04 March 2011
When strangers figure out that I’m a pastor it can at times lead to some pretty strange conversations. Sometimes when the a-haa moment comes I can see the gears turning in their minds as they try to figure out if they’ve said anything that might offend me. Because, as you know, ministers are delicate -- easily offended by bad language and contrary ideas. And most people, even strangers, want you to think highly of them.
But not everyone is so reserved. I sat next to a man from India on a plane once -- a software engineer of some sort. And as soon as he figured out what I did he launched into a diatribe on why he was mad at religion and Christianity in particular.
It seems that while everything else in the world has evolved and moved to a higher level Christianity, however, has not changed enough. At first I thought he was talking about social issues but eventually I figured out that he was talking cosmically. We have not reached a high enough plane of existence.
So, I gently explained that from our perspective Christ is already the highest and most supreme and that there is no existence higher than being in him.
And, of course, he was suddenly moved to tears and asked if he could pray to receive Christ before the plane landed.
Well... that’s not exactly what happened. The fact is, he wouldn’t buy any of it.
I suppose that I didn’t do a very good job of explaining it. Or maybe he was so committed to this hypothesis that he had created -- and that’s what he called it -- hypothesis -- that he couldn’t budge in his thinking.
Another time I got talking to a woman, an American -- who spoke English as her first language -- when she figured out that I was a pastor she promptly told me that she never went to church because they always sang hymns and never any hers.
She must have noted the confusion and shock on my face because she felt compelled to enlighten me. “You know, those songs you sing are always hymns but I’ve never been to a church which sang hers.”
And to this day, I don’t know if she was playing me with an incredibly straight face or if she has somehow managed to drop out of school midway through the third grade.
How do you respond to something like that?
If I remember right I explained that hymns are a particular style of music and that it was spelled H-Y-M-N-S not H-I-M-S. I must not be very persuasive because she didn’t buy it.
I bring these two stories up because they’re both in a round about way connected to our passage this morning -- Colossians 1:15-20.
Last Sunday we ended on a high note -- in spite of the tragedy – the pain and the suffering in the world. The good news is that through the rescue mission of Jesus we've been freed and given a vault full of hope on deposit in a place where earthquakes, political turmoil, spirits, diseases, disasters, kidnappers can't touch it.
Or as verses 13-14 put it,
“He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.”That astonishing thought triggers Paul to break out in song -- or at least to quote one. And most scholars would more or less agree that verses 15-20 are an ancient Christian hymn that Paul sees as extremely applicable to the moment and he applies it to the Colossian situation.
The early Christians sang hymns -- or might we say chanted, because that is what a lot of ancient music would have sounded like -- at least to our ears.
And contrary to popular opinion today they were not simple kumbaya choruses which later evolved into sophisticated songs.
And, so the argument goes, if we get back to the simple choruses we’ll get back to the original way of doing things.
Now, I’m not saying that simple songs and choruses led by guitars and if you’re fortunate enough, ukuleles, are bad or second rate. But we shouldn’t read our preferences and styles back into history.
I get a kick out of some of the Messianic musicians who say that they are going back to the Jewish roots of the church. I like their music but the rhythms, tones, and sounds which we currently identify as sounding “Jewish” -- are very similar to Slavic and Gypsy music and didn’t start to emerge in the European Jewish communities until the 15th century -- 600 years ago.
But 2,000 years ago there was a Jewish tradition of hymns or psalms of praise that were already well developed at the time -- and the early church was originally a radical sect within Judaism so there is a lot of overlap in worship practice.
Perhaps you recall that in the gospel accounts of the Last Supper or last Passover, at the conclusion of the meal they sang a hymn. Mark 14:26 -- “Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.”
In Philippians 2:6-11 there is another hymn. Similar in structure to our Colossian passage this morning, these two songs are prime examples of the early Christian hymnology that had already emerged by AD 60.
While there was lots of room for the uneducated and uncouth in the early church -- the church itself already had a certain sophistication in its theological discourse, liturgy, and hymnody.
These were intelligent people writing deep and thoughtful prose and music to praise God. But in contrast to the mainstream Jewish music, Jesus is very much the focal point of the praise and adoration.
Now, lest you have this image of a bunch of nice but stuffy Christians standing in pews singing old platitudes and nice sounding religious words about Jesus -- I should probably tell you that this hymn would have probably been considered subversive and a disturbance of the peace by the Roman authorities. Christian hymns were not only praise songs but they were also PROTEST SONGS. To protest is to make a statement of belief -- often contrary to the established opinion. More about that in a moment.
The hymn that Paul quotes (or possibly writes -- we can’t know for sure -- only that it is in hymn form)... The hymn can be divided into three strophes or sections -- at least in terms of grammar and technical construction. But for the sake of clarity I’ve actually divided it into five thematic sections.
The first I’ve labeled, THE SON -- SUPREME (15)
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation...”
The Son is Jesus -- the subject of the conversation. He’s the image of the invisible God. That is, he is God made visible.
NT scholar FF Bruce wrote --
“To call Christ the image of God is to say that in him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested — that in him the invisible has become visible.”But more than that. In Genesis to be in the image of God is to have the authority and responsibility of God. To be in the image is to be a steward for that person.
For example, in Genesis 1:26 we read,
“Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”And as Paul said back in Colossians 1:15 the Son “is first (or first born) over all creation...”
Over all that is created, the Son is the chief -- the head honcho -- the big cheese -- the Supreme.
Now, this is where things get controversial. Have you ever managed to say something that pretty much offended everyone? It’s an art -- isn’t it? But Colossians 1:15 would have riled up pretty much everyone.
To the Jewish ear it would have sounded like the hymn was claiming special divine authority for Jesus. How could that be since everyone knew that he had been crucified -- death in a shameful manner.
To the Roman ear only the Emperor Cesar was supreme. Cesar is chief over all the world and all people. “Hail Cesar.”
To the rabble-rousers who had managed to get a hearing in the churches in that area -- with their mixture of pop Gnosticism and spiritual elitism -- it was a slap in the face.
Reading between the lines, it appears that they’d infiltrated the church with all their charts and diagrams showing the hierarchy of spirits, angels, powers, and divine beings. And apparently Jesus the Son didn’t have a top dog spot.
So to say that the Son is first -- #1 -- would not have set well with them.
Paul, in quoting this hymn, is challenging pretty much everyone to rethink their understanding of who Jesus is. Maybe he’s even challenging you to rethink your understanding.
Secondly, the Son is THE CREATOR -- WORTHY OF ALL HOMAGE (16)
Vs. 16 -- Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.The screws are tightening. Jesus the Son of God IS God the creator. All things were created by him -- not just in some abstract theological system on someone’s chart but everything in heaven and earth -- implying everything in between, too.
All powers -- whether they are spiritual dominions or some sort or earthly rulers -- including Cesar and his power-hungry underlings -- owe their existence to the Son. That puts them in place.
“...all things were created through him and....” Grab this -- “for him.”
That is, to serve him and advance his agenda.
We live in a time and place where there is a lot of struggle and tension between the individual and society -- specifically government. Some come down on the side of declaring that the rights of the individual should reign supreme -- but of course, within boundaries.
Others would argue that the needs of the society as a whole should be the supreme final word -- but of course, within boundaries.
However, if we take the hymn seriously, our primary allegiance is neither to the individual nor society but to the Son. For everything that has been created has been created through him -- and for him.
By the way, and this is a little bunny trail, some of the ancient Jewish rabbi’s explicitly stated that creation existed for the Messiah. We tend to think of it as the opposite. The Messiah came into action because such was needed by creation. But the rabbis saw creation as existing for the Messiah.
And when the hymn -- and Paul -- say that the “all things were created through and for him” they are making a messianic statement about Jesus -- Jesus is the expected Messiah -- the Christ. And at the same time they are refocusing our attention away from ourselves and our needs and onto Jesus -- his goals, purposes, and agenda.
Thirdly, THE SON IS THE PRE-EXISTING GOD WHO HOLDS IT ALL TOGETHER. (17)
Verse 17 is an expansion and elaboration on the idea of the Son as creator. He is that, but he is so much more. He is still involved. He is not the absentee cosmic landlord.
“He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him.”
“Well, does the whole idea of a pre-existing son who holds things together really make any difference -- hey, really, practically speaking?”
It certainly does if you are trying to show that Jesus is the supreme -- and he’s not at all aloof like the Roman gods or the pop gnosticism which denied the value of the material world.
Think of it this way -- if your god is distant and uninvolved you can trash the creation and treat people like trash. You can do anything you want because your god is apathetic and impotent. So why bother?
Fourth THE SON IS THE FIRST IN THE CHURCH -- THE TRAILBLAZER OF RESURRECTION. (18)
Vs. 18 --
“He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything.”
- Head of the body.
- The beginning.
- The first of the dead to overcome death.
We hear a lot about occupying these days...
- Occupy Wall Street.
- Occupy Phoenix.
- Occupy Sesame Street.
When the Son came to occupy earth -- God in the flesh -- he didn’t come because he was mad at the world or because he wanted to force necessary change upon us.
But his occupation was about death and sacrifice -- so that he might be raised from death -- breaking the back of death -- and in doing so he might force Satan and his cosmic powers to begin to relinquish their grip on the world. And in doing so he came to occupy the first place in the church -- the new creation.
So, Jesus the Son, is the first in everything. And that means he is also the first in peace. That’s #5.
THE SON IS THE DIVINE RECONCILER -- THE FIRST IN PEACE. (19-20)
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, 20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him— whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.That is, through the life -- the blood that Christ shed when he died on the cross he somehow brought the ultimate peace and reconciliation into the world.
FF Bruce again, “Christ is the One and all-sufficient Intermediary between God and the world of humanity...”
God reconciled all things to himself through Jesus the Son -- whether on earth or the cosmic powers in the heavens -- peace has come. Jesus is the first in peace.
And if that’s the case -- none of the other nonsense which people were trying to introduce into the church -- was necessary. If Christ is first and supreme -- no add-ons, additional plug-ins, apps or updates are necessary.
We will unpack this some more as we move through Colossians but for now it is enough to say that all that is needed is in Christ alone.
Here is the key point: Christ alone is the all-sufficient supreme over all that is and we join in the song of praise by acknowledging him in all that we do and are.
Now, I know that all of this sounds a bit heady and esoteric in a world obsessed with immediate practicality. So let me put it to you in slightly more practical terms.
Whether you are a hymn or a her, if you want to be on board with what God is doing in his world, recognize Christ as the #1 voice in the choir and follow him in whatever he sings.
Or even more simply -- live for him and him alone. For as the Hawaii Pigin translation of 1:18 puts it -- “he da numba one guy fo everyting.”
Let’s join together in affirming our faith using the words of Colossians 1:15-20 -- this time from the Message version.
I want us to do this in a reading choir style. If you are on this side of the room please read the blue print. If you are on the other side the black print. If you are color blind read it all. I will read with both sides of the room.
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God's original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment.
And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he's there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.
Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.