Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 24, 2019
Colossians 1:11-20 Commentary
What a weird place to start our lectionary selection for Reign of Christ Sunday and the close of Ordinary Time. We get the last few verses of Paul’s thanksgiving prayer section, then all of the Christ hymn, but not the verses that describe the community’s reconciliation. If it’s “application” that we’re after, wouldn’t verses 21-23 do exceptionally well? It may be worth considering doing a little maneuvering of your pericope.
Nonetheless, verses 11-14 do connect well to the Christ hymn. Paul describes for the people following Jesus in Colossae their personal truth borne out of their experience, then he blows it wide open with the cosmic picture painted in verses 15-20, showing that their story isn’t something “local,” but in fact, this is the story of everything.
This hymn about Jesus Christ tells the whole story of everything: creation, redemption, and consummation (the final reconciliation). This hymn is a summary of the entire Scripture narrative. This hymn is built on what I have heard described as the “bedrocks of praise” in Scripture: God’s creating power and God’s working of salvation. All things point to Christ. It is narrative and metanarrative. It’s everything.
In his commentary, Ben Witherington III says that this hymn—the whole letter to the Colossian Christians really—is what happens when your Christology is “deficient.” Witherington posits that the rest of the letter addresses all of the beliefs and things the Colossae church has done to try to address the gaps and holes left by their deficient Christology on their own, and what Paul offers here in this hymn is the foundation of their much needed theological corrective.
Taking the historical context one step further, in their commentary Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat argue that this hymn is also paramount to treason! Not only was the church’s theology about Christ lacking, but they had a ready made substitute that could easily engulf and control their imagination: that of the Roman Empire and Caesar. Tracing through each line of this great hymn, Walsh and Keesmat lay out how each line challenges how the people have been shaped to see the powers of this world and Paul’s disruption of that view with the supremacy and truth of Christ.
For instance, Caesar’s image was everywhere and he was described as the “Beginning”. Yet here, Paul boldly proclaims that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and not only is he the source of all that is, but everything finds their true purpose and fulfillment in him. Christ is sovereign, not the nation. Christ is sovereign, not the Emperor. Christ is sovereign, not the economy. Christ is sovereign, no one else. And the world would be a better place if we all sought to live within his sovereign will.
Our theology doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and if our view of Christ is too small, then our view of everything else will be too big. It’s fascinating to see how Paul communicates that indirectly in this hymn as compared to the other hymns he shared with communities of faith. Perhaps the most well-known hymn is the one found in Philippians 2. As Witherington points out in his commentary, consider how the hymn in Philippians 2 differs from the one we have before us in Colossians 1. In the Colossian hymn, there is no talk of Christ as servant, humbling himself. No, in this hymn, the cosmic Christ is at center stage, the mighty one whom all other people, places, and things have to thank for even having the chance to exist. Talking about making your view bigger!
Thinking about the inclusion of verses 11-14 in the lectionary selection, then, is it comforting or awe-inspiring, dazzling or fear-inducing, to think that what God has done for you is just a drop in the bucket of who God is? That God would care enough to lift you out of darkness so that you could find your ultimate purpose and end in this earthly life as well as in life eternal, and that God cares just as deeply and widely about EVERY SINGLE THING THAT EXISTS?
Thinking about such things, God gets so much bigger, and everything else gets a little smaller. The dictators and the corrupt politicians get a little smaller when we view their evil deeds as a matter of rebellion from their intended purpose. The diseases and sicknesses that plague us get a little smaller when we consider that our ultimate end is already settled with, through, and in Christ. Every “no” to a dream, a job interview, a hope here on earth is never the last word because we trust that God’s purposes for us will be complete, opening up for us a life, not of closed doors, but of continuously seeking the Lord and his Spirit at work in our midst.
In him, “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” Paul writes. And we are in him. We are saturated in the fullness of God even now while Jesus is in heaven. Because of Jesus Christ, we are connected to this stream of heaven and earth and all things.
I had this teacher in grade two or three who was so excited to go on a mission trip to Mexico. I remember so vividly that we were walking one day at lunch and she dropped an M&M on the ground, getting it covered in dirt. She picked it up, wiped it off and practically yelled, “What do I care?! I’m going to Mexico!” before popping it in her mouth. Her enthusiasm left quite the impression on me because it was so wholehearted. I think it’s the sort of effect we’re meant to experience from this hymn.
In verse 11 Paul prays that the church and its members in Colossae will “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience…” In other words, “may you be able to say ‘What do I care!? I’m in Christ!” once you take a moment to reflect on the MASSIVE, all-encompassing, without end quality that is the glorious power of Jesus Christ. Then, finding yourself in the ever present flow of such power, you’ll fall on your face in praise and thanks for getting to be a part of it, knowing peace—a peace that passes understanding.
There are so many other powers and principalities, images and rulers, trying to be our source, our end, our God. Like the church in Colossae, our national identity seeks to have first place. Our Western consumer culture seeks to have first place. Our families seek to have first place. Yet, they all must become less, our place in them smaller so that we are closer to reality—reality being, of course, that our God is great, greatest, biggest… God and his will are the only things that are forever. That’s what this hymn points us to, and its very existence means that this proclamation means something for our lives today. Most of the things that we think or pretend or play at being “forever” are not truly that. Only God and his designs for eternity are forever. May we confess our sins and find Jesus leading us again out of the darkness of our small-mindedness, into the great and open expanses of the mystery that is life in the light of being in Christ.
Ben Witherington III also notes that this poem or hymn follows a common V structure. What’s interesting, he points out, is that the phrase at the nadir of the V isn’t about Jesus’ death on the cross or even about the resurrection, but about the church. Right smack dab in the middle of this hymn is the line: “he is the head of the body, the church.” What are we to make that our attention is focused on Jesus and his church when every other line pulls our attention bigger and higher and further from ourselves?
The structure gives us the same feeling that the words do: Christ surrounds everything, is before everything, in everything, after and at the end of everything. And everything is in Christ. We look out from within Christ and all we see is other Christ-touched things. And maybe there is comfort for us humans who so easily put ourselves at the center of our universes—that God will let us start there because God is already there, has already been there a long time, and will always be there. In other words, we are not left alone, but if we follow the lines, we’ll find ourselves lifted into something of the grandeur and mystery of the Godhead through Christ.
Walsh and Keesmat write that one of the key things we need as a faith community “is to so immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, so indwell their narrative, be so permeated by their images, that our imagination is transformed according to the image of Christ.” Perhaps this is why Paul’s hymn all about the great Jesus has this line about the church right smack dab in the middle of it: to teach us our place in the grander narrative.
We would like to thank Chelsey Harmon for writing the Epistle sermon commentaries this fall while Doug Bratt has been on sabbatical.
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