< November 21, 2010 >

Commentary on Colossians 1:11-20

 

This lection reframes Christian experience within a wide-angle, cosmic divine perspective.

Its opening verses (verses 11-14), a distinctively Christian version of the customary prayer for divine blessings characteristic of formal correspondence of the day, expand into a reminder of all that God has done and continues to do for the often beleaguered Asian believers. Christians in Colossae and other cities of Asia Minor were the victims of suspicion and therefore ill-treatment. Yet, declares the Colossians writer, God provides strength and the ability to endure difficulty with patience (verse 11). God has made them heirs with all the "saints" who live in the "light" (verse 12), "rescued" (liberated) them from the power of darkness, and "transferred" them to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (verse 13). Their new citizenship includes forgiveness of sins (verse 14).

One approach to preaching on this text is to focus on verses 11-14 and the import of these divine actions. Yet one must keep in mind that Colossians was addressed to the persecuted; it was for their faith that they suffered. Not every inconvenience or mild frustration of our wants constitutes suffering of the kind in view here, and it is important not to trivialize the claims of this text. God seeks to maintain our freedom from the darkness of powers that bind and blind us, including powers that may seem on the surface to be benign. Living in the freedom of frank self-assessment and transparent honesty as individuals and communities, we reap joy.

Exodus motifs echo in verse 13; the term for "rescue" is the same as that used in the LXX to refer to the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. A new exodus, a new deliverance from bondage, is in view here. A sermon could explore this theme of the deliverance of humanity from an array of captivities on individual, ecclesial, and broader social levels.

If the sermon centers on these opening verses, it will be important to allow well-chosen hymns and liturgy to evoke the sweeping Christological claims of the remaining verses without invoking triumphalist claims. The cosmic Christology of verses 15-20, though much debated by scholars, strongly suggests all creation belongs to Christ. Reconciliation, even when it is advanced by those who stand outside the Church, is empowered by the Lord in whom all things come to wholeness.

What follows in verses 15-20 is one of the most comprehensive Christological visions to be found in the New Testament. It will be all but impossible to convey all of this in a single sermon. The preacher who works her way doggedly through all of the profound claims of verses 15-20, heaping one upon another, is likely to leave most listeners overwhelmed. Homiletical modesty is in order. Handling two or three verses will be plenty; and preachers are better advised to invite the listeners into a shared exploration that opens a space of wonder and worship than attempt a tour de force of theological explanation.

In order to make a wise choice of phrases to emphasize, taking into account
the structure of verses 15-20 is a first step. The two parts of this section stand in parallel, coalescing around two claims: God's Son is (1) firstborn of creation (verses 15-17) and (2)firstborn from among the dead (verses 18-20). Under these two major headings stand other claims no less stunning. As firstborn of creation, the Son is the visible image of the invisible God (verse 15). All things, both visible things and invisible things, including the powers of this world, were created through him, and for him (verse 16).  The Son pre-existed all else, and is the matrix of coherence for all created things (verse 17).

As firstborn from the dead, the Son is the head of the body, the church (verse 18); and this function as head aims toward that time when the Son will "have first place in everything" (verse 18b). The fullness of God "was pleased to dwell" (took pleasure in dwelling) in the Son (verse 19), and God took pleasure in reconciling all things, earthly and heavenly, to himself, bending the bloodshed of the cross into the instrument of cosmic peace (verse 20).

The preacher might emphasize the cosmic, creation-centered Christology of the first set of claims (verses 15-17). These verses clearly stake the claim that all created things, visible and invisible, came to be through the Godhead made visible, the pre-existent Son. They exist for the firstborn and derive from him their coherence. Notably, we find here no mention of a "fall" or of creation corrupted; there is only the allusion to powers of darkness from which humanity is liberated. All the emphasis falls on the claim that creation makes sense because of the Son; and this has been true from before the beginning of time. This must shape our attitude toward creation as well as persons of other faiths. Their fulfillment, like ours, flows from the firstborn of creation.

The second set of claims (verses 18-20) stand in sequential relation to the first set. Through death, the firstborn of creation becomes the firstborn from the dead, "assuming first place in everything." These verses provide an opportunity to help a congregation reconsider its theology of resurrection, as well as aspects of their ecclesiological self-understanding. In too many congregations today, resurrection means only "now we can go to heaven when we die." So much more is in view here. The parallel structures of verses 15 and 18 imply that the resurrection initiates a new creation. The Church, the Son's body, is the agent of reconciliation, declaring to the whole created order its emancipation from the powers of darkness.

Some surmise that these verses reflect an underlying baptismal hymn or creed; and this suggests a baptism sermon. Baptism reveals our true destiny and identity. Whatever our life stories may turn out to be, their inconsistencies will be reconciled and their coherence revealed in the reigning, cosmic, visible God for whom we were made.