Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 17, 2022
Colossians 1:15-28 Commentary
“Sedition” and “seditious” are concepts to which at least some Americans have paid a lot of attention over the past eighteen months. Some are asking themselves and each other whether a mob’s January 6, 2021’s storming of the United States Capital building was an act of sedition. At least some Americans who wonder that also wonder if then-President Trump’s actions (or inaction) were seditious.
This discussion has sent at least some legal experts scurrying to try to define “sedition.” All largely agree that sedition is the incitement of violence, rebellion against or even the overthrow of, in the case of the United States, the American government. Where at least some experts disagree is the role the use of force plays in the concept of sedition.
Biblical scholar Brian J. Walsh (to whose commentary I owe some of the structure and ideas for this commentary) calls this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson a poem of “jaw-dropping … sedition.” In doing so, he’s making a bold claim for it. Walsh, in fact, insists that read in the context of the Roman imperial imagination, it “engenders a seditious imagination.”
That seditious provocation, however, shouldn’t surprise Colossians 1’s proclaimers and readers. While the Romans who ruled over the Colossians considered most of them Roman citizens, Paul addresses them as the “holy and faithful brothers [and sisters] in Christ” (1). While the Roman Empire believed Colossae’s Christians belonged to Rome, the apostle asserts that they belong to Jesus Christ. They may be Romans. But they are, first, Christians.
The situation has changed only slightly for Paul’s 21st century readers. We are of American, Canadians, British, Australian, South African, or any number of countless nationalities. But Jesus Christ’s friends, first, belong to Jesus. While our governments, employers and numerous others may consider us to be theirs, the God of heaven and earth considers us to be the Lord’s.
When Jesus’ followers are honest with ourselves, each other, and God, we must admit that we sometimes confuse our identities. At least some of us more readily and publicly identify ourselves as, for example, Nigerian, Conservative, heterosexual or single before we self-identify as Christian.
Is it fair, then, to wonder if the leap from identity to loyalty is a short one? If our ultimate loyalty to, for example, our political party is a nearby neighbor of our political identification? The imagery Paul uses in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson at least suggests that his Colossian readers didn’t think the jump from identity to ultimate loyalty is a particularly long or even new jump.
Where, then, does Paul insist that Christians’ identity that leads to loyalty lies? In, among other things, Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (15). Of course, images of Rome’s Caesar dotted the Empire’s landscape. Among other things, those images reminded people, especially those who lived far from Rome, of just who was in charge of every part of their lives.
Against that backdrop, Paul insists that Christ is the image of the invisible God. He is, the apostle asserts, the visible God. So those who wish to know what God is like look first to God’s Son, Jesus Christ. His life, ministry, death, and resurrection served to remind his contemporaries of who was, among other things, in charge of heaven and earth.
People with biblically literate ears may hear in verse 15’s talk about Christ as the image of God echoes of God’s assertion about humanity’s creation in God’s image. Genesis 1:27, after all, reports that God created people in God’s own image. God, in other words, created humans to be God’s image-bearers to, among other things, remind the creation of God’s lordship.
Humanity, however, so deeply blurred that image that it was no longer naturally godly. So God chose to send a God’s only natural Son who bore God’s image and, thus, perfectly reminded the creation of God’s lordship.
But, of course, Paul isn’t done engendering a seditious imagination when he speaks of the Christ as the image of God. By describing Christ as God, the apostle contradicts the Emperor’s claims about himself. Rome’s Caesar, after all, considered himself to be a son of the gods, if not a god himself. As a result, he believed that he deserved his subjects’ veneration, if not worship.
Few modern leaders claim divine status for themselves. But people remain persistently tempted to offer some of them god-like loyalty. Perhaps no realm is more prone to such worship than the political arena. The allegiance some Christians sometimes offer to a particular political party or political figure sometimes wanders dangerously close to worship.
Against that backdrop and subverting such ultimate loyalties, Paul insists that Christ is God. Christ, as a result, deserves humanity’s complete loyalty and worship. Ultimate loyalty to and worship of anyone or thing else is idolatry. All other loyalties and identities are subject to Jesus’ friends loyalty to Christ Jesus.
Yet even after making that assertion, Paul isn’t yet finished subverting society and culture’s loyalties. “All things were created,” he insists in verse 16, “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
No smart person in Rome’s corner of the world dared to challenge its emperor and its authority. The Caesar taught his subjects that he was the source of all the good things they had. Paul, however, insists that the emperor, senators and, in fall, all rulers and authorities were not just created by Christ; they were also created for him.
That means, as Walsh (ibid) continues, “If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, then Caesar isn’t. If Jesus is Lord, then the ‘throne’ of Caesar, the ‘dominion’ of the emperor, the ‘rulers’ that keep the imperial order in place, and the very ‘power’ with which they do so, all become subject to the ‘beloved Son’ (Colossians 1:14) to whom this little community in Colossae have pledged their allegiance. And if it all hangs together — indeed, if all of creation hangs together! — in Jesus, then Caesar is a pretentious usurper!”
A dear friend recently asked me how I would proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. My answer? “Very carefully!” Yet those who proclaim Colossians 1’s seditiousness are perhaps in less danger from their government than from some of their hearers. Particularly when proclaimers start poking around in its political implications.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson presents an opportunity for its proclaimers to explore the nature of not just who Christ is, but also who his friends are in the light of what he has done. It’s perhaps a great chance to think carefully with our hearers about our identity and loyalty.
Yet it’s ironic that God forges that identity through Christ’s “blood shed on the cross” (21). Christ created the Caesar for himself and reigned over him. Yet it was precisely that emperor whose forces, of course, shed Jesus’ blood. The Romans, in fact, dotted their landscape not only with the Caesar’s images, but also with crosses. Both served to remind citizens of the empire that the emperor would tolerate no rebellion against his complete control. Crosses were particularly violent assertions of the Caesar and Rome’s absolute sovereignty.
God, however, says Paul, graciously turned that instrument of torture, humiliation, and domination into the vehicle by which God rescues the world and reconciles both its creatures and it to himself. At Christ’s cross, gall becomes grace. Death becomes victory. God mercifully turns God’s natural enemies into God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In Colossians 1 Paul challenges humanity’s natural identity and loyalties. While that’s in some ways seditious, he doesn’t incite his readers to any form of violence. The apostle, instead, reminds Christians of all times and places that through the cross’s violence, God offers a loving and gracious way forward for God’s dearly beloved people. It’s not the way of any form of violence. It’s, instead, the way of sacrificial and humble service to God and our neighbors.
Seditious people are sometimes quick to accuse others of sedition. On August 23, 1775, Great Britain’s King George III issued “The Proclamation of Rebellion,” officially calling it “A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.” In it he declared that because the American colonies were in “open and avowed rebellion,” Britain’s forces were authorized to do everything they could to put down the Americans’ rebellion.
The Americans, of course, eventually succeeded in rebelling against and overthrowing British rule over them. Yet scarcely 10 years after their successful rebellion, they enacted their own “Alien and Sedition Acts.” Because they worried France would declare war on their fledgling nation, they strictly limited foreign residents of their country’s activities and shrunk freedom of speech and the press.
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