We have been talking and thinking a lot about the future of the Church recently, about the future of this congregation, about the future of our denomination. Most of our talk has been about declining numbers. When we’ve talked about growth we’ve often talked about the need to find more people so that the life of the Church as we’ve known it can be sustained. We have had in mind the church’s need for members.
I have come feel that this is getting things the wrong way round. If Christianity is to continue to be a force for good in our world it must be because people need it, not because it needs people. If we are to grow we have to have, and to believe that we have, something that others need. In order to grow the church has to offer a solution not an additional problem for those who come into it.
Today’s reading from Colossians reminds us what it is that we offer, what it is that we seek when we come here. Jesus, it says, is the image of the invisible God. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to God, making peace by the blood of his cross. Through Jesus, the letter says, come reconciliation and peace.
Describing Jesus as the image of God reminds us that Genesis tells us we are created as this image. We are made to be the image of God and Jesus shows us what that means. In him comes a renewed relationship with everything that exists through a repaired communion with God. In joining ourselves to Christ, the man who is God, God who is the Son of Man, we put right all the things that make us less than we are meant to be. That’s what the Church offers; the opportunity to become fully, properly human, through unity with the one whom humanity is made to represent.
Our faith in God has at its heart the idea that the universe makes sense, has a meaning and a purpose, and that human beings have a central place in that purpose. That’s the core of what the creation story says to us. All this stuff around us, from the dirt under our feet to the stardust at the ends of the cosmos, from the massive nuclear reactor that is our sun to the cold empty spaces between galaxies, from the floors of the ocean to the inside of our skulls, all of it is joined together and celebrated in God’s seeing at the end of the sixth day that it was very good.
And, Colossians says of Jesus, “he is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of his body, the church.” So Jesus brings everything to peace, he holds everything together, he is the image of God, he is the head of the church. In all of this he is the image of the invisible God, and as such he is the prototype of the completed human race, he is, to quote again, “the first born of the dead”.
What we have to offer is Christ, is union with him through baptism and communion and through participation in his body, the church. What we have to offer is the chance to grow into the destiny human beings are made for, the representation of God, as God’s image.
When we think about what we need, what human beings need, we shouldn’t start from what we want but from how we can be, how we can do, how we can feel the best that we could; what can make us what completes creation and transforms it from good to very good. This final stage in the making of all things is the placing in it of an image of its creator, someone to represent God in and to it.
At this moment we are not, not yet, that perfect image. But we do have a way both of knowing what that image is and of becoming more like it. That way is Jesus. He is the perfected image, he is humankind as we are meant to be. That’s what the letter means when it says he is the image of the invisible God; Jesus is what we are meant to be. What’s more Jesus is not simply a distant memory. He is still present in the world in his body the church, of which, as the letters says, he is the head. When we come into the church we not only meet our risen and ascended Lord, we are joined to him.
Now that’s a big claim: “come into the Church and become part of the body of Christ, Lord and Saviour, God the Son”. It is, though, a central part of Christian teaching, as today’s reading shows. It is also both exciting and inspiring, if we take it seriously. Jesus is the one who brings peace and reconciliation, who holds all things together, and through the Church anyone can both receive that peace and the love that motivates it and become part of the wonderful work of redemption and salvation.
What’s more if these claims are true, that all of this is the fulfilment of the deepest and profoundest reality of what it means to be a human being, then those who are not part of the community of God’s people in the Church are missing out on something that they need to be truly and properly themselves, and I think deep down everybody feels that lack.
The offer we make is the chance to become a human being in the most complete sense. How this works itself out in the life of each person will be unique to them, after all nobody can be replaced by anybody else. In coming to know and to live out the limitless and inexhaustible love that comes to us through Jesus every person will be transformed, each will be raised to new and fuller life in communion with him and with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
For most of us most of the time this will be undramatic. It will be expressed through the peace we find in prayer, the uplift we get from singing something that expresses our faith, the comfort we gain from the words of the Bible. It will be experienced in the feeling of fellowship in our gatherings, in the simple acts of kindness we offer and are offered. All of these moments and actions are ways that God touches our lives and guides us towards our true destiny in the body of Christ, as those who make the divine love known. For the Christian, though, these undramatic and everyday works of love are part of the way the holy touches us.
That’s the gospel, the good news, that the Church proclaims. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near, anybody who hears the news can come into it, can become part of the people that God is sending throughout the world to bring peace and reconciliation. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross”.