God chose to make known [to his saints] how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Dear friends, we are nearing the end of this sermon series called “Building It as We Fly,” in which we have been taking lessons from the founders of the early church as we think about how to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of. One of those founders was the Apostle Paul, and when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus he asked the question, “Who are you, Sir?” In the sermon I preached on that passage I said that in order to do what we are trying to do each of us, and not only Paul, will need to answer that question. I think that’s essential. And when people stand in the baptistery and say, “Jesus is Lord,” they may be letting us know that they have found it. But that’s not the only answer that matters; there is our answer, individually, but there is also the church’s answer, corporately. Along with asking, “Who is Jesus to me?” we need to ask, “Who is Jesus to us?” and in today’s reading from Colossians I think we get an answer to that question.
Paul is writing to Gentiles who have only recently become believers, and apparently they are still trying to figure out what to believe. In their commentary on this letter Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring point out that “On a pastoral level, [Colossians] addresses a serious theological and ethical problem that has gained a foothold among some of the members. Paul calls it a philosophy and a deception with empty promises (2:8). Apparently this ‘heresy’ offers perfection and spiritual fulfillment through a mixture of visions, worship of angelic beings, festivals and rituals based on the calendar, dietary restrictions, and asceticism (2:9-23). For the [people who embraced it], Christ was only the beginning in their movement toward full maturity.”[i]
I can almost hear Paul saying, “What?! Haven’t you heard anything I’ve said? Jesus is all you need!” And so Paul does what Tony Campolo once suggested to a room full of preachers. I was in that room, and Campolo (who is a White sociology professor, but also someone who has learned a great deal from Black preaching) said, “If the sermon isn’t working, and you can tell that people aren’t listening, just start quoting one of the old hymns. Say, ‘I don’t know about you, but…
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand!
That’ll get ‘em going!” So, that’s what Paul does: he starts quoting a hymn that would have been familiar to the church, a hymn about Christ being everything they need. Listen to how many times it refers to “all things”:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.
It’s a good hymn. It’s one of my favorite passages of Scripture in all the Bible.
- I love that line about “the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word is eikon, and if you know anything about Greek icons they are not images that are meant to be worshiped, but something more like windows through which we can catch glimpses of the divine.
- And then the hymn affirms that Christ is the “firstborn of all creation,” and the one in whom “all things were created,” which reminds me of the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the ones that claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
- I also love that line about the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It reminds me of a quote from Marcus Borg, who said that Jesus showed us “what a life full of God looks like.”[ii] Both statements seem to affirm that Jesus was full of God, which may be another way of saying that he was fully God, which is only another way of saying that he was fully divine, at least in my way of reading it.
This hymn makes some audacious claims about Christ, and the Colossians may have had a hard time believing them.
Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells this story from his time in seminary: He says, “In a church history course in my last year at Yale Divinity School, the professor invited an Orthodox priest to lecture. He gave a rather dry talk on the development of the Nicene Creed. At the end of the lecture an earnest student asked, ‘Father Theodore, what can one do when one finds it impossible to affirm certain tenets of the creed?’ The priest looked confused. ‘Well, you just say it. It’s not that hard to master. With a little effort, most can quickly learn it by heart.’ ‘No, you don’t understand,’ continued the student, ‘What am I to do when I have difficulty affirming parts of the creed—like the Virgin Birth?’ The priest continued to look confused. ‘You just say it. Particularly when you have difficulty believing it, you just keep saying it. It will come to you eventually.’ Exasperated, the student pled, ‘How can I with integrity affirm a creed I do not believe?’ ‘It’s not your creed young man!’ said the priest. ‘It’s our creed (meaning the church’s). Keep saying it for heaven’s sake! Eventually, it may come to you…. Even if it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s not your creed.”[iii]
I think that priest would say the same about the Christ hymn in Colossians 1:15-20. Those recent converts to Christianity may have had trouble accepting the idea that Christ was the image of the invisible God, or that he was the One through whom all things were made, or that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. One of them may have said, “I’m not sure I believe everything in that hymn.” If the Orthodox priest had been there he would have said, “It’s not your hymn! It’s the church’s hymn!” and Paul would have agreed. He might have added, “We’re not asking you what you believe; we’re telling you what we believe,”
And that reminds me of the Bible.
When someone reads the Bible from this pulpit on Sunday morning they usually say, “The word of the Lord,” and we say, “Thanks be to God.” But someone visiting with us for the first time might object, “I’m not going to say, ‘Thanks be to God.’ I don’t believe the Bible is the word of the Lord.” To which Paul might reply, “It’s not your book; it’s the church’s book!” And that’s true: we are the ones who love this book, who have embraced this book, who have learned to listen to these ancient words written by primitive people living in faraway places and somehow hear in them the word of the Lord.
I’ve been thinking about it this way recently: If we asked every member of the church to step up to the pulpit and give their testimony, telling us who God was to them and what God had done for them, it would take a long time. But some of them would do such a beautiful job that when they finished everyone would murmur their approval. Some would say things that might sound a little crazy to the rest of us, but we would still listen, politely. Others would focus on only one thing, like the time they asked for healing and received it, while others would speak straight from the heart in a way that moved us to tears. But if we recorded everything they said and published it in a book, it would be a very special book, wouldn’t it? It would be The Testimony of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. We wouldn’t agree with everything that was in it. We would like some entries better than others. But it would be our book, and we would put it in a place of honor, and probably bring it out and read from it on special occasions.
Now imagine that we had the written testimony of our founders, the fourteen people who gathered for a prayer meeting in June, 1780, under the leadership of the Reverend Joshua Morris. Don’t you think that on Founder’s Day we might bring that book out of the archives and blow the dust off the cover and read for ourselves once again what those founders had said about who God was to them and what he had done for them? And then imagine that we had a book that dated all the way back to that time when the ancient Hebrews were beginning to bear witness to who God was and what God had done. Imagine if someone had written down those words and we had a book full of their testimony. Wouldn’t that be special? Well, we do have a book like that, and we call it the Bible.
It’s not a book that was written by God and dropped down from heaven; it is the inspired testimony of God’s people through the ages, lovingly collected and preserved in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. It is a chorus of praise to who God is and what God has done in the lives of his people. And yes, when we read it, we like some parts better than others. Some parts are beautiful and poetic; some parts sound a little crazy; some parts take your breath away while other parts bring tears to your eyes. But if anyone ever dared to say something disrespectful about the Bible we might say, “Hey! It’s not your book. It’s our book!”
And it’s not the only book we have. If you are here in the sanctuary and if you look in the pew rack in front of you, you will find a copy of our hymn book. We don’t look at it in the same way we look at the Bible; we don’t make any claims about its inspiration or authority. But through the centuries thousands of hymns have been written by people who offered up their creative and musical genius in a chorus of praise to God. And people who know something about these things have gathered up the best of them and put them in this book. It may not be your favorite book, and some of the hymns we sing on Sunday may not be your favorite hymns, but every once in a while everything comes together, and there you are standing in a packed sanctuary on Easter Sunday singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at the top of your lungs and wow, just wow! Right? You can feel it in your chest. And even if you are not one hundred percent sure about the Doctrine of the Resurrection it doesn’t matter, because it’s not your belief, it’s the church’s belief.
So, here is this ancient hymn, embedded in the first chapter of Colossians, a hymn that affirms the church’s belief in Christ as the image of the invisible God, the One by whom all things were made and through whom all things are being reconciled. “Christ,” Paul says, “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” If you have trouble believing it, don’t worry. It’s not your hymn; it’s the church’s hymn.
I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say in all of this: that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will have to know who he is to us, individually, but we will also have to know who he is to us, corporately. And the church’s confession of faith may not be the same as our confession of faith. It may be bigger than ours—bolder. It may stand on the shoulders of those spiritual giants who went before us, and while they were willing to shout their beliefs we may only be able to whisper. But as that Orthodox priest might say, “Don’t give up. Just keep saying it. You’ll get the hang of it eventually.” And he may be right. If we can just keep lifting up the testimony of the church through its scripture, its hymns, through its fearless confessions of faith, we may find that we come to a place where it isn’t only the church’s testimony, but ours as well; a place where we can say it and mean it with all our heart.
It’s not in the passage we read today, but in Colossians 1:27 Paul talks about “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I love that line. I love it so much I named the sermon after it and then just never got to it. But I’ve been thinking about it, and only yesterday I pictured God pouring himself into Christ like water into a glass, until all that glorious fullness overflows the glass and runs down the sides. But I also pictured the glass sitting in a bowl, and that’s the church, and all of the glorious fullness that is in Christ fills up the bowl that is the church until the bowl begins to overflow onto the world around it. That is, we have Christ in us—the one who is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell—and we have so much of Christ in us that it overflows onto the world around us, or at least it should. And maybe that’s the hope of glory. Maybe it’s not our hope but the world’s hope. Maybe the world is hoping for a taste of the glory of God, spilling over and out of a church that simply cannot stop loving him, and believing in him, and singing his praises, both now and forever.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).
[ii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.
[iii] William H. Willimon, in an article in The Christian Century, February 7–14, 1996, p. 137.