Most of us are familiar with discovering an idea or a technology, that is “radically new.” A well-worded phrase gives us a new way of conceiving things, or a new technique or technological gadget gives us a radically different way of approaching a problem, and we go forward enlightened in a new way.
This week’s reading from the 1st chapter of Colossians, presents us not with something that is “radically new” but rather, something that is “radically old.” Although it may read as something that emerged from the 1960s or 1970s in the way it describes the interplay between Christ and God and the entire Universe, verses 15-20 of Colossians 1 are among the most ancient words of the New Testament, predating all of the gospels and most of what Paul wrote.
As mentioned earlier in today’s service, these verses are regarded as one of the first “hymns” of the Christian Church, adapted from an already-existing source. And as often happens in hymns-with-an-agenda, the words not only lift praise to God but also correct or challenge commonly-held thoughts of the day, like a protest song from the 60s or 70s. These lyrical words in Colossians, we surmise, may well have been answering something else that was being said.
So what was going on in the church at Colossae that needed addressing? It appears that their view of heaven and earth was extremely complicated, with all manner of influences acting together all at once: the Greek gods, Astrology, Philosophy, Judaism, Gnosticism, and early Christianity. This mess of influences combined to create a worldview of absolute powerlessness, with humans left to guess how to appease the gods seven realms up. To counter this, Paul took this hymn – which may well have originated from within that ancient mix of religious and philosophical thought – and used it to tell the people that life isn’t as fragmented or confusing as they had thought. There is a unifying power that creates all things and cares for all things and gives purpose to all things and makes sense of all things, says this hymn: and that unifying power, is Christ.
It takes some work to get the mind wrapped around this notion of Christ as the one who creates and unifies and brings purpose to the entire universe. I’ve always pictured Christ as an aspect of the godhead, but always as the accessible one who walks the journey with us, close to us, not playing this big cosmic role. But there is much to be gained here, expanding our sense that Christ brings interconnectedness in a time when we are politically divided, and personally tethered to our smartphones… so let’s give it a go.
Perhaps the best starting place, is the notion of “Original Goodness” as stated by Richard Rohr, or “Original Blessing” as earlier named by Matthew Fox. So much of Christian history has been shaped by setting up dualistic either/or understandings of the world: heaven and earth, heaven and hell, God and Satan, spirit and body, obedience and disobedience, reward and punishment, we and they. One side of the line is all good, the other side all bad, no subtlety at all. And if we view the basic human impulse as “bad” or “sinful” – as presented for centuries in the notion of what Catholics call Original Sin or what Protestants called ‘basic human depravity’ – we end up needing to earn our way back into God’s good graces right from the start of life. If we perceive God as basically negative and disappointed in response to our lives, we will hope to at least get to a flat, non-angry relationship with God by the time our earthly days are through.
This reading from Colossians, and the school of thought that follows in its footsteps, has a 180 degree different worldview from this: a view of Original Goodness, not Original Sin or depravity. As put by Richard Rohr, (p.67) “For the planet and the all living things to move forward, we can rely on nothing less than an inherent original goodness and a universally shared dignity…. When you start with YES, or a positive vision, you more likely proceed with generosity and hope, and you have a much greater chance of ending with an even bigger YES.”
So we hold with positive anticipation, this old/new way of thinking, that in Christ everything in creation is interconnected: the plants and landforms and creatures, the air we breathe, the sunshine that warms us, the snow we shovel, the power of creativity, even the hard things in life. Viewing all of creation, the entire cosmos, as inherently good and infused with Divine origin, is to claim what Richard Rohr (p.66) calls the “inner coherence” of all things: to have “a trust in inner coherence itself, [that] ‘it all means something’… a trust that this coherence is positive and going somewhere good…a trust that this coherence includes me and even defines me.” We embrace the positive divine proclamation repeatedly spoken in the Biblical story of creation – where, after each scene of creation, the narrative declares “and God saw that it was good”… and we add that Biblical metaphor to all that we know about molecules and energy and evolution and the adaptive powers of the universe, and see all of it – ALL of it, Christ’s creative urge and everything we know through science – expressing a singular Divine purpose, and hope, and love.
That inner coherence, is what Colossians 1:17 speaks of when it says, “in him [Christ] all things hold together.” Pause with that for a moment. “in Christ, all things hold together.” How freeing is it, to see belief in Christ not as a ticket to heaven, but as an acknowledgement that life itself is interconnected and extraordinary and holy? How powerful is this radically old way, which calls us to understand a unity of all things on the grandest stage, in helping us put the lie to the divisive, individualistic, enemy-based ways that are so prevalent these days? If Christ infuses all things with goodness and holds all things together, why in the world would I want to live with disrespect for ANYTHING? Seeing Christ as the inner coherence that gives life meaning and direction and unity, is to regain a loving, honouring respect for humanity in all its diversity and for this planet, as we seek personal and global ways to address the climate crisis and the decimation of species.
So Christ is pictured here in an unfamiliar way, immersed in the very process of creation… and, we read, Christ is also the human, relatable face of God that we’re more familiar with. Verse 15 of today’s reading calls Christ “the image of the invisible God.”(v.15) Christ embodies and reveals God to us, and invites us to delight in that connection. So when we see Jesus Christ choosing unpopular table partners, that directly expresses God’s choice; when we hear the words of Jesus Christ challenging those who put their own needs first, those words speak God’s will; when we see Jesus Christ entering into human suffering and even death, it is God walking those terrible journeys with us; when the after-story of the risen Christ proclaims that death does not have the final word, it is God’s own life-force that has risen above all that limits life. Colossians refers to Christ as “first-born” but this seeks to express the closeness, belovedness, one-ness between Christ and God, rather than portraying Parent and Child as separate.
Bible Scholar Arthur Patzia (p.16) points out that the word translated here as “image” or “likeness” is the Greek word, “eikon.” We know how an icon works on our electronic devices: we click on the icon and it opens up the world of that program or app. In religious thought, Icons – those images so commonly seen in Orthodox Churches – are expressions of religious truth, so much so that those who create Icons are said to “write” the icon rather than “draw” it. And here in Colossians, saying that Christ is the image or “icon’ of the invisible God “does not mean mere resemblance or similarity.… [‘Icon’] communicates the idea that Christ participates in and with the nature of God, not merely copying, but visibly manifesting and perfectly revealing God in human form.” (Patzia, op.cit.)
As the one who fully participates with us in human life, and so accurately shows us the very nature of God, Christ has always shown us that there is no distance between Christ and us. In this notion of the Cosmic Christ, Christ the Creative force of all things, we learn that there is also no distance between Christ and God. Christ “participates in and with the nature of God” and is directly involved with God in the act of creation. Colossians 1: 16 says and repeats, “in [Christ] 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.” As Arthur Patzia would put it, Christ is “both the agent and the goal of [all] creation” or as we might put it in prayer, “our source and our destination.” The Christ who walks life’s journey with us, is and always has been a loving presence throughout all of creation.
What would it mean to our understanding of the world, to draw this connection between the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, the one who decodes the heart of God so us humans can understand and emulate it, and the very origins of life? For me, it says that all those things I learned from Jesus Christ in the gospels – how to treat one another, how to stand up for the oppressed, how to speak the truth in love – are not just handy tips for getting along with others, but base-line information integrally connected to the origins of life and the meaning of the universe. Richard Rohr (p.76) says that “The Eternal Christ is the symbolic ‘superconductor’ of the Divine Energies into this world” and that we humans complete the circuit when we give ourselves over completely to the power of love. “Love” he writes…[is] the attraction of all things toward all things, a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it.” (Rohr, p.70)
In Christ, then, is everything that matters to us. The Christ who infuses holy intent into all aspects of creation, is the same Christ who sits with me at bedside when a loved one is dying. The Christ who has been expressing God’s love in and throughout nature, is the same Christ who urges me to pick up the phone or send a note when someone is on my heart. The Christ who brings unity to the universe, is the same Christ who calls me to work toward safe, healthy reconciliation in my life and my nation. The Christ whose positive energy flow shows humanity when it is on the right track, is the same Christ in whose name we gather as a Church, to worship, to learn, to seek, to support, to name and claim the spirit of welcome and inclusion we have in Christ. The Christ who is present in all things, is the same Christ who calls me to look deep in my heart, and know that I am cared for, beloved, empowered, enlivened.
Today is “Reign of Christ” Sunday – the final Sunday of the Christian year, followed next week by the first Sunday of Advent. We take this time to ask big questions of faith, and big questions of life, pondering where Christ fits in to my life and the life of the world. In this ancient hymn from Colossians – and current writings, about Christ’s presence in all things – we are called to a place of holy wonder. What if I am not disconnected from the Divine? What if I am not disconnected from you? What if the holy agenda of love is the connection we need, to embrace and conserve and protect this planet and all who dwell within it? Friends, may these wonderings and other questions you may have, expand your spiritual journey, and encourage your efforts to live a life of expansive, interconnected love. In the name of Christ, eternal and universal, intimate and all-loving, Amen.
Patzia, Arthur. Good News Commentary: Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians. NYC: Harper & Row, 1984.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. NYC: Convergent 2019.
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.