Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2016
Colossians 1:15-28 Commentary
“To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” That is the final verse of Colossians 1 and it pretty much says it all. “Strenuously contend” is what the latter half of this opening chapter conveys, and then some! From Colossians 1:15 through Colossians 1:23, Paul writes exactly two Greek sentences. The first verbal tear is 272 words long (verses 15-19). The prose style here is breathless. The words jumble out from the tip of Paul’s quill almost faster than he can get them down and he comes off like an overly enthusiastic child who, after a day at Disney World, cannot quite find the end of any sentence as he reels off the day’s wonders.
Why all the enthusiasm? Jesus! The One! The cosmic Rosetta Stone in whom all of reality makes final sense. The Greek words ta panta crop up here again and again: “All things!” Christ Jesus the Lord created all things, maintains all things, holds together all things, and explains all things. If anyone in the mid-first century thought this whole Christianity and Jesus thing was some local religion with modest claims, Colossians 1 disproves that in dramatic fashion.
As noted in the sermon commentary on the early part of Colossians 1, the Colossian Christians had come under the influence of some Gnosticizing Judaism that looked for other superior beings (or archons) who could give them the secret passwords they needed to enter the “pleroma” or the “fullness” of spiritual enlightenment. There was some mysticism, some earth-denying anti-physicalism, some weird ideas floating around Colossae. Paul was determined to bring these Christians back to the first things of the Gospel, a core one of which is that Jesus Christ is the pleroma, is the fullness of all fullness, is the most superior being ever to exist and, wonder of wonders, through baptism we gain unity with this very person.
From a distance of about 2,000 years, much of this may not seem overly remarkable. But as preachers we need to proclaim this passage in full-throated wonder that such things were and are true. After all, at the time Paul wrote these words, the well-documented death of the man Jesus had been as recent an event then as the presidency of Ronald Reagan is now. Not so long ago. Well within the living memory of lots of people. This Jesus fellow had come from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, had lived and worked as a simple carpenter for most of his life before lighting out on a quirky preaching career that unsettled most of the people who shared his Jewish faith. Things got political and next thing you know, Jesus was publicly crossed out by the Romans and his limp body sent the same signal all public crucifixions did in the Roman world: “Behave or you end up like this!”
A sad ending to the man’s life but these things happen. Yet now only a few short years later here is this man named Paul claiming that precisely that washed-up, crossed-out rabbi held the cosmic keys to everything. Today it would be like someone’s talking about Clyde Klunkenfelder from Whippervale, Kansas, and claiming this otherwise unknown man was the single most important person who had ever lived.
All of which is to say . . . these were huge claims! But that’s the Gospel for you. Such declarations may not play nicely in the pluralistic sandbox with other faiths but the Gospel’s scope and message are sweeping and we should no more wish it were not so than the Colossian Christians should have toyed with other options. Believing Jesus is the Cosmic One gives no believer license to be abusive or dismissive of people from other faiths—that would not sound like a very Jesus-like thing to do, either. But paring back one’s faith to shoot for some lowest common religious denominator won’t do, either.
Preaching on this text today gives us a chance to emphasize several key and vital themes. One is the sheer grandeur—and yet the subtle outer trappings—of the Gospel. Ours is a God of surprises and never more so than when he sent his only Son to this world in the form of a baby born to poor parents out in the middle of nowhere. There is a lesson in that for the church today, especially whenever it is tempted to become a locus of worldly power and influence. Service, sacrifice, and humility marked the ministry of the One who really is the cosmic Lord. The people who bear his Name even now should seek to do likewise.
But there is also a wonderful emphasis here on the physical creation of God, its value, its majesty, and its place in our Christian theology. The Gnosticism in Colossae that undercut the value of bodies and all things earthy was wrong. Matter matters. God in Christ loves the creation, and its renewal figures very large in Christian eschatology as a result. This, too, can be under-appreciated in the church today, though ecological interest and concerns are far more widespread among Christians today than was the case even a quarter century ago. But there is no missing Paul’s belief here that Christ delights in the creation he made. We should too.
Indeed, in verse 23 Paul engages in a bit of hyperbole when he says that the Gospel had now been proclaimed to “every creature” under heaven. Of course, that was not literally true even then—most people had not yet heard the Gospel much less bobcats and bullfrogs. But what is literally true is that the restoration promised through the Gospel has something to do with every creature and so Colossians 1—along with Paul’s anthropomorphizing of creation in Romans 8—reveals this truth by claiming that somewhere deep down in the breasts of chickadees and inside the golden heads of sunflowers there is a hope that species extinction and decay are not the whole story in the long run. The beauty of creation now—co-existing as it must for the time being in a world of some entropy and degradation—is an arrow pointing to the wisdom and grandeur of our God and is, just so, a sign of hopefulness to us.
The movie Grand Canyon is probably not widely known anymore these days since it came out almost 25 years ago. But it’s a great film that chronicles the lives of a number of people who all live in Los Angeles, California. Through a series of incidents, people who otherwise might not know each other find their lives intertwining. Mack is a white guy who is a rich investment banker and Mack gets to know Simon, an African-American guy who drives a tow truck for a living. Then their families get to know each other a bit, including Simon’s nephew who is a gang-banger caught up in all the terrible violence that such gangs bring to places like South-Central Los Angeles. But in many ways the life of just about every character in the movie is fragmented and is at loose ends. Life seems brutal or random or both.
But then comes the final scene when everyone takes a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona. And in the last image of the film, everyone—the banker and his wife, the tow truck driver and his cynical, hardened nephew—comes up to the lip of the Canyon and looks out on all that vastness. It is silent. But a look of calm soon washes over every face—even the teenaged gang banger suddenly looks young and hopeful and full of the very promise that such a young person should exude. “Well,” Simon finally says, “what do you think?” And Mack replies, “I think . . . I think it’s all right.” Something about the awesome beauty of God’s creation restored order and hope, purpose and meaning to the lives of people who were not finding any meaning in their money or their guns or anything else.
When we look at the world God made, we connect this to the death and resurrection of the Jesus who also created it all and who has redeemed it all. And then we too can say, “It’s all right. The whole thing, ta panta, it’s all right.”
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