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.

23 thoughts on “Sermon on Colossians 1: A Word to the Fashionable Modalists

  1. Bill the Anxious Anglican

    Wow!! That is a spectacular sermon that engages weighty issues from a scriptural base with reference to the tradition and common sense/experience – quintessentially Anglican! Thank you for sharing, and kudos to the homilist.

  2. Derek Olsen

    Thanks Bill and C.—thanks especially for the audio link!

    There seems to be this sense that a female Episcopal priest preaching doctrine grounded in the Scriptures is a man-bites-dog story. I have no idea if that’s the case generally or not, but it certainly isn’t with M…

  3. Caelius Spinator

    Great sermon. I especially like the lead-in.

    I’ve noticed that my local modalists are starting to express their preference for the participial form, “Creating, redeeming, and sustaining,” which is less vulnerable to M.’s particular critique here but smells even more of modalism than before. It surprises me that a group that generally preaches about the Trinity as relationship expresses the Trinity as actions or job titles.

    Oh, well. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Vicki McGrath

    Brava to M. for a great sermon!

    So this makes me ask for your input on a question, Derek. In your particular theological wisdom, do you understand Jesus to be the Second Person of the Trinity or (more akin to this Colossians passage) is Jesus the Incarnation of God which includes all three Persons of the Trinity? I guess what I’m asking is how you read the “Son” language as used in the Trinity as opposed to “Son of God” language?

    Tahnks for any thoughts on this.


  5. Kevin Montgomery

    On my less charitable days, I sometimes feel like an Episcopal priest, male or female, (or other mainstream Protestant minister for that matter) preaching doctrine grounded in the Scriptures can be a man-bites-dog story, but that’s really only when I’m feeling especially snippy and frustrated by the level of preaching in general. :D

    Re: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer
    Personally, I do like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and certainly prefer it as the primary invocation of the Trinity in our public liturgies. However, there is definitely a need for other ways of expressing the Trinity of Persons that isn’t as exclusively masculine, whether in private or other informal prayer or sermons or even occasional use in public liturgical functions such as in final blessings. Getting one that doesn’t stray too far from sound trinitarian doctrine, however, is a little tricky. Any ideas on possible alternative trinitarian formulas? One I know of that has some promise (imo) is used in the Order of St. Helena Breviary, “Source of All Being, Incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit.” Any others that people have heard/used?

  6. Derek Olsen

    Wow—that’s a complicated one. I think the way I might choose to answer it is this: I’m not sure that’s a question that the authors of Scripture would have considered, so their testimony will not necessarily be helpful in answering it. Part of the difficulty here is that we’re trying to get at what both John and Paul are intending to communicate and I always hate playing the intention game.

    I suppose part of the question here is parsing what Paul means: does he mean all of the fullness of YHWH dwells in Jesus or is he saying that the fullness of the Triune Godhead dwells in Jesus? My guess is the former rather than the latter.

    To back out to the basic level, the doctrine of the Trinity arose from the Christian experience of divinity coming from multiple angles, we then wrapped language around that basic experience in increasingly philosophical terms.

    Ultimately my neo-stoic pragmatism will lead me to give you the same response as I give the folks who ask me if God can create a rock to big for him to move: “If you telling me what bearing the rock has on your salvation, I’ll tell if God can do it…” That is, Trinitarian reflection can be a complete waste of time if it’s not proceeding out of a pastoral situation (which it often is if you keep digging far enough…). So, my response will be: “How do you see the potential answers to this question intersecting Christian faith and practice?”

  7. Vicki McGrath


    Thank you. That was not meant to be a trick question in any way. I suppose my answer to your final question – which stikes me as a very good one – is that I experience Trinitarian doctrine/reflection and Incarnational doctrine/reflection as being very closely linked, so that as I am in relationship with Jesus I know myself to be drawn into both the dance and the still center point that is the Trinitarian nature of God.


  8. C. Wingate

    Kevin, I have to ask: why do you think there is this need to avoid the masculine? Why can’t we just learn to live with the language we’ve been given?

  9. Kevin Montgomery

    I didn’t advocate avoiding the masculine. (In fact, I stated that I do like the traditional formulation.) What I’m suggesting is the occasional supplementing of the traditional masculine usage in some circumstances.

    As for learning to live with the language we’ve been given, well, we do that already, but we also add to and adapt it as language and social contexts change. As with tradition, language is handed on, and part of that handing on always involves change. Mind you, that change should be (thought not always is) done conservatively and with careful attention to what has gone before.

  10. bls

    The desire isn’t a need to “avoid” the masculine; it’s obvious that Jesus is male, for instance – but the First Person of the Trinity? The Holy Spirit? Why in the world would – and how, exactly, could – anybody assign a gender to either of these Persons? Gender is a human category, and a rather limiting way to think, in fact.

    How about God the First Person, matter of fact?

  11. bls

    (And of course, the church has spent two millennia attempting to erase female participation in its sacramental life. So there’s that aspect, too.

    I’m kind of surprised that this isn’t glaringly obvious, actually. Is it really so hard to imagine why women would hope to change the church’s habits in this area, too?)

  12. Derek Olsen

    At this point I think we’d do well to consider again the tradition of apophatic/negative theology that our Eastern cousins deploy more often and to better effect than we. One part of that is remembering that every affirmation about God should immediately followed up by a negation of that very thing. God is good, but God is not “good”; God is Father, but God is not “father.” That is, every human attempt to wrap words around God fails and every human attempt to apply even our grandest adjectives fall short in kind–not degree–from the reality of who and what God is. This is part of the truth captured in Barth’s speaking about God as Wholly Other. (And the appropriate apophatic denial of that leads us towards the mystery if the Incarnation when God chose to approach closer…) All words about God formed by human consciousness are metaphors.

    Second, “father” is a root metaphor in the Christian Scriptures and theology. It has gained a certain pride of place. This pride of place does not mean that other metaphors cannot be used, rather that “father” has a certain preeminence in our considerations. Other metaphors are useful for reminding us that “father: is, indeed, a metaphor however primary. Scripture uses plenty of metaphors for God including mothering ones as we all know. Personally, from an Anglican perspective I’m quite fond of “Rock”, “Crag”, and “Stronghold” due to their ubiquity throughout the Psalter. However, the first in particular fails as a descriptor of the Triune God on linguistic-cultural grounds as Americans will inevitably fill in the sequence with “…, paper, scissors”.

    Specifically to bls’s point, the fact that “father” is a root metaphor does not excuse the way that it has in some times and in some places been deployed as a denigration of female worth. It has—and it should not be so used. How to work that out in practice is complicated but I, for one, don’t feel that banning it is the answer. Judicious use of alternatives in teaching? perhaps; excising it from the liturgy? no.

  13. Joe Rawls

    Thank you, Derek, for the very helpful reference to apophaticism. I use “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” in my own prayers for apophatic reasons, not because I’m a modalist. (Of course, I’m still trying to get a handle on the full implications of “apophatic”).

  14. bls

    I have no problem with using “Father,” I should add – Jesus used it, and he’s the boss – but I certainly believe that it is or can be problematic is some ways.

    “Holy One” is far better, I think – and I’m perfectly fine with exploring other such Names for God. I do agree that the job-title-like “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” does not work and could encourage modalist thinking.

    I’m just surprised that people are surprised about this! It seems so clear to me that the “avoidance” has really been completely the other way around for a long, long time – it’s the feminine that been eschewed since forever, and what we’re seeing now is just a reaction to this. But this, too, shall pass…..

  15. bls

    (In A.A., the concept is “God as we understand him” – and yes, the male pronoun used, ironically, in absolute contradiction to the statement itself! This is why I have no problem with “Father,” actually; that’s “God as Jesus understood him.”

    But that configuration is actually more true anyway, I think…..)

  16. The young fogey

    I think the reason so many pro and con assume a woman minister will be heretical about the basics (such as modalism on the Trinity) is because you have to sidestep orthodox theology (here it comes: infallible church) to have such ministers. (I understand Mary Daly, a Thomist before Vatican II, was honest about that.) And because all of mainline Protestantism has the same theological foundation (again, fallible church) more people now assume a minister of either sex will be that way. Which of course doesn’t rule out one having orthodox basic beliefs, as you and M have made clear.

    ¡Vaya con Dios!

  17. Christopher

    Let us not forget that English spirituality and theology (St Anselm, Bl Julian) has a history of speaking of Jesus as our Mother. Jesus as male must always break on to embodiment of all humanity. Where it has not and does not, Chalcedon is put at risk. And it has not a lot.

  18. Bill Dilworth

    At the end of the Eucharist I attended at the church in Provincetown the priest solemnly blessed us in the name of “God – Lion, Lamb, and Holy Dove.”

  19. Derek Olsen

    Bill, was this at the beginning or the end of March? Alternatively, if the service went out with a lion, did it come in with a lamb?

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