A sermon on Colossians 1:15-29
Our first text this morning was the prophet Amos’s warning to the people of the Northern kingdom of a divided Israel. We think it came shortly before they fell victim to the Assyrian empire – because, they ignore Amos’s warning – that their predatory business practices, their oppression of the poor, and their indifference to God is all going to culminate in what is the worst outcome imaginable, a famine of the word of God. Warning that they’ve distanced themselves from God so long, they’ve said “keep your warnings, we don’t want to hear any of that,” God finally says, OK, I’ll give you what you’ve asked for … but you won’t like it.
That prospect, and that warning, is a stark contrast with our second text, which is almost a direct reversal of the first. It comes from the letter to the early gentile Christian church at Colossae, which was a city in what today we think of as Turkey. The Apostle Paul – I’ll say, though there’s some question about that – is reaching out to this church out of concern about some confused teaching and some faddish spiritual practices that we gather from the letter itself are making the rounds at this time. In the process of addressing those, he lays out some of his own brilliantly hopeful theology, which begins with the author’s strong statement about Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, we’ll notice several ways this part of the letter to the Colossians reverses the picture we got from Amos.
The ancient Israelites were busy turning away from God, while these Colossians have just back turned towards God.
The prophet Amos is warning about a “famine of the word of God” – that’s the real disaster, the climax of his warning. While Paul is offering just the opposite of a famine, rather a feast of the Word of God; he says his task is to fill up or pack in or, literally, “cram full” that Word – imagine a refrigerator just before a big party, full to overflowing with good stuff.
And what’s ultimately being filled up here is hope. Because Paul reminds the Colossians, and us, that having the word of God in them – having Christ in them – is hope. Sharing the life of Christ – which we do – is exactly what gives us hope.
Again, just the reverse of the prophet Amos’s message, because the people who turn a deaf ear to Amos won’t have much to hope for. How can they? When hope comes from listening to the living God, and these people are doing everything they can to shut God out.
Sadly, they are so exclusively focused on their narrow short-term “self-interest” – their business, their profits, their luxuries, never mind what it costs anyone else, never mind what the poor and needy suffer – it’s as if they have blinders on. The prophet Amos challenges that narrow, narcissistic human perspective.
Paul, in contrast, opens things up as wide as possible, to Christ’s cosmic perspective. Here’s a vision of Christ, of the Word of God, as vast as “all creation” – Jesus Christ is the firstborn of all creation, the maker of all things, the heavens and the earth, things visible and invisible, a divine project of immense, vast scope … God’s massive project of the reconciliation of all things. That’s what the Colossians have become part of when they turned towards the living God they’ve met in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s no coincidence that Paul uses the words for “fullness” and “filling” over and over again in this text. He’s trying to get across to these Colossians how big this divine project is, how much hope it contains, how much they have to look forward to … what God is doing in Christ, through Christ, which includes the church, Christ’s body in the flesh, is enormous … Paul wants the Colossians to think big.
Cosmically big. Which as we keep learning about creation, keeps getting bigger.
Has anyone has been looking at the images from the James Webb Space Telescope this week?! The canyons and the baby stars and the galaxies being born and how MANY there are … ?
They are online, at NASA, and they are literally astronomical, as well as amazing, and relevant … because when Paul says Christ is the firstborn of all creation, that all creation holds together in Christ … we are in a position to recognize that’s what he’s talking about, that scale, that immense reality, which is simultaneously minutely detailed down to the level of molecules … we can see that in a way Paul himself may not even have seen – although Paul was a mystic, so I wouldn’t lay bets on that, but certainly better than the Colossians themselves could have seen or imagined, and better than we ourselves could have imagined, before this past Monday.
This perspective reminds us that we are far from “knowing all the answers,” from being able to “explain everything,” because even when it comes to the visible creation, we are still learning.
But even if we are far from seeing where exactly all this fullness of the word of God is going, we can know that it is good, because God is good.
And we know that it includes us. Paul is working hard to inform the Colossians’ faith – and our faith – in the larger creative purpose of the ongoing life of Christ – Christ’s body, Christ’s church, that we’re participating in. The larger reality of the church, and the smaller reality of our particular congregations, and the even more intimate reality of our individual lives as members of these congregations, is all going somewhere, glorious. That Christ, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn of the dead who are to receive new life, the image of the invisible God, the master creator of time and space and reality and everything, has an ultimate vision and purpose that all this is on the way to fulfilling – to filling up, as it were, to use the language of this letter.
Because we are still living out the life of Christ’s body here on earth, as part of this large project. This seems to be the main point Paul is trying so hard to make. That his life, and the Colossians’ lives, and by implication our lives, as members of Christ’s church, are for the benefit of this great work – one we don’t begin to see the end of. We are servants of a genuinely cosmic work – are vital components of it, however tiny our lives might appear to us sometimes.
For Paul, being Christian means to be sharing, really, sharing, the life of Christ. We are “in Christ,” Paul uses that language a lot, and at the same time, Christ is “in” us. The life we have in us is Christ’s life. We often talk in church about how Christ comes into the world and shares our human kind of life with us, becomes flesh and blood; we don’t always recognize that the flip side of that, the implication, which Paul is emphasizing here, is that we are sharing Christ’s life. We are living that same kind of life human life Jesus was living …
As soon as we say that, we know it has to be true. Of course, it’s obvious. We’re living the same kind of human life Jesus lived … and we’re growing into living it, we hope, the same way Jesus lived his individual human life, in the sense that we are working towards and growing towards and learning towards living our human kinds of lives led by the Spirit of God, in complete fidelity to God’s Word …
But Jesus’ human life also included a lot of suffering. And that brings us back to that almost off-hand comment Paul makes about sufferings, and about rejoicing in sufferings, and about filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions “for the sake of the body.”
It’s an astonishing statement, and a potentially really confusing one, and I can just hear the voice of my seminary professors in my ear, like the prophet Amos, warning us about all the ways we could take that statement so SO wrong.
Because human suffering is real – I know I don’t need to tell anyone here that. People in this congregation are going through a lot.
It isn’t something to minimize, or to pretend away, with some pious platitude or some prettified meme with hearts and flowers and a Bible verse. Pain and loss and illness and struggle are real, and significant, and unpleasant, and I think we get to say, too, that they are not what God prefers for humanity. Even Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as we well know, faced suffering with a very clear human preference for not having to experience that.
So when Paul says he rejoices in sufferings, we mustn’t think he is treating sufferings as no big deal. Or as something he’s actively seeking out – except – in the sense that, because of his commitment to Christ and to the church, and because of the choices that commitment demands, and the consequences of those choices in the world he lives in, there are some sufferings he’s accepting rather than avoiding, that he’s walking right in to. Exactly as Jesus did: because he lived his life in this world the way he did, there were consequences, and they included suffering that came from the demonic way the society and the state treated people like him – aside from the vulnerabilities of just being in a human body.
Paul is NOT saying that Jesus’ atoning work on the cross was incomplete, either. He has already said, right here, that God has reconciled the world through the blood of Christ’s cross. That work has been done. Paul knows that. The Colossians need to know that. We need to know that.
Instead, what Paul seems to mean is that, as complete as Christ’s work on the cross is, there is some other, ongoing aspect of this whole big creative, redemptive, cosmic project – of which Christ is the firstborn, and of which the church is the body, and of which Paul is a servant. And in this project of reconciling all things, and of overcoming sin and death, and of revealing the full mystery of the word of God … we are still subject to all the consequences of sharing the life of that Word made flesh, the real human in-the-body life of Jesus Christ – and those consequences include suffering, that comes with life in this body in this world.
Sufferings come with “being here.” Being here, living the life people live, in the flesh, as part of the church, for the sake of Christ’s big project. The project is full of hope – but at present, suffering is still part of it. It comes with the territory.
It’s like living on the edge of a tectonic plate, where the earth’s crust is actively under construction, so there’s a lot of seismic activity – there are bound to be earthquakes.
I grew up in southern California, so that example comes right to mind; because anyone who lives in southern California gets to have some experience with earthquakes; most of the time they’re only minor, although even a minor earthquake is really noticeable – and sometimes they’re massive and devastating … and they come with the territory, it’s where we live.
The Colossians, as a matter of fact, lived in a place like that. According to Wikipedia, “Turkey is a seismically active area within the complex zone of collision between the Eurasian Plate and both the African and Arabian Plates.” And … “there is a significant risk of damaging earthquakes almost anywhere in the country.” (Wikipedia, “List of Earthquakes in Turkey,” 07-14-22)
In fact, people used to think that the city of Colossae had been completely destroyed by an earthquake shortly after this letter was written. The archaeologists don’t think that any more – but we should probably recognize that Paul would have been writing to people who had personal experience of that kind of thing, and some experience of what it would have meant to rebuild, and to live in territory that is subject to that kind of shaking, and the suffering that goes with it.
Sufferings come with the territory of the life of the body of Christ – Christ, who died on a Roman cross. They come with the territory of our broken and sinful world; a world made by people who are doing their best to ignore the word of God, so they can keep selling the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals; with the territory of a creation that has been twisted by sin and corrupted by death in ways visible and invisible, that God has redeemed and reconciled, and is patiently working to repair; and the territory of our created physical bodies within that long-suffering environment; and most of all, with the territory of love and care for one another in a place and time that is still subject to all those shocks and losses, so that what others go through, and what happens to our relationships in the process, hits us hard.
Paul is not saying that suffering is good in itself; he’s not saying we should minimize it, or pretend we don’t care about it, or even, God forbid, embrace it as some kind of Christian virtue.
What I think he is saying is that he regards the suffering he’s going through as part of sharing, mysteriously, in Christ’s life, in the body, and in that big project that’s still underway. And as far as we can see, as long as Christ’s body, the church, is still working out the details of this massive project, there are bound to be earthquakes. So, Paul says, OK – because in Christ, and in the knowledge of Christ in me, I know where this is going: this is going to the reconciliation of all things, this is going to the unimaginable riches of God’s glory, and that is something to look forward to. Whatever you’re going through, know that you’re sharing Christ’s life, and know Christ in you for the hope it is. Let that Word, and its hope, fill you up, he tells the Colossians. And also, us.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; Remains of the ancient city of Colossae, with sheep, near Denizli, Turkey, A.Savin (WikiCommons), FAL, via Wikimedia Commons