Genesis 1:1-2, 26-31 and Colossians 1:15-29
in conversation with The Universal Christ by Fr. Richard Rohr
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— 23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
When I was a teenager, I wrote letters back and forth for a few years with a friend in Jacksonville, Florida. She’d moved to Mobile for her father’s work when we were in middle school, but her family quickly decided to return to Florida a year later. We kept in touch by long letters, mailed back and forth along I-10, and we always signed them, “In Christ.” I felt untethered for most of my adolescent years until I found my home in the church, and finding friends who also identified primarily by their faith was a lifeline of identity for me.
I’m sure there was a dash of adolescent, evangelical superiority and judgement in that—we are in Christ but they are not in Christ. But I look back on it now and think we were somehow aware that even if we only got to be friends in real life for a year, we could continue to be in each other’s lives because we were in Christ together. There was a location beyond geography in those words. There was an interconnected family beyond family-of-origin in those words.
That language fell away for me in the years that followed because so much of the evangelical language of my adolescent faith became weaponized and coded; all dog whistles for something which was not part of the Jesus I knew. I needed new words, different words, other points of contact that continued my growing rootedness to something large and ancient. But in studying Paul’s letters to the Colossians, I wonder if it’s time to take this one back. We are in Christ even now, and we are bold to claim that location and identity for ourselves.
I’m sure you know the protest song, “Took Back What They Stole From Me,” and have either heard it or sung it—with each verse I took back my dignity, took back my humanity, took back my authority. That song kept looping in my mind as I thought about how often I am tempted to give my faith over to the ones who made something different of it. How often I feel defeated by the enormity of their platform and their microphone. How often I feel like I’ve given them so much of what was once vital and essential and tethering to truth for me. When we study scripture with a historical lens, when we truly study the texts (like much of the Pauline Epistles) that we sometimes dismiss as being too bloody and evangelical and narrow, when we give ourselves to true consideration of the full trajectory of scripture from Genesis to Revelation and we hear in this thoughtful study a word of love to live by, then we are taking back our Christianity. We are marking ourselves as fully in Christ again.
I think of the little silver pitcher my neighbor John keeps on a shelf in his house, one of the few items he salvaged after Katrina. It was tarnished and damaged beyond use. But it had a story for him and deep meaning. So even now he works on that little pitcher, as he has for years, to polish away the stains, buff away the damage, reach a deeper level of silver, bring some of the shine back to the surface. He could have thrown the whole thing out along with everything else those flood waters took. But he knew what was worth the effort of restoration even if it took a lifetime to bring the luster back.
Paul and Timothy are doing some major restoration work when they write this letter “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (v.2). They return again and again to the community’s faith in Christ, their work in Christ, the fruitfulness of their lives in Christ. After a winding introduction comes today’s section which begins, “He is the image of the invisible God.” Canadian Pastor Brian Walsh calls this section of Colossians “a poem of jaw-dropping audacity and sedition.” That is to say, Paul and Timothy are taking something back here. They are grabbing language that has been co-opted by another group and is being misused to control and manipulate. They are reaching for those words and re-purposing them for the way the language was meant to awaken and enliven a people rather than put them in an unquestioning stupor of loyalty. In quick strokes, Paul restores dignity, humanity, authority in Christ.
If you read this magnificent poem about Jesus in the context of the Roman imperial imagination you will see that it engenders a seditious imagination.
In a world in which images of Caesar were ubiquitous Paul writes of Jesus as ‘the image of the invisible God.’ (Colossians 1:15)
In an imperial mythology in which the emperor is nothing less than a ‘son of god’ by virtue of his lineage, Paul says that Christ is ‘the firstborn of all creation’ (Colossians 1:15).
In a culture in which the emperor’s preeminence is embedded, legitimated and defended by socio-economic, political, and military structures, Paul has the audacity to proclaim not only that ‘all things in heaven and on earth were created ... through him and for him ... ‘ but specifically that all ‘thrones,’ ‘dominions,’ ‘rulers,’ and ‘powers’ are subject to his rule (Colossians 1:16)! Because of his resurrection, he is the one who will come to ‘have first place in everything’ (Colossians 1:18).
In the face of an ideology that assumes the exceptionality of Rome as a force of good and order against the barbarian, terrorist chaos that lies at the edges of the empire, Paul says that Christ ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17).
The demythologizing of the empire couldn’t be clearer. 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!
And if that isn’t enough to chew on for a bit, Walsh gives us one more thought to consider, “In an empire that views Rome (or sometimes the emperor himself) as the ‘head’ of the body-politic Paul tells this little community of Jesus followers that Christ ‘is the head of the body, the church’ (Colossians 1:18). Christ, not Rome, not the emperor, is the head, the source, the ruler of the body. But the body isn’t the empire, it is the church! Just as Jesus replaces Caesar, so in this exercise of subversive imagination, does the church (this little community in Colossae and other such marginal communities throughout the empire) replace the empire! I can only imagine how their heads were spinning as they heard this.”
Essentially, Paul is saying that Caesar is playing make-believe and has no real power other than that little matter of temporal, political control. But all the hoopla surrounding him with heavenly, holy language? Nonsense. The holy one is right there in the midst of the people who bear God’s image. The fingerprints of the Divine are all over the ones who are in Christ.
To be in Christ is a location and an identity all at once. To be in Christ placed Caesar under the feet of that little community and took his power away because it was stolen, manipulated power. He was no god. And the blood he shed in the streets was not the blood of his own, personal sacrifice but the blood of those who dared to question him and wouldn’t pledge adequate allegiance to him. Then Paul and Timothy remind the little church that Jesus was willing to submit himself to death in the way Caesar killed so many others. He took back what was being stolen from all kinds of people. And that power in Christ is now theirs.
We may not immediately hear Colossians 1 as poetry, but we often read the poetry of Genesis 1 and hear sacred beauty in being made in the image of God. It’s lovely. It’s beautiful. Let us create them in our image. Male and female God created them. We read that and are warmed by those words because in their familiarity, we domesticate the power of blessing, we sanitize it, make it quite safe and tame. If we hold the Colossians 1 poem in one hand, do we better hear the power in the other? Do we hear the hovering, creating power of Divine imagination now being breathed into the creation? There is power in this image-bearing identity. Christ is the image of the invisible God. Not Caesar. You are created in the image of the invisible God. Not Caesar. You are in Christ. We are in Christ. We are image-bearers in the radical, subversive, seditious imagination of Christ.
“The core message of the incarnation of God in Jesus,” writes Richard Rohr, “is that the Divine Presence is here, in us and in all of creation, and not only ‘over there’ in some far-off realm.” To be in Christ is a location, an identity, and a statement of faith that the very presence of the Divine is right here with us, in us, and in all of creation. Reading Paul’s words to the Colossians about their position in Christ is a statement of spiritual location. As Rohr says, “It is no longer about being correct. It is about being connected. Being in right relationship [reconciled] is much, much better than just trying to be ‘right.’”
This is what we are about here. We are a little community in Christ—that is our location, our identity, our spiritual calling. We are created in the power of God, in the radical identity of Jesus, in the subversive wind of the Spirit. For our community to mark itself in Christ means we are called deeply into this world in a holy, holy way that sets our identity far apart from any empire or any emperor.
Rohr writes, “We cannot jump over this world, or its woundedness, and still try to love God. We must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world. This is the message Christianity was supposed to initiate, proclaim, encourage, and what Jesus modeled.” To be created in the image of God and called to care for that creation requires our deep participation in loving the world and working for its healing. To be positioned in Christ—the one who is the image of the invisible God—requires our deep participation in reshaping and reforming the world in the same ways Jesus did. To bear the fruit of being in Christ means reclaiming practices and words and values and truth that has been weaponized and manipulated as partisan tools rather than healing ways.
You bear this image, my friends. We together are standing in the powerful, holy, subversive presence of the Divine. We are in Christ and called to step into that visible image of the invisible God. This is the Way we are embodying together. Keep walking it with me, friends. We may not get it quite right some of the time, but we are in holy connection as we fumble our way forward, restoring and taking back what has been tarnished and misplaced. This work is hard but good. This work is ours to go together—loving and reconciling all things in creation. In Christ.