If the first four verses of this Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson don’t make its preachers and teachers’ heads spin at least a bit, we’re probably not paying enough attention to them. In verse 15, after all, Paul insists, probably no more than 20 years after Jesus ascended into the heavenly realm, he’s “the image of the invisible God.”
The Jesus who was a born to unmarried parents, is, the apostle claims, “the firstborn over all creation” by whom “all things were created.” Paul goes on to say the Jesus who lived his whole life in a remote corner of Palestine “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” in addition to being “the head of the body, the church.”
The Jesus who the Romans executed like a common criminal, he continues, “is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” And when we perhaps think we can’t absorb more, Paul adds, “God was pleased to have all his fullness to dwell in [Jesus], and through him to reconcile all things to himself.”
One scholar calls these assertions a poem that’s like a map of the entire creation. People are, of course, the part of the creation that Christ somehow created to be much like God. However, we’re physically not even flyspecks in the cosmos’ grand scheme of things. On top of that, by nature, God’s great purposes for the world go on without you and me. After all, we’re naturally outside God’s kingdom.
Of course, we like to think of ourselves as fairly nice people. However, Paul reminds us that we naturally make ourselves God’s enemies. We sometimes deliberately and other times accidentally sin against God and each other by what we do, say and even think.
Colosse’s Christians to whom Paul writes probably understood that better than some preachers and teachers do. After all, at one time many of them actually worshipped idols instead of the one true God. They had no idea of who Jesus is or how they could share in his benefits.
Colossian Christians’ lives once reflected the gods they worshipped. Their muddied thinking led them into one misunderstanding after the next. Colosse’s Christians didn’t act, talk or even think the way God created them to. They were, in other words, alienated from God.
We know about broken human relationships. Some of us have experienced broken marriages or friendships. When we multiply that brokenness by a million times, we begin to appreciate how naturally alienated we are from God.
Of course, some of us have been Christians for as long as we can remember. We’ve always sung “Jesus Loves Me” because it’s true. But if those who proclaim and hear Colossians 1 want to get a sense of our natural alienation of God, we might dig around in our deepest temptations. We might ask what we’d do if we could do anything we wanted without worrying about the consequences. What, for example, would we take that isn’t ours? With whom would we be intimate?
Those are dark places that God’s adopted sons and daughters would generally rather not even think about. Yet those dark corners of our lives give us glimpses of our human nature. They remind God’s people that we’re naturally not God’s children, but God’s enemies.
Of course, some of us know what it’s like to actually be alienated from God. After all, some who proclaim and hear Colossians 1 actually chose that at some point in our lives. So we know what it’s like to try to live our lives without taking God into account.
When people are alienated from each other, both parties usually bear at least some responsibility for it. Spouses or friends, for example, mistreat or speak angrily to each other.
However, in the case of human alienation from God, it’s all our fault. While God creates us for a faithful relationship with himself, we naturally choose to act in ways that make us God’s enemies.
That’s part what makes God’s response to our estrangement so gracious. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies,” Paul writes in verses 21-22. “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.”
Few things are more wonderful than when two friends who haven’t spoken to each other since squabbling a long time ago put the past behind them. Or when two parts of a community are brought to trust and accept each other again after a time of warfare or arguing.
However, it’s even more gratifying when that happens between God and people. God let the enmity that kept us from God do its worst to Jesus on the cross. God allowed that so that God and the human race can be brought together. Through Jesus’ death God’s dearly beloved people are reconciled to God.
Yet it’s not as if we went to God and said, “We want to be reconciled to you.” If it were up to us, we’d be content to stay God’s enemies forever. God graciously came to us in Jesus Christ and showed how desperately God wants to be reconciled to us.
So Jesus isn’t just the visible manifestation of the invisible God in whom all the fullness of God lived. Jesus isn’t just the One by, through and for whom all things were created. Jesus isn’t just the head of the Church. Jesus isn’t even just the first to be raised to life and stay alive.
No, Jesus, is also the one who let people hand him over to the authorities so that God would reconcile us to himself. Jesus let those occupiers treat him like a common criminal so that we might become his brothers, as well as God’s beloved sons and daughters. Jesus is the bloodied peacemaker who presents God’s natural enemies to God as God’s spotless saints.
Yet amazingly, we’re not all God reconciled to himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus work was far grander than just turning enemies into God’s sons and daughters. No, says Paul in verse 20, “through” Jesus God “reconciled to himself all things (italics added).” That means God somehow reconciled everything, the “whole kit-n-caboodle,” as a colleague paraphrases this, to himself through Jesus’ death. God left nothing out of God’s reconciliation project in Jesus Christ.
Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Paul seems to at least claim that Jesus’ death affects every creature. In dying he scooped up every last thing. Yet it’s hard to know just how protons and penguins, molecules and marmots became alienated from God in the first place.
Paul seems to suggest that sin didn’t just break the relationship between God and humans, as well as among human beings. Sin also somehow deeply harmed creation itself. We’ve seen what our sin has done to water. Studies suggest that, for example, 80% of China’s rural wells are deeply polluted. We’ve seen what our sin has done to our air. Some studies suggest its pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition and obesity, as well as alcohol and drug abuse.
Jesus’ reconciling work invites us to also work for reconciliation. Reconciliation with God, first of all, through faith in Jesus Christ. Reconciliation with the creation, by working to care for and heal that creation where we’ve scarred it.
Those who proclaim Colossians 1 might invite our hearers to imagine what kind of impact it might have if every one of Jesus’ the reconciler’s followers followed him out of our church to reconcile ourselves to even just one person. To a spouse or friend who hurt us. To a neighbor we need to forgive or a co-worker who hasn’t forgiven us. By giving us the Holy Spirit, God has graciously given us everything we need to do all we can to be reconciled to each other.
Yet this leaves the question of just which people God has reconciled to himself through Jesus’ death. In verse 19 Paul says God has reconciled to himself “all things.” But does that mean all creatures, including every last human being without exception? Or does it refer to every aspect of creation?
Some Christians say, “Of course, God reconciles himself only Christians.” Others insist, “Of course, God reconciles to himself every single human being.” Still others with a sigh say Jesus’ redemption is non-discriminatory in nature rather than effect. That is to say, they profess that God offers to be reconciled to every last human being. However, those humans must receive that reconciliation through faith in Jesus Christ.
After all, in verse 22 and 23 Paul writes, “God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death … if you continue in your faith.” In doing so he seems to insist faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for people to be sure of our reconciliation to God.
Yet the cosmic nature of Jesus’ work holds out hope for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. So God’s beloved children never write off any living person as beyond God’s gracious reach. As long as there is life, there is hope for each and every human being, by God’s grace.
If God is reconciling all things to himself through Jesus Christ, who knows what goes on deep in the hearts of those who don’t seem to believe in it? Who knows what God might do in dying people’s hearts? Who knows what God may be doing in the hearts of people who have never ever heard of Jesus Christ?
Larry Taunton wrote a book entitled, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. The title seems like an oxymoron because Hitchens was one of the 20th century’s most notorious atheists. He once wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him will believeth in anything” and called it “Hitchens 3:16.”
In the April, 2016 “Books and Culture” Douglas Wilson gives a glowing review of Taunton’s book about Hitchens’s faith. Wilson had come to know Hitchens fairly well through a series of debates with him about Christianity. Wilson says when he learned Hitchens was dying of cancer, Wilson sent him an email with a lengthy attachment. In it, says Wilson, “I laid out the gospel as plainly as I knew how, addressed to him personally, in his condition.”
Wilson then concludes his review by writing, “No one is saved because we think it would be grand if they were. Good wishes and pious guesses cannot cleanse what only the blood of Christ can cleanse … but from my interactions with Christopher, I did know it was quite possible I had an attentive audience. From Larry Taunton’s book I have received the additional encouragement of knowing that the audience was clearly more attentive than I knew.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 21, 2019
Colossians 1:15-28 Commentary