Rocherty UMC July 21st, 2019
Colossians 1:15-28: Jesus, Over All
Sermon Manuscript
         Have you ever heard of the acronym “K.I.S.S.?” K.I.S.S—do you know what it stands for? I see some of you are nodding your heads, while others of you are giving me a knowing smile.  Well, “K.I.S.S.” stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”  Well, as I was preparing for this morning’s sermon, I was reminded of this simple, if slightly rude, acronym.
         You see, I like to be really careful when I speak about a passage of the Bible to make sure that people understand it… so I take time to connect with our modern struggles or every-day lives. I like to teach the Bible stories by teaching historical culture, and by trying to match what I can to the things you already know.  Today, as you might have picked up in the reading of the text, we’re dealing with a different kind of biblical literature.  So lets talk about literature, and I’ll give you some of those “connect with life” moments along the way.
The Letters of Paul
         If you recall the last two sermons I preached, remember that they were on two “narrative” portions of the Bible.  The word “narrative” is a fancy word that Bible scholars use to describe those portions of the Bible that tell a story.  Just remember “narrative” sounds like “narrator”, which is a person who tells the story – and the narrative is the story. For instance, we’ve touched on parts of the story of Abraham in Genesis and a portion of the Jesus narrative in Luke’s Gospel.
         But the Bible is made up of many different types of literature.  Scholars call these different types “genres.”  A genre is a specific type of literature that has key identifying characteristics.  For instance the genre of historical fiction means you will find major historical moments described with the liberty of filling in possible personal details; the genre of fantasy will include magical creatures, rare abilities, and idyllic places; the genre of allegory means that everything in the story is a symbol for something in real life. There is certain language and format used for different types of genres. Well, in the Bible we find poetry, law, proverbs, stories, genealogies, and more.  In the New Testament in particular, we find a whole collection of a certain type of literary genre: the ancient letter.
         Perhaps the most prolific author of letters in the Bible is the Apostle Paul.  Paul wrote letters to the churches he founded (and others founded by his associates) as a way to keep in touch with them and to keep them spiritually on track. It wasn’t a sermon, though some sections of a letter can be sermon-like; letters are conversations, snapshots of a relationship, and also practically meaningless without the context of who wrote, who read, when, where, how, and why.  Today’s Scripture is one example of such a letter.
The Letter to the Colossians
         The Letter to the Colossians is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it was a church that wasn’t founded by Paul.  It was a church founded by a gentleman named Epaphras, a friend and co-worker of Paul.  Second, the city at the time of writing was in the midst of a slow decline economically and socially.  And third, the letter to the Colossians was written to combat some errors that were creeping into this early church.
         Letters are extremely powerful vehicles of communication.  They allow the writer to choose the exact words she or he wants to use to communicate with the audience.  Unlike a phone call where you have to think on your feet, the letter writer can sit back a minute and collect their thoughts thinking about what they want to say.  So, when we read the letters in the Bible, it behooves us to also slow down and pay attention to what is written there.
         But letters also come with a downside, particularly letters in the Bible.  That problem is that we are only hearing one half of a conversation.  It’s like listening in on someone else’s telephone conversation.  You might have a vague idea of what the conversation is about based on some context clues gleaned along the way, but without the other side, can you be 100% certain that you’ve understood the whole thing correctly?  Another problem with biblical letters is that they were written with a particular circumstance in mind.  Scholars call this “the occasion” for the letter.  It’s the unique situation on the ground that caused the author to pick up pen and paper and write in the first place.
         In the book of Colossians—more accurately called “The Letter to the Colossians,” Paul’s reason for writing seems to have been to combat some serious theological errors that had crept into the church from traveling teachers.  It seems that traveling teachers had introduced some speculative ideas about God, and about Jesus Christ in particular, that seemed to make Jesus out to be a being that was less central to God’s plan of salvation than he truly is.  How do we know that this is what was happening? Well, it’s an educated guess based on how much Paul focuses on making sure that the Colossians have a better understanding of this issue.  It seems some people were starting to combine elements of Judaism with elements of Greek philosophy and esoteric spirituality together in such a way that was leading the Colossians away from the simple truth of the Gospel.
The Simple Truth of the Gospel
         The simple truth of the Gospel is summarized in a familiar statement.  That statement is: “Jesus is Lord.”  We’ve heard this phrase countless times, we’ve sung it, prayed it, and we call him Lord often when we pray or teach.  But what we fail to recognize is how subversive this statement really is. This statement packed a real punch in the gut to the original people who said it and heard it.
         In the ancient world, there were many people vying for the title of “Lord.”  When you think about the title “Lord,” the English language isn’t particularly helpful.  A Lord, in typical English usage, is a member of the nobility, someone entitled to a certain status in society.  But in the ancient Roman society, the term “Lord” or the Greek word “kyrios” meant much more.  It meant the absolute ruler.  Perhaps a better title would be “Emperor.” 
         Only one person in the world could hold this title. Just one.  In Jesus’ day, the many people who contended for the title were the various and plentiful kings of the day.  But the most important of these was the Roman Emperor.  The Caesars of Rome called themselves “Lord” often.  It was on their coins and in all sorts of imperial propaganda.
         So, let’s recap a bit.  Many people in the ancient world called Caesar Lord.  But the early Christians called Jesus Lord….  Right away we have a problem.  If Jesus is Lord, and that title can only be held by one person, then logically, Caesar can’t be Lord…
         Have you ever wondered why early Christians got into such trouble with the authorities?  Primarily it was this conflict of words—and kingdoms—that caused the friction.  Christians were not willing nor able to call anyone but Jesus Lord.  If Jesus was Lord, then Caesar could not be.  They couldn’t be both good citizens of the Kingdom of God and good citizens of an earthly kingdom at the same time.  The two kingdoms had completely different value systems, laws, and expectations for how to treat people.  As Jesus himself said, “a person cannot serve two masters.”  It’s just impossible.
Our Scripture for Today
         Friends, the same inconvenient truth that caused friction between early Christians and the governing systems of the world still exist today. There are still people who vie for the most powerful positions. And the values of a country are completely different from the values of the kingdom of God.  If we still call Jesus “Lord,” that means that we must give him our ultimate allegiance, whatever the cost.  We may be tempted to sidle up with the many people who vie for the title of Caesar and “Lord”, proclaim their greatness, or sing their praises; but ultimately if we want to follow the way of Jesus we must make a radical departure from all such arrogance, competition, and totalitarian authority.
         If we take a few moments to look at Paul’s argument in our passage for today, I think you’ll see that he is demonstrating to the Colossians the supremacy of Jesus Christ above all others.  He is telling them that they don’t need Jesus plus anything to achieve peace and reconciliation with God.  All they need is Jesus, because Jesus is over all; because he made all; and because he rules over all.  Let’s take a look.
Analysis and Exposition
         Our passage begins in verse fifteen with a breathtaking statement about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  It states that “The Son [that is Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”  This is one of my favorite statements in the Bible.  For in it is summarized much of the teaching about Jesus Christ and his Lordship in one short sentence.
         The Son is the Image.  If you remember the story of Creation in Genesis 1, you’ll remember that human beings were created on the sixth day in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-28).  Many of you will be familiar with this passage.  But do you know what that means?  Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that we look like God like a picture of a bear looks like a real bear.  So, it doesn’t mean resemblance in the traditional sense.
         What being created in the image of God means is that we were created to be what theologian N.T. Wright calls “angled mirrors.”  We are meant to reflect the glory of God into the world and rule over it as God’s vice-regents. We are to act as he would act.  Each one of us are to function as kings and queens of the creation and rule over it following the example of our Lord and God.
         Most strikingly, Paul says that Jesus Christ IS the image of God.  He doesn’t say he is like the image, or that he shows us what the image is like, he just IS the image.  In other words, Jesus is the original pattern after which all other image bearers (you and me and the rest of the human race) take our cue from.
         Moreover, Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation.”  This doesn’t mean that there was a time in which Jesus didn’t exist.  That was an error that an early group called the Arians believed.  No, what this means is that Jesus is preeminent over all things in the created order.  Just like in ancient times the first-born son would take on a special role, so Jesus inherits this special role because he existed before all other humans.
         And as our passage goes on it becomes abundantly clear why this is so. Verse sixteen reads “for in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”  As shocking as it is to say, the Jesus we worship as Christ and Lord is also the very agent of creation itself.  As the “Christmas story in John” or the Prologue to John’s Gospel declares… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1:1-3)
         I can’t think of a clearer statement.  If it exists, Jesus made it.  If he made it, he gets to be in charge of it as the Creator.  That sounds like something only God can do…And that’s Paul’s point really.  Remember, the Colossians were being tempted to diminish the status of Jesus in some way, though we’re not sure of all the details.  We also know that the false teachers didn’t have much use for the physical creation.  We know that they looked down on natural matter – the things we can see, hear, and touch – and they elevated the value of the spiritual.
         What Paul is saying is: wait a minute Colossians!  First, you have this whole Jesus thing backwards.  He’s not just some subordinate entity of God, like an angel that was a good figure.  He wasn’t just an enlightened teacher specially gifted by God, though he was that.  No, Jesus is very God from very God, and this is demonstrated in the fact that he is the creator of all that exists.
         Moreover, as the passage moves along in verse seventeen, we find again that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  There was once a belief that held a great deal of sway among intellectuals both in this country and in England, just around the time of the American Revolution.  This belief was called “Deism.”  It believed in essence, that God was sort of like a Divine Watchmaker.  He created the world and then left it to run on its own devices.  He wasn’t really interested in the day to day operations as it were.  Many early Americans, including men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin toyed with this kind of idea, and professed it to be true.
         But our passage makes it clear that that sort of notion is impossible.  God is intimately involved in the day to day operations of the world.  He hears prayer, acts redemptively by drawing men and women to himself and as our passage states, he actually holds the world together.  Theologians call this the doctrine of Providence.  The fact that God himself, through Jesus Christ, the agent of creation, actively sustains the world he created.
         Paul continues his argument in verse eighteen.  But instead of expanding on this grand cosmic idea of Jesus Christ, he begins to draw it down to a more human level, particularly as it relates to the church.  Jesus is the head of the body.  That’s an odd metaphor isn’t it?  Jesus as the head of a hulking body of believers, the church.  But if you take a minute, it makes sense.  First, Jesus is the leader of the church.  That’s one definition the Greek word here translated as head could entail.  But another meaning is even better.  That would be to translate “head” as “source.”—like the fountain head of a river.  Jesus is the very source of the body the church.  How?  Paul explains that next.  He states that “He is the beginning and firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”
         You see, to many people during Jesus’ life, his claims to be in a special relationship to God, or even worse yet, to be God himself were absolutely blasphemous.  To many, his death was the final proof that they could dismiss his claims—and along with them, his very subversive and challenging teaching.  But there is a problem with that argument!  Jesus didn’t stay dead! Hallelujah!  No, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  And by doing so, it was God’s stamp of approval on his entire life and ministry, including his teaching.
         He is supreme not just because he created the world, though that is reason enough, but because he overcame the most powerful enemy known to humankind—death—the plague that had haunted humanity since Adam and Eve encountered its curse in Genesis three.
Implications and Application
         If I had time this morning, I’d go into great detail about the rest of our passage, and I think you’d be amazed at how Paul skillfully both refuted the arguments of the false teachers in Colossae, but also how he made this teaching of Jesus’s supremacy relevant for every day life.  I truly encourage you to take some time to read and reflect on this passage as you go through the week.
         But now, I want to reflect on what this teaching about Jesus Christ means for us today.  What are the implications of Jesus’ Lordship for us as we live our lives in our part of the world?
         First, we need to recognize that we are citizens not of earth, but of another kingdom.  Do you remember the hymn “This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passin’ through?”  Well, I have some issues with that hymn based on the fact that it focuses so much on heaven without telling us how to live on earth. Also, if we just “pass through” our life, I think we missed the whole point of being alive! But one thing the song is trying to do is remind us that our ultimate allegiance can’t lie with anyone else but Jesus.
         So often we feel a tension between being a Christian and being a good citizen of the world.  And by “world” I mean the fallen systems of the world that Paul identified in our letter as “thrones or powers.” 
         You see, we need to be really careful when we say that any government or any other system of human organization is “god ordained.”  If we’re being honest, we know that these things—at best—are only an accommodation to our fallen nature.  The story of the Tower of Babel proves that.  Nations, tribes, and cultures happened in response to a problem of disagreements and misunderstanding, and it’s not the way it was supposed to be from the beginning. The same thing goes for rulers, be they good, bad, or truly evil. 
         This leads me to my second implication.  That is that when the systems of world, including government, are in conflict with the clear teachings of Jesus, we must choose Jesus.  This is what the first Christians, including Paul himself, did.  And it got them in a great deal of trouble.  It even got many of them killed.  And it has done so throughout most of Christian history.
         My final implication for the day, and one that is far more positive I think, is that because Jesus is pre-eminent over all, we can trust him with our lives.  We don’t need to look ultimately to government or society to fix our problems.  We can use governments as they were intended, as make-shift and provisional instruments of organizations until Jesus returns.  But ultimately believers rest assured in the promise that Jesus will indeed return and set the world to rights once and for all. Amen?
         Until that time, that’s why we exercise faith.  Faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Faith that there isn’t a problem small enough that Jesus doesn’t know about or big enough that he can’t handle.  We come to him in prayer, we ask for guidance, trusting that he knows what is best for us.  And as we pray, we try, in fits and starts certainly, to live out his kingdom vision here on earth so that the Lord’s will shall be done “on  earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.