s183e01 Somerton Park 22/7/01 Sunday 16
"(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." Colossians 1:15
Many scholars say that these words are "an early Christian hymn of praise to Christ" (Mason as reported in CDF Moule p60) taken up and expanded by St Paul in this his letter to the Colossians, and Moule notes the "connection between creation and redemption" in the words. In our prayer book these words are titled "A Song of Redemption" (APBA p420). Praise, creation, redemption are fine themes for these words, yet I would point out the number of times the word "all" is used.
"The firstborn of ALL creation" ... "ALL things in heaven and earth" ... "ALL things have been created" ... "in him ALL things hold together" ... "reconcile to himself ALL things" ...
And the commission given to St Paul is not to take this message of the all encompassing love of God to those who don't know of it ... St Paul's job is to make this known to the saints - that God was working in Gentiles, in people other than themselves ... "the mystery that has been hidden ... has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you." (Colossians 1:26-27).
So St Paul expands and uses these words of praise to bring home to his Christian colleagues, those he recognises as "saints", the fact that the God of the universe, the God who sent Jesus to live and to die and to rise again for all, can be found at work equally in others.
So the words can be as equally addressed to us, who (in our better moments) may also call ourselves "saints", to tell us that we who praise our redeemer cannot keep him to ourselves as a precious possession known only to those who acknowledge his sovereignty and grace. Indeed our praise of our redeemer cannot be focussed on anything less than this, for if we focus our praise on a Christ who redeemed only the religious amongst us, we crucify our Saviour as effectively as those of old did, and for precisely the same reasons as motivated them.
It seems an unnecessary statement to say that God created everything, but it also means that just as creation encompasses all things, so too redemption encompasses all things. We are told, "without him not one thing came into being" (John 1:3) so, perhaps despite appearances to us to the contrary, all people, of whatever race, language, colour and creed are related as intimately to Christ as we consider ourselves to be. The prayer of the psalmist: "For you have created my inward parts: you knit me together in my mother's womb." (Psalm 139:12 APBA) applies equally to everyone else as it does to us.
And so our redemption wrought by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ also applies equally to everyone else, even if all our human perceptions are to the contrary.
And the mystery is that the only people this all encompassing redemption cannot encompass are those who think it is restricted to an elite - those who would deride Jesus rather than praise him for including others ... those who would actually crucify Jesus for including others ... But even here the word of Jesus is probably pertinent: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34).
I began this sermon with the quote: (Christ) "is the image of the invisible God". We see in the openness of Jesus to all people the openness of God to all people. There is no separation or division of purpose. We and all people can be sure that our salvation is assured because we acknowledge that Christ died for all and not just an elite.
And I suppose that it is possible to move by extension - to begin with those of the Old Covenant, those who do not acknowledge Christ. God didn't send Jesus in order that those who faithfully kept the Old Covenant and were charitable towards their neighbours - that they loved God and neighbour - were henceforth to be excluded. I mean there are those of the Jewish faith who do love God as much as any Christian could claim, and are equally loving towards their neighbours as any of us could claim to be. God didn't send Jesus to add to these rules, to exclude from the kingdom these devout and practising Jews!
By extension therefore - God sent Jesus not to restrict entry into the kingdom, or to change the entry requirements into the kingdom - but to open the entry wider and wider into God's kingdom. God is this open to all people, and Christ shows us this. Christ shows us that God is open to Buddhists, Hindu, Muslim ... God is not the exclusive preserve of Christians, and Jesus shows us precisely this.
And we need to realise that many of the atheists and agnostics amongst us, are not especially atheists and agnostics by sheer perversity of mind. Many are atheists and agnostics because the church has come across as less than loving, and the world has come across as less than loving. There are, of course, many tragic situations where people suffer quite unjustly and we are right to take out our anger and frustration on God. We get angry because we can't alter the situation or save them from their fate. But surely there are many more situations in ordinary life where we can do things to alleviate the loneliness of another person, if nothing else. And I wonder just how many crimes are committed by people who are driven to despair through sheer loneliness?
And perhaps we find a clue to the reason that God is essentially invisible, because otherwise God could be labelled white or black or brown or brindle ... God could be taken to favour people dressed in a particular way, or who follow a particular tradition ... No, God is the loving and heavenly Father of every man, woman and child, without distinction.
It is here I would venture (in some fear and trembling, mind you :-) to differ from C.S. Lewis who speaks of our picture of God, in his usual delightfully astringent way: "We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves" and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all"." ("The Problem of Pain" ch 3 quoted in "The Business of Heaven" p23)
Provided we hear and acknowledge the "ALL" at the end of this - that other people are just as entitled to a good time as we are, then something of the "joi de vivre" that Jesus' exuded seems to me to be entirely appropriate.
And the other part of my text - the fact that St Paul talks about Jesus being the "first-born of all creation" we can see is not a nice theological concept that scholars debate which mere mortals like us allow to form part of our language of worship but which really has no real practical consequences on the lives of ordinary people. No - this tells us that as far as St Paul is concerned, the universe has always been constructed around the fact of this openness of God. God has always cared for all people, including people other than the ancient people of God the Jews and now Christians.
There is enough in the words of the Old Testament which might be used to counter this assertion. The actions of God against the Egyptians and the original inhabitants of the Promised Land for instance. One could well come to the conclusion that God chose the Jews quite arbitrarily and equally as arbitrarily hated everyone else. There are some Christians who think this way about non Christians. But the fact that Christ was at the beginning of creation, means that the universe has always been structured around God's loving kindness for each and every part of the creation.
And I think that this is actually good news.
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