Minister's Sermon - 23rd June 10.30am
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 23rd June 10.30am

Introduction to the reading

Today, we’re beginning four services in which we’ll be exploring the Letter to the Colossians. So, I thought it might be useful - before we hear the first passage - to say something about the church, and the writer of the letter. Because one of the few things we can be certain of when it comes to this letter, is that nothing, is certain! I want to begin with Colossae. The people – the church – the letter was written to. It’s hard to get a picture of how Christianity came to the town, because it’s only mentioned once in the bible, and that’s in the letter itself. And in the second chapter Paul says he didn’t go there. So, the arrived, because of someone other than Paul. Maybe someone who had travelled from the town to another place. Or a missionary who knew Paul. The letter was probably written in the late 50s. About 230 years after Jesus’ death. And since the town was almost destroyed by an earthquake in 60 or 61, and there’s no reference to it in the letter, it must have been written before that happened. So, the end of the 50s would seem to be a good date for it. And that’s where the next uncertainty begins, because although it seems to have been written by Paul, it is by no means certain that it was. Timothy is included as co-author in the first verse. But it could equally have been written by another of Paul’s disciples. And this would explain the number of words and phrases in this letter, that aren’t used in letters that were clearly written by Paul. One of the questions it’s helpful to ask is why this letter was written. Not every church had a letter written to it. It seems that news had come that the followers of an older religion or philosophy, were challenging the Christian’s beliefs and practices, and they’re feeling anxious and confused. It isn’t certain what this philosophy was. ‘Though the letter’s emphasis on wisdom and knowledge suggests a form of Gnosticism - Christianity’s main rival in the first few centuries. The final thing I want to say by way of introduction is, that the Christian community was made up of converts from this older “philosophy,” as well as Jews and Gentiles. So, through this letter, we receive an insight into some of the challenges the first Christian churches experienced in an area where there was a complex mixture of religious belief and practices – not unlike our world today. And this seems to be why this letter has been chosen as the focus for Bible Month. It doesn’t provide easy answers. But enables us to reflect on some important questions.

Dramatic reading: Colossians 1.1-14

Reading: Colossians 1.15-24

Sermon

Introduction

We’ve been watching “The Planets” over the past weeks. It’s on BBC2, presented by Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester. It’s a big budget documentary, with amazing pictures, and sound track. All accompanied by Cox’s poetic-sounding explanation, of the way the interactions between the sun and the planets in our solar system, have resulted in what Cox calls “a tale of never-ending change, of dramatic origins, moments of hope and loss, where just eight motes of rock, ice and dust, set against the dark back-drop of space have conspired together to produce life on at least one world.” (1) I haven’t understood everything he talks about. And in episode 3 both of us got quite lost. But somehow it doesn’t matter. I feel as if there’s something deeper than the science of it all to understand. Something ungraspable, ultimately unknowable, and as I’ve watched it I’ve wondered about the “invisible God” who in Christ created “all things in heaven and on earth… things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers…” and in whom “all things hold together.” Of course, whoever who wrote this ancient hymn, wasn’t writing a scientific treatise. It is poetry. Poetry, through which God can speak to us in different ways, at different levels and at different times. So, the way we in the 21st century read it, knowing what we do about the creation of the universe, stars and planets, is different from the way it was read by the Colossian Christians almost 2000 years ago. This morning, I want to focus on what the hymn says about creation, about the earth and human community, and about us.

But I want to begin by saying something about the way this hymn talks about Christ. Because it’s very different from the way we’re used to hearing him spoken about in the Gospels – though John’s Gospel sometimes comes close. The writer is talking about the cosmic Christ. Christ who exists eternally, following his resurrection and ascension, and who is part of God the Trinity. But not only since then. Christ who also existed before the beginning of time as we know it and who participated in creation. Richard Rohr makes the difference clear when he says that, “Jesus is the union of human and divine in time and space… [while] the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time.” (2) So, the hymn writer says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; …in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He … is before all things, and in him all things hold together… through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged… he has now reconciled in his … body through death.” All of this expresses theological truths that we struggle to fully grasp. And yet Bible Month invites us to wrestle with them.

“All things were created through him”

I found “The Planets” “tale of never-ending change, of dramatic origins, [and its] moments of hope and loss” quite challenging. I’m quite comfortable with the cycle of life and death, for humans, and for creation on earth. But it seems that this pattern is also present in the universe. The earth isn’t stable, the planets aren’t stable, and the universe isn’t stable. Change can be as sudden as the arrival of the meteorite that led to the destruction of the dinosaurs. Or as gradual as the interaction of the planets with each other changing the distance of each from the sun. And those changes will eventually result in this solar system dying. At some point in the far, far distant future, the earth may no longer be able to sustain life as we know it. Unless, of course the climate changes that human beings are causing, kill it before that. All of this raises questions about this “invisible God” – a God who creates the universe and yet also presides over its destruction. A question not unlike the one we ask about God who allows suffering. And ‘though scientists won’t answer this question like this, I want to say this is the same God that we meet in Jesus Christ, that the writer of the Colossians speaks of as “the image of the invisible God.”

The idea of humans being made in the image of God was familiar from the Jewish scriptures. But the hymn applies this to Jesus, saying that through him the invisible God, has made Godself known in and through creation. This “this creates a paradox.” The one born as a human being also existed before the creation of the first human being. (3) But this isn’t new. Similar language was used to speak of the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament, personified as a woman. And it seems likely that this was the source of the ideas that re-used to speak about Jesus. In the Jewish wisdom literature Wisdom is the “image of God’s goodness.” Wisdom has been creating, not only since the beginning of creation, but Wisdom continues to create throughout all time and eternity. And God’s Wisdom, encompasses all reality, from the cosmic - “things seen or unseen” - to the political “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” that we often assume control the world.

We can’t be certain why the writer of the letter wanted the Colossian Christians to know all this. Maybe because the people challenging them were suggesting Christ’s authority was limited. Or, it may have ben that the Christians were afraid of their opponents, because they held power over then. Whatever the reason, the hymn affirms that everything is subject to Christ – the visible and the invisible, including political rulers - because Christ created everything. This is a bold statement. And it is clear that it’s a statement of faith. A statement, about how Christians, see things. “The Planets” has prompted me to wonder, ‘though, whether this is still believe-able given what Brian Cox has shown us about the universe. I think it is. For God isn’t a being who is outside creation, who just started it all off, and then let it go. Jane Williams describes the ongoing creation like this. “God’s creativity is inexhaustible, and it pours out into creation, into something that is not… God.” (4) God is continuing to create. God can be glimpsed through creation. And God is shaping its living and dying… ‘Though this is also the point at which language breaks down and wonder and praise takes over… And all I can say, is that I cannot but be amazed, by the beauty of it all. I cannot but believe that creation is more than chance. I cannot but affirm that it is the work of the “invisible God.”

“…in him all things hold together”

Part of the reason I believe this, is because of the truth contained in the verse of the hymn that says, “He… is before all things, in him all things hold together.” It’s a summary of the hymn’s first two verses. Christ is the “one who, because of his pre-existence, helped to bring all things into being is also the one who continues to sustain the whole creation and prevent its dis-integration into chaos.” (5) Once again, this is an affirmation of faith, but it’s an affirmation that also hints at the truth that the universe is held together by universal forces. By the strong nuclear force, by electromagnetism which binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom, and by others too. If some of these were to cease or become weaker, some scientists say we would have a chaos, not a cosmos. Some Christians will want to echo the questions and answers of this writer. “Who authored these forces? Who keeps the forces reined in – not too strong, not too weak? What sustains the orderliness of matter…?” For him, “There is no naturalistic explanation for the origin, consistency, and maintenance of the laws governing these forces. As a believer in the Bible and a careful observer of nature, it is not difficult to affirm with Colossians that ‘Christ holds all things together.’” (6) I’m not saying exactly the same as him. I don’t think we can read the scriptures as if they’re a scientific text-book. So, even ‘though there is some consistency here between what the writer says and what has been found to be true, I don’t think he was describing these universal forces when the writer of the letter wrote this. Rather, that he was expressing a conviction that the universal Christ, holds all things together. So, that even if everything seems to be disintegrating when things no longer make sense, we need not lose hope.

I find this reassuring as we face the climate emergency that threatens to overwhelm us. But it should not allow us to be complacent. Another BBC series – last year’s “Blue Planet II” - had a profound impact on our attitude to plastic. Talk that was previously largely confined to environmental circles, has now become common place, and everyone from the youngest among us upwards, knows that there is far too much plastic ending up in the oceans, and having a huge impact on wildlife. The contrast in the series between the pristine beauty that ought to have been seen and the appalling mess of the plastics that was seen, challenged us. And the impact of that challenge was as much emotional as intellectual. We felt as if we were letting the fish, sea-birds, and the planet down. And we wanted to act – and we wanted our government to act – so that the rest of creation would not suffer from our neglect. Since then, we’ve seen school children’s climate protests grow in this country, and Extinction Rebellion’s protest in Holy Week. And it’s as if everyone now recognises, that even ‘though the earth is resilient and continues to hold together, we cannot continue taking it for granted. And we cannot continue to live as we were as we causing the suffering of other creatures.

The same pattern is being seen in the way human beings and the communities we live in are increasingly estranged from one another. Yesterday, was Windrush Day, and the Prime Minister announced that there is to be a memorial to the Windrush generation in Waterloo Station. This is the generation of people from the Caribbean, that our government and industry, invited to come and live and work among us when there was a shortage of labour after the 2nd World War. They experienced appalling racism. And over the past few years, have been subjected to the hostile environment promoted by our government, against those they perceived to be illegal immigrants. Some lost their jobs, other were refused treatment for life-threating diseases, and other were sent back to live in places they’d not been for 60 years. For many of them, it seemed that no one was holding anything together, their lives were disintegrating. But community groups, churches and the media, stepped in to offer support, and to campaign for to get these appalling injustices recognised. Things are changing. Wrongs are being righted. But only this last week, a year after promises of compensation were made, Richard Stewart, a former Middlesex bowler died without receiving anything. This isn’t the only community affected by the hostile environment. Overseas students have been told they’ve cheated in their English tests when they haven’t. People claiming benefits or using foodbanks have been told they’re scroungers. Even ‘though many are working. Homeless people, many with mental health issues, are being cleared out of towns and cities. Those who protest and offer help, are affirming with the writer of the letter to the Colossians, that “in him all things hold together.” Saying with their actions, as well as their words, that the disintegration of our communities and relationships, are not the last word. Christ is.

“…he has reconciled us”

And this brings me to what I want to say about Jesus’ role in reconciling us – to Godself and to each other. The letter says, “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged…he has now reconciled… through death…” The writer of the letter to the Colossians uses the hymn to Christ and the verses that follow, to contrast the glory of Christ, the firstborn, the image of God, with the shedding of his blood on the cross in order to bring peace. He draws our attention to the two sides of God in Christ. The glorious creator and the work of the suffering lover, who reconciles broken creation and human communities, to God. The final verse of the hymn, says reconciliation happened, because Christ died on the cross. And this reconciliation includes, overcoming the hostile powers, the suffering, and fragmentation that have distorted creation and human community. But more powerful, I think, is its “conviction that, despite the vastness of the cosmos,” the power that determines its future “is not impersonal.” Andrew Lincoln says, “The God who is the ground of our existence bears a human face – that of Jesus Christ. [And] this means… that despite fragmenting and chaotic forces at work, we humans can trust that the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is more fundamental and gives the power that sustains the world in its distinctive character.” (7) And Jane Williams says something similar. “Without Jesus… the world is a set of apparently fragmented [parts], but Jesus reconciles them, restoring the harmony, showing the line and the shape of all that is.” (4)

The heart of the letter to the Colossians is the cross. This roots the reconciliation of creation explored in the hymn to Christ, in the experience of Jesus’ followers and in the life of the Christian community. The estrangement the writer identifies is the result of sin, and that’s evident in climate change and the way people who are “other” than us are being treated in this country. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, we are no longer estranged from God and each other, we are reconciled. But this also has implications for us≤ because the cross isn’t only about what Jesus has done, it’s also the pattern for our life. Later in his letter, the writer to the Colossian Christians, will remind them that in baptism they died and were raised again with Christ. And that like Jesus, who is both the image if the invisible God and of all humanity, being reconciled to God means letting go of those things that prevent other people and the rest of creation, from living fully. This is what those who are seeking change in relation to the climate emergency, and the way the Windrush generation, are seen are doing. They are living the pattern of the cross. And the world and all its people need more of us to join them.

There aren’t many more fragmenting, divisive issues, in this country at this time, than Brexit. There was a letter in the Guardian a week last Friday that said this. “We’ve been encouraged by our leaders to be extreme. We refuse to think, and simply see anyone who views things differently as deluded. Thinking is hard work. It means bringing together two different ideas out of which a third, creative idea emerges.” For me, this third, creative idea, is what the cross is. And she describes what both the cross and reconciliation looks like in this situation. “It means giving up the belief that you are right and that anyone who thinks differently is an idiot. It means giving up the delicious feeling of belonging to the good tribe that only exists because of the hated other tribe. But,” she asks, “didn’t these tribes come together briefly when we watched the D-day ceremonies; didn’t we feel for a day connected to the rest of humanity; and isn’t that the connection we all need to find if are to become sane again?” (8)

Conclusion

When I stop talking in a moment, we will share in the rededication of our pastoral visitors. Their ministry among us, especially at moments when we find ourselves separate from the rest of the Christian community, by illness, old age, or for other reasons, connects us. In particular it connects those who are unable to worship or meet up with the rest of us. But they are also representing us as they connect us with those unable to be where we are. They are making us one body. Connected. Reconciled. No longer estranged. Bringing us together across time and space. And through their presence Christ is made present. That’s not to say that Christ wasn’t present before they visited. Christ is present everywhere. But they make Christ present in a special way. As the person they are visiting sees and is seen. The invisible shape of the body of Christ become more visible in visited and visitor. God’s love overflows through Christ, as it did, at the beginning of creation. And it overflows through those who visit and those who are visited. As those bound to him and to each other, are being transformed ever more fully into the image and likeness of God. How much more would “all things hold together” if love over-flowed through God’s people to the rest of the world and God’s people as it does among us. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

23rd June 2019

(1) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07d4438

(2) Eager to Love Richard Rohr 2014, 221

(3) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p577

(4) Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections, 2001, p92-3

(5) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p578

(6) https://www.jashow.org/articles/all-things-hold-together/

(7) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p608-9

(8) Pauline Hodson in The Guardian Friday 14th June 2019 p6

References

(1) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07d4438

(2) Eager to Love Richard Rohr 2014, 221

(3) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p577

(4) Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections, 2001, p92-3

(5) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p578

(6) https://www.jashow.org/articles/all-things-hold-together/

(7) Andrew Lincoln New Interpreter’s Bible Vol XI, 2000 p608-9

(8) Pauline Hodson in The Guardian Friday 14th June 2019 p6