Potters Bar 09 Feb 2014 – Christ is image of God (Col 1:15-20)

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”.

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Brookmans Park 30 Dec 2012 (Colossians 3:12-17)

The extract we have heard from the letter to the Colossians seems particularly appropriate for the first Sunday after Christmas. The heart of its teaching is gratitude and I hope we’ve all got reasons to be grateful.

Christmas is a time when families spend some, often unaccustomed, time together; and while this can sometimes be fraught and tense it also reminds us, I hope, of how much we owe one another. The family unit forms a core of the way we organise ourselves as human beings and this is a time in our society when scattered families come together to eat and to simply be in one another’s presence or when groups large or small form themselves into virtual families for the day.

Generations are gathered, cousins meet, relations we barely know are encountered or alternatively friends or, as at Potters Bar this year, strangers, gather.. Not everyone wholeheartedly enjoys every moment of the experience but it has its very great value. Individuals who would like to think of themselves as independent and self-sufficient are forced to acknowledge their debts and their responsibilities, due to where they have come from and how they have been cared for.

In the exchange of gifts we symbolise our knowledge of and connection to all those who form this network of kinship, complicated and enriched by patterns other than those of biological connection. The people who find themselves together on Christmas day become family and this matters. The presents we give one another represent this bond between us and if they work well make us feel valued and known.

In response to this we feel gratitude, not just or even primarily for the usefulness or beauty of the object given but for the evidence it gives that somebody has been thinking about us, putting effort into making us feel good, when we weren’t there and didn’t know we were in their mind. A present is proof that we are valued, that we have a place in the world where we matter.

Our reading from Paul ended with this sentence: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

What is it, especially, that we are to be grateful for? In this context it seems to be the call to be part of God’s chosen people, remember our passage began with the words; “ as God’s chosen ones” and halfway through Paul reminds us to: “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

It is indeed right that we should be grateful for this choosing, this calling. It is a great privilege to serve God in the way we do. It is special proof of God’s noticing of us, his remembering of us, as the gifts we receive from our friends and family are of our value to them. God’s calling of us into the Church is a gift to us, as well as a set of demands put on us.

Beyond this, though, the gratitude we are called to here has other, less personal roots. We owe to God the great gift of our own being. This is a gift of another order. That we are at all is a mark of God’s not simply remembering us as he went through a list of those to whom presents were owed. Rather he has gone out of his way to put us on that list. Before we were God owed us nothing, certainly not existence. God chose freely to make each and every one of us and to make us as we are. We are God’s gift to us.

What’s more God didn’t only make us he also redeemed us. As each of us was made each of us was also saved from our sin, our separation from God, in Jesus. God came to be with us in Christ in order to restore to us the gift of life that we seemed to lose through our sin. We are resurrected to new life by God, given the gift again, even after we have thrown it away.

Reason to be grateful, indeed.

So how are we to express our gratitude? Paul helps us to grasp this in our letter and the account he gives us of Christian virtue is beautiful and worth spending time on.

He lists five virtues: compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience and he joins these together in love, which, he says, binds all together in perfect harmony. We feel gratitude for God’s gifts, this expresses itself in love and this love works itself out through the virtues.

Compassion: as we are shaped and transformed by the love that springs from our gratitude to God we recognise in others the value placed on them by God. When others suffer we see ourselves in their place and feel their suffering as our own. We are never indifferent to those who are weaker or less fortunate than us. Rather we recognise our common humanity, our common dependency on God and open ourselves up to our brothers and sisters.

Kindness: we act on these feelings. We try to find whatever ways we can to ease the burdens of our fellows. We tend to their hurts, we feed their hunger, we comfort their sadness, loneliness, bewilderment. Above all we act to let them know and really to feel their value in our eyes.

Gentleness: in so doing we are careful in our dealings with one another. Our strength is controlled so that others aren’t bruised or otherwise hurt by it. When we have to do with those who are or who seem weaker than we are we are careful not to overwhelm or humiliate them. Our good deeds are never forceful but always tender and gentle.

Humility: in all of this we are constantly aware that whatever we are, whatever we have, whatever we do are not possessions of our own, won by our own merit. They are outworkings of God’s grace in us. Our achievements and our merits are God’s, owed by us to him. Our humility is a real sense of how entirely our value derives from God’s valuation of us.

Patience: we bear with God, knowing that his time and ours are different. When things don’t go as we would like them to, when we are faced with trials, when the promise of eternal and complete happiness seems empty given the struggles we go through we remember that our God is a faithful God. If things aren’t right now then they will be, then. We bear with God, we trust his word, we know that the gifts we have been promised will come.
These are the Christian virtues as Paul lists them and the reasons he gives to try to live into them have little to do either with threats or with rewards, with sticks or with carrots. They are part of a relationship with God that is constituted by generosity and gratitude, with gifts given and received in love. We have had a reflected glimpse of it in our Christmas festivities, let’s carry that spirit with us into the new year,

thanks be to God!