September 29, 2021
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Late Spring of this year the remains of 215 children were located in a mass grave at what was once Canada’s largest school in British Columbia. This was the result of a dark period when indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to live in residential schools in order to assimilate them to white society. Who would do such a thing?
From the 19th century until 1970, over 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to convert children, educate them, and keep them from speaking their native languages. Many were beaten, verbally abused, and some 6,000 were said to have died.
How could people who acted in the name of Christ believe such action represented Jesus? What Jesus had they come to know and believe in? Of course, this is but one example of multitudes we could name through history of what happens when the church gets it wrong.
But at the same time, the church has a long and storied history of getting things right. It was the work of the church that led to the outlawing of infanticide in Roman society. It was churches that built openings in their doors where people could leave unwanted babies. It was the church that advocated for the rights of children when society allowed them to be exploited in factories. Why? Because the church followed a Savior who said, “Let the children come to me.”
I believe the Church is no different than individual Christians. Are we not all a mix of faith and failure? Sinner and saint? The regretful acts committed by the Church, and the regrets of individual Christians, are a sign of what can happen to us when we get away from our true center; when we get away from the One who is our source of life and hope, Jesus the Christ.
This is what the former chaplain of the United States Senate, Richard Halverson, meant when he spoke to a Lutheran assembly in Chicago some years ago: “In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women who centered their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the Church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Later it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it spread through Europe, where it became a culture. Finally, it moved to the United States, where it became an enterprise. We’ve got far too many churches and so few fellowships.” (as told in Homiletics 7/98 p25)
The great need of the Church is the great need of every Christian, to stay close to our center, to the living Christ who transforms us and our world. That is why the third step in the faith journey is to step toward Christ, because when we lose our spiritual center we are not only a danger to ourselves, but to others around us.
This is why Paul wrote The Letter to the Colossians. Colossae was the smallest of places to whom Paul addressed a letter. In fact, archaeologists aren’t even sure where the town was located, because no ruins remain today. Yet Paul’s letter stands out in importance because of his emphatic message to keep Christ supreme.
It appears the church was being influenced by a hodge-podge of opinions. Some Jewish members emphasized Law over Grace. There were others who emphasized the worship of angels. But perhaps most unique influence was some Greek members who were turning the Gospel into a human philosophy. All of this was conspiring to lessen the focus on Jesus. So, Paul wrote to tell the people to keep Christ at the center.
He opens his letter in a familiar way, and wastes no time by jumping to his point in verse 15, but what Paul uses here are words believed to have come from a Christian hymn. The passage we heard read this morning, chapter 1 verses 15-20, are believed to have come from a hymn used in baptism services to remind initiates coming into the Christian faith that they are now choosing to put Christ at the center of their lives. So it begins with an important declaration of who Jesus is. “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.”
Now, I want to let you know in full disclosure, that we’re going to get a little academic this morning. We are going to talk about Greek philosophy, Stoic Philosophy to be exact, because this hymn Paul uses, like many early Christian writings, borrowed concepts from philosophy to explain what they believed about Jesus. Particularly they used the Stoic concept of Logos. Logos is the root of our word logic. It has to do with reason and wisdom, but in Greek philosophy it meant much more. It was the idea of Divine Reason through which the world was created.
In Greek logos literally means “word,” and we get a sense of this philosophic influence in the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It sounds familiar to Genesis, “In the beginning God created…” But how did God create? Through Divine Word. God spoke and things came into existence. God created through logos, Word, and it gave order to creation. The world is logical. And this is where Jews and Greeks found agreement.
As Adam Hamilton says in his book on John, “Up to this point no first century philosopher or theologian would object to what John said. Jews and Greeks would agree that the universe is logical and this its logic is the mind of God.”
What caused problems for them is when John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The idea that God’s mind, God’s wisdom, God’s logic becomes a person would have been outlandish. But this is what early Christians declared about Jesus, that He is the logos become flesh. Go back to the hymn Paul uses in Colossians: “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth…For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ…” (vv15-16,19)
You see, as Christianity spread beyond Judaism and entered the Greek world, Christians wanted to explain what they believed about Jesus in a way Greeks would understand. They used concepts like logos because it spoke to the truths they found to be true in Jesus.
Now I wanted to check and make sure my thinking on this was accurate so I called our theologian-in-residence, Adolf Hansen, the other day. We talked about this idea of logos, but then Adolf said, you know Rob, what is powerful to me about the words Paul uses in Colossians that says Jesus is the image of the invisible God, is that it means Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus shows us what God is like. That is so simple, yet quite profound isn’t it? So before I go on, I invite you to pause on that and write down the question, “What is Jesus like?” Based on what you know about Jesus, make a list of what you believe Jesus is like. Then after you have listed somethings read it over, and ask, “Does this image of God line up with what I’ve always been led to believe about God?” Is what I see in Jesus, what I have always been told about God? That would be a good discussion for groups this week.
But this hymn goes onto to say something even more important about Jesus. It continues: “(Christ) himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In his commentary on Colossians, William Barclay explains how this verse uses the concept of logos to make a significant point about who Jesus is. Barclay tells how the idea of logos came from the philosopher Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. Heraclitus saw two principles in the world that complemented each other. On one hand the world is in a state of flux. Everything is changing. If you don’t believe it, just look at a picture of yourself pre-Covid and now. Everything about the world is changing. He illustrates by saying if you put your foot in a river and took it out, then put it in again, it would not be the same river. The water has kept moving. The river itself now has new water where you reinsert your foot. Things are always changing.
But at the same time, in this changing world there is dependability and reliability. The sun rises and sets. There is winter, spring, summer and fall. Today we add concepts like gravity. In the midst of change there is another principle, logic, Logos. Logos is the Divine Logic that keeps the world from just being constant change and chaos. There is a logic to the world. And this logic is what holds the world together.
So listen again to the verse from the hymn. Why do you think Paul uses this: “(Christ) himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Early Christians used this idea to make a profound claim about Jesus. Jesus not only shows us what God is like, Jesus holds life together. Have you ever felt like things in life were falling apart? That everything was chaotic and crumbling? Well these Christians experienced in Jesus a source of reliability, that He is a source who holds life together. It doesn’t mean Jesus just makes our problems go away and magically gives us everything we think we need. But it does mean when we reach out to Him in faith, when everything is falling apart, He holds us together.
Last year I received a letter from Dan Kahlenberg in our church. He grew up a PK—preacher’s kid here in Indiana and when he just 9 his mother divorced his father. This rocked his world. And it was made worse when the church his dad served asked that he resign because they didn’t feel it would look good to have a pastor who was divorced. Shortly after his beloved grandfather, who had also been a pastor, died suddenly. Dan felt like his world was falling apart.
He loved music and showed great aptitude as an organist and went to Indiana on a music scholarship but he didn’t give it his all. He became a hard partier. The he met his wife which was a God-thing to him. But challenges continued. There was a serious heart episode, the suicide of his mother-in-law, and losing his job at Lilly.
He developed bitterness toward God for all the things in his life that felt meaningless. Then his dad, who attends St. Luke’s, invited him to come to church on Easter 2019. He and wife accepted. As he listened to the beautiful music and the sermon he kept staring at the cross, and something came over him. He realized Jesus had plenty of reasons to feel life gave him a bad deal, but he accepted it. And then Jesus rose. The cross was not the last word. Suddenly Dan felt of fresh sense of faith; that God wasn’t absent from him, but in a strange way God had been right there all along the way holding him together. And he chose that day to put Christ at the center.
But Christ is even bigger. Christ doesn’t just hold life together, he holds lives together. Christ is a unifying force who unites. In the first century there was a mindset that resisted seeing everyone as equals. Aristotle said, “For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” (Ortberg, Who Is This Man? P26)
But then Jesus comes along and turns the world upside down with an ethic that says this is not how God means for it to be. As William Barclay said, “In the ancient world, the church was the only place where all (people) could and did meet in perfect fellowship.” People of all races and nationalities came together. Slaves and slaveowners were equal. Rich and poor served each other alike.
Why? Because Christ is a unifying force who holds lives together. This is the hope of our world. This is why the church must keep Jesus at the center. This is why we must keep our focus on him. Not because he makes us right and others wrong. Not because Jesus somehow makes us narrow-minded and exclusive. Just the opposite! Just makes us more understanding and compassionate and unifying. When the church gets quasi in keeping Christ at the center that is when we risk becoming more divisive. That is when our politics takes center stage and we worry more about our party affiliation being threatened than the cause of Christ. But with Jesus is at the center, these concerns lose their power!
Jim Harnish is a retired Methodist pastor who tells about a defining moment in his ministry. He was preaching one Palm Sunday at his church in Tampa when something came over him. He went off script, be he recalled clearly saying in the sermon that morning, “I know that some folks think I’m too liberal and some folks think I’m too conservative. And I want you to know that I don’t care anymore. I just want to be like Jesus. Sometimes being like Jesus will mean some folks think you’re too liberal or conservative. The labels just don’t matter anymore. The only thing that matters is being like Jesus.” (Journey to the Center of the Faith, p14)
Folks, the Republicans nor Democrats are going to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. So let’s quit worrying about what they tell us we need to love and what we need to be afraid of. If we keep Jesus at the center we will love that which brings about a better world and stand against that which doesn’t!
But there is one last thing about this hymn Paul uses in Colossians which must be pointed out, because no matter how good our intentions are, we fall short. No matter how much we desire to put Christ at the center we just won’t sometimes. Because of the reality of sin. Sin is like this internal magnet that draws back to ourselves. Sin is the force that demands we serve ourselves and not God or others. It’s the reason we hurt each other. It’s the reason we hurt ourselves. It’s the reason that murders have increased in our nation by 14% this year. It’s the reason churches can harm the lives of indigenous children. The problem isn’t with great powers and bureaucracies. The problem is sin, and all the problems we see at macro levels is a picture of the micro problem in every heart. And it is to recognize we are all broken people. We have good intentions but we can do wrong things. And the first step to healing is put Christ at the center and accept the forgiveness he offers.
So the hymn Paul used ends by saying, “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”
So Jesus shows us what God is like and Jesus holds life together, but also, Jesus redeems our brokenness.
Let me close with this story. Last Saturday our United Methodist delegation to General Conference met by zoom. Russ Abel, our chair closed by telling about when he was a kid and how he made money by collecting soda pop bottles to get the deposits. Any of you remember doing that?
Well, it took me back to Durham, NC when I was a kid. My grandmother’s house was a block up the street from the Durham Bulls baseball field. One Saturday I was out looking for bottles to take to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and get the nickel each bottle was worth. Well the field was closed, but inside the fence I saw a box full of used soda pop bottles sitting by a trashcan. There must have been fifty bottles in it. I checked to make sure no was looking and I climbed over the fence. Now the box was too big to carry back over the fence so I threw the bottles over into a grassy area so they wouldn’t break, then I climbed back.
Now this was a chain link fence that had the wires exposed at the top. You know what I mean? They just point up? Well after climbing over the top and starting to go down my foot slipped, and my wrist came down on one of those heavy wires and it sunk into my arm. I was literally suspended, hanging on the fence. I had to pull my body up so I could lift my arm off the wire.
I was so lucky. I didn’t hit the artery, but I had enough blood running down my arm. I carried the bottles and went to the house. I was too afraid to tell anyone what happened. I went to the bathroom, washed it off, and put a band aid on the wound. I don’t how it didn’t get infected. But then I collected all those bottles in a big bag and took them to the store, to get…do you remember what they called it? To get redeemed.
Folks, while my analogy is very human, I believe this, in a small way, points to what Christ does for us on the cross. Our lives can become like used soda pop bottles. Dirty, empty. Discarded. Chained away. And Jesus comes to do what no one else can, break those chains. But in the process he gets suspended. His wrist get nailed to a tree where his blook runs down. But not even that prevents him from reaching us so that we might be redeemed. So that we might be cleaned up, and given our value back, and made full again and reusable just like we were brand new.