the human condition God has shared with us and that sacred love that can never die.2018.7.1 feel love

And I hope that no matter our differences and our preferences, we always worship together every Ash Wednesday and every July. This world is very broken and seems to be becoming more so. When we come together, when we set the table larger still, we do not do so for our own benefit but, like Jesus, we do so for the healing of the whole world.


1Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2001. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.


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