a sermon on Colossians 1:15-20
mere fifteen verses into his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul suddenly launches into song. At first glance, we might not recognize it as such, as most of our translations don’t show the text as being of a different character from Paul’s usual prose. I suspect as we heard these verses read aloud here tonight, very few people would have had any sense that they were hearing poetry.
But that is what we read, and while he was composing his letter to the Colossian church, if Paul didn’t quite burst into song surely his soul was singing as these words were scratched across the parchment. Hear those words again:
Christ is the image of the invisible God the firstborn of all creation for in him were created all things in heaven and earth things visible and invisible whether thrones or dominions whether rulers or powers all things have been created through him and for him And he is before all things and in him all things hold together And he is the head of the body, the church He is the beginning the firstborn from the dead so that he might come to have first place in everything for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and 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. (From N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology)
“Christ is the image of the invisible God,” sings Paul. Christ is, which means Caesar is not… and in so many ways, that is what lies at the heart of this song; this treasonous and liberating proclamation of what is really going on, of what is really true. The primary claimant for “imaging” the divine during these years of the Roman Empire was Caesar. “Images of the emperor,” write Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat in their book Colossians Remixed,
Images of the emperor were as ubiquitous in the first century as corporate logos are in the twenty-first century. The image of Caesar and other symbols of Roman power were literally everywhere – in the market, on coins, in the gymnasium, at the gladiatorial games, on jewelry, goblets, lamps and paintings. The sovereign rule of Caesar was simply assumed to be the divine plan for the peace and order of the cosmos. Of course this is the way the world works. Under such conditions it becomes hard to imagine any life alternative to the empire.
Hard, but not impossible. Just as Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets who experienced the hope-crushing rule of the Babylonian empire had dared to sing dangerously hopeful songs of restoration and return, so too Paul. There is some ongoing scholarly discussion as to whether Paul wrote this “song of the first-born,” or perhaps picked up on an existing Christian hymn and adapted it in his epistle; frankly, it doesn’t matter. The song says what he most needs to say. The words sing out what most needs to be proclaimed.
Christ is the image of the invisible God. And Caesar is not.
More. Christ is the firstborn of all creation – not a last minute solution to fix the world or remedy human sinfulness – but rather from the beginning God has intended to make Godself known to the world in and through Christ.
More. In Christ were created all things in heaven and earth. Again, Christ is not a stop-gap response to the downward spiral of human history, suddenly making an appearance in the opening chapters of the gospels. No, Christ is present on the first page of the book of Genesis, and in every moment of the creative life of the entire universe. Thrones, dominions, rulers, powers; none of it could even be, if not for Christ’s place in the creation of the world. So there, Caesar.
More. All things hold together in Christ – and here Paul suggests a particular significance for the church, the body of Christ – and in his death and resurrection God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and earth. All things. Not even Nero or Caligula, in their madness and pomposity, would have made such a claim. All things.
Paul, of course, might himself seem slightly mad. After all, he is probably writing this from a jail cell in Ephesus, which hardly seems to bear out his claims of the reconciling and creative presence of the Christ. Yet chains and bars, the violence of “pax Romana” and the pervasive “branding” of emperor and empire could not dull his imagination. He’d heard a deeper song.
And what about us, our age, our version of the Caesars? “(T)he key pathology of our time,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “which seduces us all, is the reduction of imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” (Interpretation and Obedience) In face of the 1000s of corporate and political images with which we are confronted day after day after day, can we, like Paul and Isaiah and Jeremiah before us, find the imaginative courage to sing a counter-song?
We must. For Christ is the image of the invisible God. Caesar is not. And neither is money, fame, health, or luxury. Not Nike or Adidas, Apple or Microsoft. Not this car, that fashion, this Scotch, or that investment portfolio.
Part of our work and our calling as disciples of this Christ is to create and sing the counter-songs, born of imaginations undulled by empire. But like Paul and the prophets before him, in order to do that we must learn to hear the music that rings in and through the whole of creation; the hymn of the Christ.
Once you’ve heard those notes ringing in your imagination or caught a glimpse of that in your mind’s eye – in the words of the great, old 19th century hymn – how could we keep from singing?My life flows on in endless song: Above earth’s lamentation, I catch the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn That hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; It finds an echo in my soul– How can I keep from singing?