Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 20, 2016
Colossians 1:11-20 Commentary
Let no preacher be blasé about these verses from Colossians 1. Let no one miss the punch, the power, the sheer wonder of what Paul says here. Those who have long known the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith could, I suppose, skate over top of these verses altogether too lightly and swiftly without noticing the galactic implications of it all. Paul is lifting up what to most all observers had been an ordinary human being from Palestine and is claiming that he is THEE ONE of the cosmos, the one with all the supremacy, all the power, all the creativity and redemption there ever was or will ever be. He made everything that exists. He has redeemed everything that exists. Everything. Ta panta in the Greek. Everything from A-Z, the whole kit-n-caboodle, top to bottom and every which way.
It’s an outrageous claim, of course, and it brooks no middle ground between being right and wrong. Paul’s claims about Jesus of Nazareth as the Cosmic Christ cannot be just a little right or just a little wrong. It’s either 100% correct and so represents the most sublime truth you’ll ever encounter. Or it’s 100% lunacy, the kind of claim that gets people locked up in psychiatric wards for the rest of their mortal days.
But here’s the thing: the truth Paul is speaking of is not abstract. This is not theoretical. Paul makes clear in verses 11-14 that this has hands-on, practical application for the lives of the Colossian Christians. They have quite literally had a change of spiritual address. They got re-located from a kingdom of darkness and death into a kingdom of light and life. They exchanged a zip code of misery for a new land where this Cosmic Christ is all in all and in which that “all” shines and sparkles with nothing less than the glory of God.
What’s more, it is a place where forgiveness is the coin of the realm, where redemption rescues everyone from what would otherwise be a miserable spiritual fate. Actually, it is very difficult to exaggerate or overstate the sheer beauty of this picture. It’s the children of Narnia arriving at last with Aslan in the New Narnia where every blade of grass seems to mean more, where the most ordinary pear you can eat is so sweet and juicy as to make every pear from the old world look hard and woody by comparison, where the farther in you go, the deeper everything gets. Or it’s Frodo waking up in a sunlit room in Minas Tirith only to see his friend Gandalf returned to him from the dead as the sweetness of new life and new light floods the scene and makes the prior scene of Mordor’s dark terrors and hell fade quickly from mind.
But, of course, there is a bit of a catch to all this: it is available for now only to the eyes of faith. Looking around a crowded shopping mall today, it’s not obvious to our ordinary eyeballs who is dwelling in a kingdom of darkness and who is a citizen of the light. For the Colossians 2,000 years ago and for believers in the 21st century now, the truths of our spiritual status are not visible. Indeed, Christians then and Christians now still pass through lots of dark valleys in this world. Death does not skip over Christian families nor does Alzheimer’s or cancer or dreadful accidents. Christians needs to fix their eyes on the Cosmic Christ who has mastery over everything but they need to do that from the context of a lot of darkness that yet clings to our lives in this still broken world.
Paul knew that too. That’s why this glorious passage opens with a prayer to God to strengthen with endurance the Colossians. There are things we have yet to endure and suffer through in this present world. We need infusions of God’s glory for the present time because without it, we will never maintain our faith, our vision, our hope. We need a few glimmers from the kingdom of light to pierce our present darkness if we are to have any chance to embrace the outrageous—yet glorious—things Paul here asserts.
This is the (sometimes precarious) balancing act Christians have had to perform for millennia now. We don’t call our faith “blind faith” because we really do have the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit that sustains and informs us. We have seen the light of Christ flicker in the eyes of even our dear ones as they die. And yet, neither do we possess the fullness of our faith and what has been promised. We see through a glass darkly, as Paul writes elsewhere, we see the things promised from a considerable distance, as the writer to the Hebrews put it in the landmark 11th chapter of that book.
Yet what we see now, what we can grasp at present, all hinges on the claims Paul makes in Colossians 1. If Jesus is The One who created, redeemed, sustains, and now holds together ta panta, all things and everything, then it’s all true. The kingdom of light into which we have been rescued from this dark world is real and exists right this very moment.
We see this reflected in also the Gospel lection for this Christ the King Sunday when Jesus promises the thief on the cross an entry into Paradise that very day. It’s real, just on the other side of the veil separating this world from Paradise. The fact that, as Paul says at the conclusion of this reading, all this was made possible through a bloody cross just proves that not only is the death and darkness of this world not the undoing of our hope, our hope in fact is strengthened precisely because it emerged from a deadly darkness that was then defeated from the inside out.
Thanks be to God and to Christ the King!
It’s from a work of fiction and fantasy, of course, which may diminish its real-world traction, but in thinking of all this, I could not help but tumble to this scene from The Return of the King. It also captures the tension of a world of death in which our vision for the light must be maintained.
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