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Living in the Fullness of Christ

Sermon - 7/25/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Colossians 2:6-15

We are continuing in our study of Paul's letter to the Colossians. Have you been reading the text? Just a reminder, it never hurts to read the text :).

A brief re-cap: as I've said before, this letter was written likely late in Paul's life, or quite possibly after Paul's death, which was a common practice in antiquity (writing in the name of, and in honor of, someone else). The authority of the text lies not in the person writing but in the witness given (as I've said before). It was written to the community of Colossae, which was in western Turkey, where certain philosophers have been teaching that to know God fully you need more than the gospel of Jesus Christ, you need a little bit from each of these different traditions to get the full picture.

And Paul's response, as we saw in the text from last week, which is also briefly mentioned in the text that I'll read in just a moment, is that the fullness of God is in, and can be known, through Christ. That Christ is sufficient to know God in totality.

But, and this was the main point that I made last week, by "Christ", Paul means much more than the person Jesus who grew up in Galilee and was crucified outside Jerusalem. A person, we must remember, that Paul never met. Rather, Paul refers to the Christ who he knew intimately, as the first-born of all creation, in whom all else was created, and through whom all things are reconciled to God.

This idea of Christ, that is present throughout the cosmos (from the beginning of time) has been called the 'cosmic Christ' by folks like Matthew Fox and Richard Rohr, though that idea of the Christ as present in all things through all time is as old as scripture. And therefore is really not anything new. We just have different names for it -- the Logos, or the Word (in John 1), Sophia or wisdom (in Proverbs 8) are just two examples that I cited last week.

And we use Christ interchangeably for Jesus because in Jesus we are able to see Christ in the flesh, where the spirit and the physical combine into one congruous whole. God made Jesus the Christ, as Peter announces in his sermon on Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2.

So we have to remind ourselves once again that 'Christ' is not the last name of Jesus, but rather is the description of the office or title, the purpose of Jesus, if you will.

And because Paul had such a powerful experience of this Christ, not just on the road to Damascus, but from that day onward, he speaks of Christ dwelling in him just as God dwelt in Jesus. And this experience of Christ, this joining of the spirit of God with the physical, is nothing unique or special to Paul. Rather, Paul says it's the pattern for all of the followers of Jesus, the body of Christ. Which in turn is to be the model, the pattern for the world. It's not how the world is supposed to be, it's how the world already is. Dwelling in God. The world of God. In which we are called to dwell and to model for the rest of the world.

And so when we see God not as separate from our world, but rather as very much a part of it, intimately connected with it, fully present to it in all places and at all times, it changes everything. And our text this morning speaks to some of those changes.

And I want you to take note as I read it (or as you follow along) how often Paul speaks of this presence of Christ, saying "in him" or "with him". So, reading from chapter 2, verses 6 through 15:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.


So the first change that Christ makes possible is to live in the fullness of Christ, just as Christ dwells in God. In Him, the whole fullness, Paul writes. That's a rather empatic statement, isn't it? Can you have a 'partial' fullness? Can the glass be partially full? Paul is just wanting to drive home the point -- the whole, complete fullness. In Him the whole fullness of diety dwells bodily.

And so there we have it again, the spiritual and physicial, together as one. And we get that when we're talking about Jesus, or at least I think we sort of do. We speak of Jesus as being fully human and fully diving, so we put him up on a pedestal, where we can worship him, wholly other than us, apart from us, separate from us. Special, unique.

And then comes the shocker: Paul says, 'and you have come to fullness in him'. He's not 'up there', 'out there', not apart, separate from us. We are part of that experience of Christ.

Now, Paul is undoubtedly a mystic. John Dominic Crossan says he thinks mystically, he writes mystically, he teaches mystically, he lives mystically. Meaning, his encouter with Christ was very direct and personal. He had a certain immediacy and intimacy with this cosmic Christ. This phrase "in Christ" or "in Him" occurs 160 times in Paul's letters. Crossan says this is the 'beating heart of Paul's theology". His shorthand for the essence of what it means to live the Christian life, to be 'in Christ'.

To be a follower of Jesus is to adopt a new mystical identity in Christ, so that the character of Christ lives in us. We live in him so he can live in us. In a sense, we are all called to be mystics. That is, to have that same direct experience of the holy, of Christ, of the sacred, of the spirit, as did Paul.

And why shouldn't we? When we see that the holy is not something 'out there', apart from us, separate from us, but rather is here, in our midst, as Jesus said "the Kingdom of God is within you", the goodness of creation (as I said last week) is written into our DNA, so to open ourselves to that sacredness, that fullness of God in our midst, is simultanously as wondrous, and as ordinary as hearing the heartbeat of a child for the first time, still in the womb. Or seeing a distant galaxy with your own eyes for the first time, looking through a telescope.

To live in Christ with such appreciation for the beauty, the wonder, the mystery, the joy of life, is to draw near to that one who brought it into being, and called it good.

Again, quoting Abraham Heschel, as I did last week, "Awe is the beginning of wisdom".

If you've ever had your breath taken away by the beauty of a sunset, if you've ever been awestruck by the vastness of the Milky War on a starry night, if you've ever been carried away in rhapsody by a Bach concerto or an Adam Lambert concert, if you've ever cried at the birth of a child or a graduation of a student, then you have been touched by the holy. By the sacred. You've experience that unity of the spirit with the physical. You, are mystic material.

To live in Christ is to know and to realize in our own experience the mystery of the incarnation, the joining of the human and divine in the fullness of the body of Christ.

The second change that Christ makes possible, that Paul cites in this text, is the forgiveness of sin. Or, as this translation says, "God made you alive together with him [there is that mystical union of the physical with the spiritual] when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands". Which, he goes on to say, was nailed to the cross.

Now, this is a very interesting image. And note carefully what is nailed to the cross is not our sin or our trespasses, but the record of them, with all of its legal demands. In other words, not even God can un-do what has been done. The consequences of our actions do not go away.

What God can do is expunge the record. It's a legal image of wiping the slate clean. And please note this is not 'forgive and forget'. It's rather 'forgive and move on'. It's important to recognize the difference. Forgiveness is not about forgetting. To the contrary, forgiveness says that you are aware, you do not forget. And in spite of that, you will still forgive. You give another chance. And we are given that opportunity, then, to make use of that 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance.

Jeremiah Masoli, a tragic story that I think most of us are aware of, pleaded guilty this week (a little tiny article) to a minor traffic offense and the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. It doesn't matter, the possession of any quanity of marijuana will get you kicked off a football team. But the really sad news is not that the Ducks lost a really good quarterback, the great sadness is that here was a young man with a bit of a checkered past (the coaches knew that, gave him another chance) and he blew it. Now, in time, he may find forgiveness, I hope he does, and a new life in the sport that gave him another chance. My hope and prayer for Mr. Masoli is that he will indeed have that chance, if not in college ball, perhaps in pro ball, and instead of forgetting, that he will be able to give thanks for the lessons he learned (that we all learn) and the chance at redemption.

And because I do believe in the power of forgiveness to change lives, I also hope and pray that one of the lessons we do NOT learn from this whole sad chapter of Duck football, is that we should avoid those student-athletes who have had a bit of trouble in their lives. And I'm not suggesting that we should go out and recruit our front line from biker gangs, my suggestion, rather, is that the rigor and discipline, together with good coaching, can precisely be that kind of opportunity for some youth to find redemption and a new path, a new direction in life. And I hope we will continue to make that possible.

And as they say, you don't earn forgiveness on the field for your behavior off of it. But a couple of touchdowns doesn't hurt :).

Paul goes one step further, and this is the third change, the most dramatic change (I think) that is brought by Christ: not only is sin defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the powers of the world.

Now, I invite you to really think seriously about that, to meditate about that. This is where I go with that:

Paul uses a very striking image that's not evident to most of us modern readers. When Rome defeated a foreign power, they would bring their captive slaves and the booty from that war to Rome for this big parade. And they would have this procession of those captives, now made into slaves, usually half-naked, in chains, down the streets of Rome. And you can actually see images of this to this day, and when we take our pilgrimage (hopefully next year), we'll show many of you those images of these processions etched permanently in all of the edifices not only in Rome but elsewhere throughout the Roman Empire.

And in the Coliseum in Rome, you can see in a display in the back something not many people see (because it's in the back of the museum), of one of those processions. It's a 3-D display, about 20 yards long of all these little statuettes of prisoners and the triumphant soldiers and the booty being carried in the procession through Rome.

The name for that procession is called a "triumph". That's what it was called. Now, read again, then, this text -- verse 15:

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

That's the image. Please note carefully -- this is seditious language. If someone had read this letter at Paul's trial, and said "he wrote it", it would be cause for immediate execution. Alright? Please get how serious this is, and what's being said.

It's either that, or he would have been laughed out of court as being mad (insane). Caesar and all of his Governors still are in their seats of power, how can Paul say they have been 'disarmed', and made a public example in triumph of defeat and humiliation?

Now, one could argue this is some vague future-reference, and end-of-times scenario, yet there's no such reference in the text. All the references are to what Christ has already accomplished.

And equally implausible is the idea that Paul would accept that we should just let those rulers and authorities do what they want so long as they leave us alone. If Christ is the head of every authority and we are the body of Christ, there's a connection there.

So how are these rulers disarmed by Christ? Paul says we have been buried and raised with Christ (there's that mystical union again), with Christ, so that we too are victorious over the powers of the world, and which, therefore, have no more power over us.

By aligning ourselves with Christ, we have effectively disarmed all other rulers and authorities by not letting them control our lives. By giving our allegiance to Christ, rather than to Caesar, or to whatever ruler may be.

Now, how far should we, do we, take these notions? Borg and Crossan, in their book "The First Paul", note that Jesus and Paul were not executed for going around and telling everyone "Be nice to one another. Love one another. Get along with one another". That's not what got them killed. What got them killed was their understanding of love that meant more than being compassionate toward individuals (although it did mean that), it also meant standing against the domination systems that ruled their world, and collaborating with the spirit in the creation of a new way of life that stood in contrast to the normalcy of the wisdom of this world. Love and justice go together.

And then in one of his great aphorisms of Dominic Crossan for which he is so well known, they write: "Justice without love can be brutal. Love without justice can be banal. Love is the heart of justice. Justice is the social form of love".

To be 'in Christ', as the body of Christ, has real social implications. Whatever else 'in Christ' means, it means to be a part of a community working for social justice, making love tangible for those in greatest need.

This morning we had our 3rd Sunday-morning breakfast. It all went very smoothly. Feeding anyone in our community that is hungry, we had about 100 folks (the numbers are growing). It is going so well, that we'd like to double our numbers, and we'd like to double the times in which we offer that breakfast, go to twice a month. That would be a good thing -- not only for the hungry of our community, but also for us, as we develop, as we expand, as we quadruple that gift of compassion God has given to us.

But if, in this good work for the least of these among us, we do not deepen our understanding of why people are hungry, and address those issues, we will have only partially fulfilled our calling.

Last month, there were 250 people of faith from around Oregon who gathered in Salem at First United Methodist Church (part of an Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon event), to address the issue of homeless children in our public schools. 18,000 children at one time homeless in our public schools in 2009. That's 2,000 more than the previous year. We don't yet have the numbers for 2010, but everyone expects the numbers to go up even more.

These children are the canaries in the coal mine. Their fate is the leading indicator of the health of our society, and folks, it does not look good. If the rulers and the authorities of this world are under the dominion of the cosmic Christ, then we must hold them accountable for the future of these innocent victims of social inequalities and injustice. Public policy, as it addresses these issues, is the work of Christ.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. Paul went to Rome. We who are followers of Jesus must go to Salem and Washington D.C. if God is going to continue to disarm the rulers and authorities of this world.

The changes we seek, the changes that God seeks, include all those powers and dominions.

And it begins with us, in whom the fullness of Christ dwells.



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