Thesis: Christ is the fullness of God made visible. God-invisible-and-unknowable becomes concretized for humanity and creation in the Christ. Love, flourishing and wholeness are the marks of God’s true nature and will for us. As the church, the “Body of Christ”, “the continuation of the incarnation” (my phrase), we are called (and gifted!) to tell that story and bear witness in both our words and our embodied lives.
Paul is unequivocal that in Jesus, the Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19). He makes no real attempt to explain the metaphysics. Whether he wasn’t interested, or just recognized the futility, who knows. The closest we get may be John’s prologue:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1)
The LOGOS of GOD – the word, mind, thoughts, heart, wisdom of God. This has echoes of earlier writings:
Proverbs 3:13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 14 for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. 19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; 20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.
Proverbs 8: 22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. 23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth— 26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. 27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, 29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, 31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
Solomon, in writing to his sons, seems to foreshadow the truth of the incarnation. And he recognizes that this Wisdom of God in and by which the worlds came to be is something which can also dwell within and among us. God’s imagining and creating wisdom is not reserved for the divine, but is intended for us to experience and embody.
All things are created in, by and through the Christ, the Logos of God. This Christ became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus, who fully embodied the Godhead. Again, this is a mystery that must be taken on faith, for the human mind and languages cannot comprehend or explain it.
Created in God’s image, we humans are free to choose how we will use our power. And often we use it to serve ourselves at the exclusion and to the detriment of others. This is the origin of sin and the source of much human suffering. It is the reason we need redemption. We need to be not rescued from an angry God, but reconciled back to God because of the natural consequences of our own individual and collective selfishness.
All things are redeemed in, by and through the Christ, the Logos of God. This Christ was crucified in the flesh in Jesus, and thus the fullness of God entered into, took on, and traveled through the brokenness of humanity. And in so doing, God redeemed our sin and the suffering of all creation, reconciling us to God’s self – “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…” (2 Cor 5). But the work is not yet done.
We are held, and “held together” in the abiding love of God made known in Jesus. We means not just Christians, but all humanity – those who know and believe the story, those who reject it because it has been misrepresented, and those who have never heard it. And not just humanity, but all of creation.
Julian of Norwich envisioned this aspect of God as if someone were holding a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, and that small thing represented all of the known universe and the history of humanity past, present and future. Mirabai Starr’s translation is a moving and accessible edition of this writing. Whether a hazelnut, acorn, or something more relevant to your context, the impact is the same – God holds, nurtures, and preserves creation, life, existence itself.
The Works of God are not just something that happened one time, long ago and far away. When Jesus said, “It is finished” he meant his work was done. Our work was just entering a new stage of development as God’s children on earth. Paul goes so far as to say that “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Surely he does not intend to imply that anything was imperfect or lacking in God’s ability to redeem Christ’s death to accomplish our reconciliation. Rather, it is the continuing spreading of the message, and the living embodiment of that life, that Paul intends to illustrate here. What was “lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church” is in fact that they were time bound – they happened. In the Roman Catholic Mass rite, and in some other traditions, this is addressed by proclaiming that Christ continues to be crucified in the flesh in the mass. For Paul, it was a matter of living sacrificially for the sake of others, so that they could encounter this creating, reconciling, sustaining love of God in Christ for themselves. This is “the continuation of the incarnation” – that we who desire and claim to be followers of Jesus are in point of fact the actual ongoing embodiment of the incarnate Word. This is why Paul offers such stern cautions: “23 provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven…. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1) When we accept as true the hope offered in Christ, and then blaspheme it, we mount up obstacles that hinder others from encountering the living Christ still incarnate in the world. True, God will find a way to work around us to reach people, but 1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17)
Let’s say you decided to build a house for your family. You spent months looking at other homes to identify the very best features that will serve to create a wonderful environment for you to live your lives together, and to warmly welcome friends and strangers. You select only the best materials, and hire the most skilled artisans and craftspeople in every field. The lot you select is accessible and connected with neighbors, while providing a sense of peace and security and privacy, all with amazing views and just the right mix of sun and shade. You spare no expense in the construction and take all the time needed to complete every detail with excellence.
Unfortunately, you’re not done, are you? Designing and building the house is just the beginning. For it to become a home, you must occupy it. Eventually, after several years of waiting, you and your family finally move in and occupy a fully furnished home of your dreams that exceeds every expectation and hope you could imagine.
Now you’re finished, right? Well, not actually. You still need to heat and cool it. You need clean water coming in and waste being processed out effectively. And your family needs to eat, so you need some food coming in and being prepared regularly also.
OK, that’s it. Now you can rest. Nope. The home needs to be cleaned inside, and the yard maintained outside. Plus, occasional preventive maintenance will help protect your investment – keeping windows and doors sealed, and a good coat of paint on all the woodwork. We’ve all seen images, like this, of houses that were lovingly designed, constructed and occupied, but somewhere in time they got lost, forgotten, abandoned and neglected. The result is no surprise, but it is a sad outcome.
The same story could be told about our own personal physical bodies – they are given to us as a sacred trust to indwell, in and through which to experience the fullness of this life. But if we only treat them as a vessel, and do not care for them, then they will likely ultimately betray and fail us. This might happen anyway, for reasons beyond our control or influence (like when our home gets struck by lightning and burns down – not much we could have done). But it will most surely happen if we willfully neglect the very basics of self-care – healthy food, clean water, regular exercise and rest, safety from undue risk. These basic are like attending to the needs of the house to keep it strong and functioning well so that it can in turn serve us and meet our needs.
Now imagine we are talking about the church. This same narrative threat follows, but God is the designer and builder, and we are the occupants charged with its ongoing care, indwelling, usefulness and hospitality. Will we, like Paul, complete the work that is lacking? Will we work in our own lives, in our church, and support others toward “maturity in Christ.”
And this maturity, by the way, is not a destination or a stopping place either, but a way of being. It is a continual living embodiment of the incarnation, the indwelling of Christ in us as we indwell the world. It does no good for us to indwell the world if Christ is not in us, nor for Christ to indwell us if we are not in the world. God invites and asks both of us.
Paul enjoins the Colossians, and us, with the words of this ancient Hymn exalting Christ, and then immediately uses it as a platform from which to argue the importance of his own continuing ministry. Similarly does he call us to faithfully join him in the ongoing work of living and proclaiming the incarnate wisdom of God in Jesus Christ that Creates, Reconciles, and Preserves God’s great experiment of love that we know as this earthly, soulful life.
Text: Colossians 1:15-28; Also: Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42
#1 – Ken G Crawford (C) 2016