Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (21 July 2019) by The Reverend Dr Calvin Samuel
Whenever studying any book of the bible, it’s important to pay close attention to beginnings and endings because often in those places crucial
themes and strands of the plot are laid out, which are developed elsewhere in the book. I find it frustrating to miss the first few moments of
a film, for example, because so often the introductory scenes set up the plot for the rest of the film. So if you miss those crucial scenes you
struggle to make best sense of the rest of the film.
The writer of Colossians is doing a similar thing in this first chapter; the scene is being set. From v15-20, we encounter the so-called Colossian hymn. It’s referred to as a hymn not in the sense of something to be sung, but closer akin to traditional Methodist usage of hymnody, that is, a densely packed set of theological statements, often with a rhythmic pattern. A hymn in this sense is closer to what we mean when we say creed, an affirmation of our core beliefs. Scholars are unclear as to whether this material is composed by the writer of Colossians or whether it is an older stream of material, perhaps an early creed, which both writer and recipients affirm. What is clear, however, is that these few verses are packed full of incredible affirmations about the person of Christ.
The Colossian hymn declares that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. That’s a great turn of phrase, isn't it? Christ is the image of the invisible; he makes visible the invisible, not like a picture, for a two-dimensional image can’t quite capture the reality. Nor is it a 3-dimensional image such as a scale model, a sculpture or even a waxworks from Madam Tussauds; no matter how accurate or lifelike they may be, such images fall short of what Colossians has in mind. v19 gives a clearer indication of what Colossians means: in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. That phrase, all the fullness, is quite emphatic. To say the fullness of God would have been sufficient. To say all the fullness of God, is to emphasise that all that God is, whatever that might include, is to be found in Jesus Christ. Christ makes visible the invisible; for all that God is dwells in him. This is a profound statement of incarnation, our fundamental Christian belief that God became human in Christ Jesus, and in so doing became what we are in order to make us what he is.
Colossians goes on to describes the Christ as the first born of all creation. That’s not to suggest for a moment that Christ is himself created, but rather that all things are created in Christ, through Christ and for Christ. The language here echoes the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him…. “ However, again the description is emphatic. Whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, rulers or powers, all things have been created in and for Jesus Christ. And in him all things hold together. If that’s true it also means that without him everything falls apart. I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life.
The punch line comes in v20: through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Colossians paints a picture of redemption that is on an epic, indeed a cosmic scale. The Colossian Christians, it would seem, were perhaps in danger of making their God too small, in danger, perhaps, of thinking of redemption in personal rather than cosmic terms, in danger of overestimating their own role in redemption and thus underestimating the reckless abundance of God’s grace, which reaches to all creation, human and non human alike. By pointing them to the supremacy of Christ and reminding them that it is through the blood of that same Christ that God is pleased to reconcile all things to God, the letter to Colossians lifts their gaze and ours and invites us to focus on the one who is all in all.
This is a reminder we would do well to heed; we too are often guilty of making our God too small, guilty of thinking of redemption in primarily personal rather than cosmic terms, guilty of thinking and speaking of mission in terms of human response rather than the abundant generosity of divine grace.
The writer to the Colossians is not content simply to remind them and us of the supremacy of Christ. What he really wants to go on to is to point to the implications of the death and resurrection of this supreme Christ. You who were once estranged and hostile in mind, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. The point of our salvation is reconciliation and sanctification. Put another way the destination, the end point, the telos, of salvation in Christ is not that we believe the right things, not even so much that we do the right things but rather that we become the right thing, people reconciled with God and presented as holy, blameless and irreproachable. The good news of the gospel is that whoever we have been in the past sets no limit on who and what we can become. For in Christ and through Christ we can be transformed, reconciled and presented as holy and blameless, whatever our past or present may be.
Last week The Church Times quoted Jeremy Hunt, one of our two Prime Ministerial candidates, as saying the following. “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” For your sake I hope he is wrong; I hope he’s not at all like regular Church of England folk.
If it’s indeed true that in Christ all things hold together, and that without him everything falls apart, true that thrones, dominions, rulers and
powers are created in him then it stands to reason that this world, in our choices, service to God, and to others, is the appropriate arena in
which we express our devotion to God. God is not remote from our world, our choices, our values or our politics. Rather we serve God by the choices
we make in the everyday. In a week when we expect the announcement of our next Prime Minister and when our future relationship with Europe remains
to be negotiated we desperately need a reconnection between our politics and our faith in the everyday.
In our gospel lesson we’re introduced to two examples of women who sought to express their devotion to Christ in the everyday. Luke in unpacking what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind portrays Jesus relying on the hospitality of two women. One of them, Martha, is his host. Indeed, it’s likely that Martha was host not only for Jesus but also for his disciples as well. This is quite a radical picture in a patriarchal society.
Martha expresses her devotion to Christ by her generous hospitality. She wants to do something for Jesus. If you asked Martha, How do you express devotion to God? She would say: Acts of service. Mary, on the other hand, expressed her devotion to Christ by sitting at the feet of Jesus. She doesn't want to do something for Jesus. She gives him her undivided attention. If you asked Mary, How do you express devotion to God? She would say: Give him yourself.
Too often we Christians choose one sister over the other and tragically have often chosen Mary, the path of contemplation, over Martha, the path of active service. In fact both of these are required expressions of divine love. If you did things for the people you love but never spent any time with them that would not end well. And if you spent time in loving contemplation of your beloved but never took action, just as faith without works is dead, so too is love. Love requires expression, not only by grandiose acts but also in the everyday.
So what might it mean to love Christ in the everyday with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, who is the image of the invisible God; in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, in whom all things hold together; meaning that without him everything falls apart? What does it mean, I wonder, to love that Christ?
Moreover, I wonder whether that is indeed the Christ whom we worship both through our acts of service and our contemplation? Or is our God too small? Too small for the complexities of our world and our politics? Too small for the challenges and ugly realities of our broken relationships?Too small for the problems facing the local churches and communities, whether climate change, economic inequality, or knife crime? And therefore we keep that God in a nice contained and safe space called Sunday Worship?
If that’s where you find yourself today, may these words of Colossians arrest you, speak to you afresh, and remind you of the supremacy of the One in whom we find salvation, in whom all things hold together, and who calls us to love in the everyday, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.