Daily Archives: July 20, 2010

Sermon on Colossians 1: A Word to the Fashionable Modalists

M gave me permission to post this up; it’s what she preached this past Sunday. I wondered if it might rustle some feathers in the congregation but apparently she got quite a lot of feedback—all of it overwhelmingly positive. So, without further ado:

When my elder daughter, G., was about three or four she came home one day from pre-school and in her usual manner told me all about her day. She began to tell this vivid story of her new friend Vava. I thought his name was a little unusual, but then she told me that he was Hindu and I realized that this was a name from India that I had never heard before. Day after day I heard all about Vava and one day she informed me that Vava was coming over to visit before he moved. Sure, I told her. I’ll get his phone number tomorrow when I drop you off at school. “No, Mom” she said. “You can’t do that.” Puzzled I asked her why? She said in all seriousness, “Mom, Vava isn’t real—you can’t see him.”

As it turned out, Vava was one of G.’s imaginary friends. For several years we heard quite a lot about Vava and his female companion Doodoo, who they were visiting and what they were up to. Our younger daughter, H., made friends with them as well, and kept them company once G. went off to kindergarten.

What we eventually figured out, though, is that Vava was only partly an imaginary friend. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that Vava was actually an invisible friend. Bit by bit, my husband and I began to realize that Vava was modeled quite closely after one of G.’s real-life friends, and Indian boy named R.. Many of the characteristics and hobbies that we thought G. had made up Vava were entirely real about R.. When we actually met the real boy R. at a birthday party, I felt like I already knew him because I’d lived so long with Vava. The real boy taught us about the imaginary friend, and, in turn, the invisible friend taught us about the real boy.

Paul’s language in Colossians this morning reminded me of Vava, and I couldn’t help thinking about him and about R. this week. Paul says in particular that Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. And that interplay between Vava and R. came to mind hearing Paul discuss the interplay between who Jesus is and who God is, and about what we learn about God by looking at Jesus.

This passage from Colossians is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the New Testament. Indeed, this passage is often referred to as one of the earliest Christian hymns. Now, we don’t know if anyone actually sang it or if it was used in early church gatherings outside of where we find it in this letter, but its language is rich and evocative and beautiful. Sometimes with language this beautiful, I give in to the temptation to just let it wash over me and to enjoy the experience of hearing it without trying to fully understand it. And yet—this is worth the trouble to understand.

It’s not uncommon these days in the Episcopal Church to hear people using the phrase “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” when they are talking about the Trinity or even to hear some clergy start services or sermons with an invocation “in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” I don’t do that and I won’t do that because I think it’s confusing and, without quite a lot of clarification, it gives people a set of wrong ideas about God.

In one sense, the basic formula is absolutely right: The Trinity does act together as the world’s creator, redeemer, and sustainer. But—that’s rarely how the formula comes across. Instead, too many of the people I know use it as a kind of shorthand or substitute. They have become very sensitive to the use of too much male language and so they don’t want to use too much. As a result, they get the sense that instead of saying “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” that it’s perfectly ok to say “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” And it’s not.

The problem isn’t so much the formula, rather it’s how they use it and how we hear it. It’s really easy to hear this phrase and to think “oh—I see: Creator = Father, Redeemer = Jesus, and Sustainer = the Holy Spirit.” And that’s not right. And one of the reasons that’s not right is what the poetry from Colossians tells us this morning. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Or, as John’s Gospel records Jesus saying, if you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

The real problem with the formula is the way that it limits our understanding of who God is and how God acts. One of Paul’s key points today is how Jesus is the great linch-pin of Creation: “All things have been created in him and for him.” Paul is reminding us—hey, Jesus is “Creator” too! But then he goes right on to say, “in him all things hold together.” Paul is reminding us—hey, Jesus is “Sustainer” too! And let me tell you today that all of this is Good News. Why? Because what Paul is telling us here is that Jesus is the very image of the invisible God—we learn about the invisible God from the God who took flesh. We learn about the God whom we cannot see who blows around us at this moment from the one whom, as 1 John starts out: we have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our own hands, concerning the Word of Life. Paul reminds us in this beautiful New Testament hymn that Jesus himself is simultaneously the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. And indeed, he shows us what is revealed elsewhere: God the Father is the Creator, yes, but as the God who freed Israel from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm is a redeemer and as he fed the Children of Israel with quail and manna in the desert was Sustainer as well. The Holy Spirit who sustains us is the same Spirit who laid the foundation stones of Creation and who redeems us in water and Spirit when we are washed in the holy waters of baptism.

So here’s Paul’s point—and it ends up having a really practical purpose: Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. If we want to learn about God, the first and best way to do it is to look at Jesus. It is to consider Christ. And now we’ll use just two points to make this practical.

First, when we look at Jesus, when we look at what he said and what he did, we see love, the reconciling love of God who calls us back to the riches of the glory of the mystery of God. The love of God revealed in Christ is so deep that God is willing to go to the cross for us. The love of God revealed in Christ is so powerful that not even the cross can end it, for God’s love breaks the bonds of death.

Second—our second point takes us back to invisible friends. Sometimes those whom we cannot see teach us about those whom we can. And, vice-versa, sometimes those whom we can see teach us about those whom we cannot. We cannot see God the Father or God the Spirit with our eyes of flesh. And, even though the apostles could, we can no longer see Jesus with our eyes either. So how do we learn about those whom we cannot see? Well—we look at the parts that we can see. In our liturgy we proclaim that each of us is baptized into the Body of Christ. We become part of his body. When we gather together at the altar for Eucharist, we feed on the Body of Christ. The Body becomes a literal, physical part of us. Now, in these latter days, we cannot see Jesus. Unless, of course, we stop and look around the room…

One of the great monastic teachers, John Cassian, wrote over fifteen centuries ago about how his monks were supposed to learn about virtue. They were to look to the elder monks and find those whose lives were worthy of being imitated. But no one person has all of the virtues. Instead, Cassian counsels that we look for the good, we look for the virtues, in each person around us. In one we will find wisdom, in another humility, in another righteous action, in yet another compassion. These virtues, Cassian tells us, are nothing less than Christ distributed amongst his people. It is only when we come together in unity and in faith that we bring together the whole Christ of whom we are members.

How do we know the invisible God? Well—by looking at who we are when we are at our best together. This church can be a true model of who God is. We can ourselves be an image of the invisible God when we, as a whole, show forth the love that Christ commands of us. Furthermore—Christ is the linch-pin. He is what holds us all together.

The world that we live in is so broken and fragmented, but this Colossians passage gives us hope. We are told, “and in him all things hold together.” If we look through the eyes of faith, though, we see that it is Christ’s love that is holding everything together. It ought to encourage us rather than depress us, inspire us instead of making us do nothing—so I leave you with one task this coming week. See if you can figure out how Christ’s arms embrace the world today in your own life and in the life of the church—and how we, in our actions, can continue to extend his arms in love.