Col. 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
That is the very same passage from which I preached my first sermon as pastor here, six years and one month ago. Back then, I went to this passage to say what I hoped this privilege of being pastor with you would be all about: a “Christ-centered” ministry in a Christ-centered community, as Zion’s vision statement describes us. Now, this same passage and same theme are what I wish most to leave with us. Though many things have changed in the past six years, this passage remains as crucial now as it was then, and as it was when Paul wrote the Colossian Christians nearly 2100 years ago.
Not quite three years ago we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto the door of the Wittemburg Church in Germany. In just under seven years will come the 500th anniversary of the first baptisms of the Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland. Our Roman Catholic friends warned us that such Reformations would lead to millions of separatist denominations, sects and congregations, even to “churches of one.” They have a point. But given how much the Western church had lost its way back then, there had to be some sort of Reformation.
But now it seems to me that another Reformation is starting to take shape. Like the one in the 16th Century, it is driven by crisis, both inside and outside the church. But today’s emerging Reformation may be, in some ways, the reverse of the last one. That last one was centrifugal, that is, it has kept spinning off new movements and denominations like sparks from a Roman candle. We had the luxury of all that division and distinction amongst each other because of the power, prestige and security we had of Christendom.
By Christendom, I mean that hand-in-glove relationship between church and state, when kings and countries championed the church and enforced doctrine, when the church served as chaplain and cheerleader to king and country, and the culture seemed to expect that everyone and his dog would be Christian. But usually only the kind of Christian that your ruler was. The first Anabaptists recognized the dirty truth underneath the glamor and glitter of Christendom: that it was a protection racket that benefited the state and corrupted and compromised the church. And yet Christ and Christianity were not up for question.
Five hundred years after the last Reformation, and six years after my first sermon here, a different story is emerging. Christendom in Europe and the Americas is dead or dying. There’s no escaping the growing sense of disinterest, even contempt, for church and the gospel, in Western, post-Christendom society today. Pope Francis calls it, “polite persecution,” the social marginalization of Christians who dissent from any direction in which secular society is moving. Francis would be the first to admit that, to some degree, the church itself bears some of the blame, partly because of sexual abuse scandals. I thought the same when, at last week’s annual White House Prayer breakfast, no Christian leader objected, walked out or said anything when the President effectively contradicted the Sermon on the Mount, embarrassed the pastor who had just spoken about loving each other, and bashed his political counterparts there. Some even laughed. That critique was all over “secular media,” and I wish there were no element of truth to it.
But this is happening not only in government. The author, Wendell Berry, has noted that all Ten Commandments are obstacles and embarrassments to corporate culture and the profit motive. This “polite persecution” is also growing in business. Business is all into spirituality, but only the kind that is trendy and which promises to fatten their bottom line and slim down our bodies. One ad during the Super bowl this year started out in such an inspiring, religious way that I thought it was for a church, or the Salvation Army. Wrong; it was for an insurance company.
In the past six years we have witnessed the growth of secular and postmodern religions, in which political parties, some multinational corporations and hash tag campaigns are the new churches and denominations, while some media celebrities and politicians of the left and the right, progressive and reactionary become the new prophets and Messiah figures.
But that’s almost nothing compared to what the church in much of the rest of the world is facing. If this sanctuary were somewhere in the People’s Republic of China, as of two weeks ago, on February 1, we would be required to have Party Premier Xi Jinping’s portrait on the wall where currently you see the cross and “Jesus Is Lord.” You would not choose your next pastor; government officials would. And they would review and revise any sermons in advance. That’s mild compared to what Christians face in northern Nigeria, Iran, India, Indonesia and elsewhere, from militant Islam or Hinduism.
And yet this is also a time when the church is growing in numbers and impact in the Two-Thirds World, or the Global South, even in places of brutal and bare knuckle persecution. Still, they share this with us who live in the twilight of Christendom: the church is getting whittled down to those who are Christian solely and simply for love of Christ. Increasingly, there is nothing else for us in Christ than Christ himself, not prosperity, not social approval, not safety nor status. That’s as it should be. That’s how it was when Jesus called his first disciples to follow him. In the growing churches of the Global South, their new members know that coming in to the church, and still they feel infinitely blessed. We, in the graveyard of Christendom, are learning that now as churches shrink in number, impact and status.
I say all this not to depress nor to frighten us. Because this is a promising time of renewal and Reformation. But in the Reformation now emerging, the most pressing question before us is not which of the many brands of Christendom do we prefer, and want to join? That is to apply a consumer mentality to Christian discipleship, one that will not endure the trials and tests of Post-Christendom.
Nor is the question, “Which of the many brands of Christendom is most right?” Truth matters, of course. But ever since the last Reformation, the different groups of Christendom, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal and Anabaptist, have failed to convince or convert each other about things that divided and distinguished us, like baptism, communion, the authority of the Bishop of Rome, war and violence, what-have-you. But now that the luxury of dividing and distinguishing ourselves over and against each other is disappearing, I’m starting to see a new orientation among churches and Christians. It’s an orientation that values the gifts and wisdom that each part of the global Christian family has to offer the other. That requires of us humility and love, rather than the hostility and certainty of crusaders.
Still, something must serve to draw us together, among our churches, as well as within our churches, something other than the old distinctions that drew some together while dividing us from others. In the world’s darkening night, and the storm that is now tossing the church’s boat, clinging to the wreckage of Christendom will only cause us to sink with it. I see hope, but only when I look where Jesus wanted Peter to look, one dark and stormy night, when Peter and his friends were caught in a boat out on the heaving Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked out to them across the water. He then invited Peter to walk out to him. But Peter could only do so as long as he did what Paul tells his Colossian friends to do in the words we just heard: to keep our eyes on Christ. Only by focusing on Christ could Peter walk and keep his head above the waves and the water. That makes of Colossians 1: 15-20 not only a worshipful and inspiring meditation on the person of Jesus Christ; they are our survival guide “for such a time as this.”
These words also hold the key to the Reformation I think I see now starting to take shape. This time, I see a centripetal Reformation, one that draws different and divided Christians and churches back toward Christ and, therefore, to each other. That, oddly enough, at the very time that the world is spinning off new ideologies and identities, with ever more hostile battle lines among its new secular religions. In the churches’ emerging Reformation, instead of Christian groups and theologies identifying themselves over and against each other, each will share with the other, each will receive from each other, the riches of their heritages and histories around this point of commonality: Jesus the Christ.
Not just any Jesus. For the dark side of our previous Reformation remains: the temptation to take one part and piece of Christ’s nature, his identity and mission, and make it our everything, even to the point of weaponizing it against those who major in other parts of Christ’s nature, mission and identity. So we may privilege Christ’s full humanity over and against Christ’s full divinity, or vice versa. We may pit the social justice Christ against the Christ of personal holiness. We may pit the nonviolent, reconciling Christ against the Christ who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. If exegesis is the art of drawing meaning out of the Bible, then that is to add an extra Jesus to our exegesis. That only adds to our confusion and our divisions
While Anabaptists have much to share with the world’s church about following Christ, we need insights from the church of other cultures and centuries about just who it is we are to follow: the Jesus described in the Gospels and so beautifully and poetically in today’s passage, that some suggest that it might be an ancient Christian hymn. Paul’s hymn of praise to Christ in Colossians 1 shows us Christ in the fullness of his nature, his identity and his mission.
The first thing we hear about Christ in this passage is that “he is the image of the invisible God.” The second of the Ten Commandments tells us not to fashion any visible, tangible images of God. As someone once said, “God made us in his image, and we have been trying to return the favor ever since.” There is in our fallen-ness and brokenness a crazy-making compulsion to remake God into our own image, or as a mascot for our racial, political and theological tribe, to give ourselves the illusions of control, of superiority and of self-made virtue, and so justify ourselves. But the images of God that we mortals make in wood or stone or paint or metal, always tell us more about ourselves, their makers, than they do about the God who makes us. Thus, to worship idols is actually to worship ourselves.
Besides, God gives us the perfect image of himself in the person, the life and the love of Jesus of Nazareth. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,” Paul adds. Therefore, any image of God that we make only obscures God’s perfect self-representation in Jesus, and distracts us from him.
The next thing we hear about Christ is that “he is the firstborn over all Creation.” This is another way of saying what John says about Jesus in the beginning of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Whenever God speaks, God expresses God-self, and God’s language is Jesus. Like when God first said, in the Bible, “Let there be….” beginning with light. For Christ is, “the Light of the World.” That is how Paul can dare to say, in verse 16: “For in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” The Word of God, living and spoken, is the source, the reason, and the goal of our existence.
The next thing we hear about Christ is that, “he is the head of the body, the church (verse 18)” For any community, like ours, a time of leadership transition is naturally a time of heightened anxiety. God forbid that anyone should discharge their anxiety on anyone else, a perennial temptation. Fortunately, Pastor Jana is yet with you through another of—how many transitions is it?—five, including some interims? And there’s Jodi, our administrative assistant, with us yet, also a wise and proven veteran of other transitions, with a steady hand.
But whether there is a lead pastor here or not, whether there is an interim pastor or a long-term one, we are never without a supreme pastor, head of this church, and of all others who claim him: Jesus, the Good Shepherd. From him we, the body, draw our life, our love, our inspiration and our instruction.
As head of the church, and the very reason for the church, Christ does not lead us where he has not gone already. That’s why we hear next that Christ “is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Everything we are going through, and shall go through, in life or death, Christ has already endured and overcome. He is therefore supremely qualified to tell us, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
Twenty centuries later, we are not all that different from the Colossian Christians who received this letter. They were dividing up and distinguishing themselves against each other by “majoring in the minors,” like diet, dress and holy days. The antidote to our spiritual compulsion to division, distraction and distinction, is to see Christ again for the first time, in his fullness and his all-sufficiency, in all his facets as our high priest, our prophet, our monarch, our healer, our friend, the Merciful Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world and yet is also its only rightful judge, Christ as God’s champion fighter against evil and the evil one, and Christ, our Prince of Peace, God’s personal and costly way of “reconciling to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” If we are to follow Christ in this life, then we must know who he is and why he is worth following.
Now, for a brief art lesson. If this following image, from a church in Colmar, France, looks vaguely familiar, it’s either because you have studied art history, traveled there, like Becky did, or you remember it from my first message here six years ago. What I said then I’ll say again now: See the person at your lower right hand corner, pointing to Christ on the cross? That is John the Baptist, testifying to Christ, as he says, in John’s Gospel, “Behold the Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world.” That’s us there, too. John’s purpose is our calling, and our privilege, too. Seeing Christ, and showing him, faithfully, truthfully, whatever the cost, is more important than our survival as persons, a church or a denomination.
Nobody does everything right, nor equally well. But I care most about having done what John the Baptist is doing in this triptych, in word and deed, these past six years. I recommend the same priority ever and always for Zion Mennonite Church.
I’d like to close with a reading together of what is in our blue Hymnal/Worship Book 714: