The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson is pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Today the cycle of the Christian year comes to an end with a festival that celebrates and proclaims Christ's lordship over all things. Whether we call it the festival of "Christ the King" or by the more contemporary name, "The Reign of Christ," the message is the same--Jesus Christ is Lord, the image of the invisible God. The language of today's lesson is unequivocal, straightforward, particular, and unmistakably clear--he is the image of the invisible.
Of the many ways to approach this text, I have decided to simply unpack each of its extraordinary claims and make them relevant, not simply to you and me, nor only to those who claim the name of Christ for themselves, but for every creature in the cosmos. For Christ is not simply my Lord and Savior, or your Lord and Savior; Christ is Lord and Savior of all--this is what today confesses.
He is the image of the Invisible God (1). The word behind image is "icon," making visible what is otherwise invisible. He is the manifestation of God in the flesh and blood--the transcendent become immanent--so that flesh and blood might know beyond a doubt who God is, what God is about in this world, and what it is God wants of us. But as icon of the invisible he is more than simply what God looks like. He is also the One through whom you and I enter into God's eternal yet ever immanent presence. That is what icons do for us; they transport us into the reality they signify. The world of computers gives us an immediate illustration. When you click on an icon, the program behind it opens to you, and you find yourself transported into its wondrous world. In a religious and liturgical frame of reference, focusing on an icon draws you through that image into the presence of the one so portrayed. And, so, when you enter an Orthodox sanctuary, you know yourself to be surrounded by the company of saint; and when you look upon one of the many magnificent icons of Christ, you find yourself drawn through the surface of that reality into the very heart of Christ himself. This is what the church confesses about Jesus: he is not only the Christ of God, he is the one through whom you and I can be drawn into the very presence of the invisible God. He is the icon of God, the image of the invisible(2).
He is the firstborn of all creation. The word "firstborn" here is less temporal than of rank(3)--sovereign both within and over creation--for he was not only present at creation, he is the One through whom God created all things in heaven and earth(4). The One who entered the world in order to redeem it is the One through whom God created the world in the first place. He is, if you will entertain an analogy, the master artist who, at no small cost to himself, entered into his damaged masterpiece to restore it to its original glory. Doing so, Christ became not only creation's source, but also its goal; more about that in a moment.
He is the One who holds this cosmos together now. Listen to that affirmation carefully. It tells us that this world is not under the control of national leaders, thirsty for power, or weapons of mass destruction--nuclear or otherwise--nor those crazed with a religious zeal that not only cuts off heads of others, but even commits suicide to pursue its goals. What holds this world together is not the survival of the fittest nor the unending cycle of violence since Cain and Abel acted out in the various theaters of hatred in today's world, nor even the continuing biological cycle of birth, life, death, decay and re-birth that we see in nature. What holds this world together is the power--the life force--of the One who created and redeemed it and who in sovereignty over it all continues to hold it together. The cosmos belongs to the Cosmic Christ and will not be wrested from him; in him all things hold together(5).
Christ is the head of the body, the church?not just the Orthodox Church, not just the Roman Catholic Church, not just the myriad of Protestant Mainline, Free, Evangelical, or Pentecostal churches?he is head and present in each and all who faithfully proclaim his word and celebrate his sacraments. Those are, of course, the two marks John Calvin used to identify the true church when that question was being asked in the 16th century. In this 21st century, I'd like to suggest another mark of the true church--where women and men not only hear Christ speak in the proclamation of the Word and receive Christ present in water, bread and wine, but then make Christ present in this world as they bear him faithfully in their daily living. Therein, the church, regardless of the denominational name by which it is identified, demonstrates who is its one true head--its Lord. The church, as body of Christ, becomes his living presence in this world when you and I bear Christ from our places of worship into the many places God has called upon each one of us to bear witness to and serve him. You are Christ in your office, in your apartment building, in your neighborhood, in your parenting association, in all of your associations and relationships, public and private. Each of us who has put on Christ in the waters of baptism and lives into that identity--listening for him to speak as God's Word is read and proclaimed and waiting upon him in faith as we receive him in bread and wine--becomes a means by whom Christ is present in this world--a sacrament, if you will, of his real presence in 21st century life.
Christ reigns in and through each of us. As a consequence, you and I are called to be Christ to others, seeking reconciliation where there is alienation, healing where there is brokenness--brokenness in the church, brokenness in this nation, brokenness in this world. This is our mandate, our mission, our vocation. Those who dare to claim the name of Christ must bear him, heeding his call to heal divisions, restore life and seek peace; that is what it means to be a Christ bearer. For, you see, Christ not only saves souls--reconciling them to his Father--Christ calls on all souls to be reconciled to one another and work for peace and security between enemies. Christ commands that you and I find ways to address whatever injustices we encounter, wherever we encounter them in this world, and resolve them peacefully. As Christ bearers, we are called to be as concerned for the value of life in Iraq as we are for the unborn life in a mother's uterus...the value of life incarcerated in our prisons as we are the value of the growing child. Why? Because it is Christ's life that is at the center of all life in this world, holding it together for his and his Father's purposes. He is head of the church and becomes present in this world each time you and I make him sovereign in our own lives.
He is the beginning, not only the One through whom creation came into being, but the One through whom the new creation is unfolding--the new beginning--the firstborn of the dead. Our hope in the face of death is the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ of God. As God re-membered (that word is hyphenated) his Son, and breathed God's creative Spirit of life back into Jesus' dead body to raise him to life beyond this life, so too God promises that same act of re-membrance for each one of us who embraces that promised gift in faith. God promises to re-member us, to raise us beyond the power of death and give us life so radically transformed that we can only speak of it as a new beginning, a new creation.
He is the end--the firstborn of God's new creation--the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, not only to redeem and restore, but also to reconcile things--not just some things, but all things, making peace through the blood of his cross. Christ's sacrifice on the cross was not simply in order to reconcile you and me to God. The enmity that invaded creation, revealed in the chaos, hatred, warfare and brokenness so apparent in life today, has been overcome through the blood of Christ's cross and has opened Christ's realm of peace to any who will embrace it in faith and faithfulness. I said earlier that Christ is not only the source and sustainer of all creation, he is also the goal to whom all creation moves. The Cosmic Christ is not some abstract idea conjured in new-aged thought, but the crucified One(6) who died, was raised, reigns and promises to come again so that you and I, and the whole created order, may be caught up in God's act of new creation.
This is startling, regal, inclusive language that reveals the reign of Christ in which you and I are living right now. And, so, I end this sermon as it began: "May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins(7)."
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray. Gracious God, so fill us with the presence of your Son that we may bear him and share him and become sacraments of his presence in this broken world until that day when he returns to make all things new. This we ask in his name and for his sake. Amen.
1) John 1:18; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:27.
2) 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:4; Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 1:3.
3) Romans 8:29; Revelation 3:14; Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, "Colossians,"The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 597f.
4) Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2.
5) Colossians 1:17.
6) Lincoln, Op. Cit., p. 607.
7) Colossians 1:11-14.