Christ the Image of the Invisible God

Colossians 1:15-28

Luke 10:38-42

We Christians relate to God by relating to Jesus Christ. Of course, Christians share many things with people of other religions, for instance a commitment to ethical life, a love of justice and peace, a reverence for holy people and places, and awe at the majesty of what is most ultimate, known as God in the language of monotheisms but going by other names in other religions. What makes Christians different, and what distinctly shapes our approach to ethics, justice and peace, reverence, and awe, is our relation to Jesus Christ. According to St. Paul, Christians are supposed to be “in Christ,” although he had difficulty saying what that meant.

Our two texts today present very different images of Jesus Christ. The Gospel from Luke shows Jesus as a teacher in the intimate setting of a dinner party. The texts from Luke for the last several weeks have presented various other settings for Jesus as the herald of the kingdom of God and the healer. Last week’s text showed Jesus talking with a lawyer about eternal life, with Jesus telling the story of the Good Samaritan. This text is set in the home of Mary and Martha. We know them much more fully from the Gospel of John in which they are shown as having a long and intimate friendship with Jesus. They were a well-to-do family in Bethany, near Jerusalem, where Jesus spent a lot of time. John tells of Jesus raising their brother Lazarus from the dead, which was both Jesus’ most important miracle, according to John, and also the reason why the authorities became concerned about Jesus and resolved to put him to death. The household of Mary and Martha was very important for Jesus.

The incident in our text contrasts their characters in ways that have become almost clichés in Christian preaching: Mary is spiritual while Martha is practical. It was Martha who issued the dinner invitation and prepared the banquet, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple. You doubtless have heard sermons about these two personality types for Christian women, the pillar of the church who cooks the meals and the devotee who reads spiritual books all day. Both are approved, although Jesus was a bit annoyed that Martha was making such a fuss, possibly because she wanted more attention. She also seemed a bit jealous of the attention Mary was getting as a Jesus-freak. Jesus’ response was to say that one dish would be plenty for the dinner and that she did not have to serve up a banquet.

What is important about this story is not anything that Jesus was teaching; his remarks are not recorded, although Luke does quote Jesus’ teachings in many other passages. What is important is his personality, the way he handled the touchy relations between the sisters. He had great affection for them both and was able to give Martha credit as his senior hostess and cook while also saying that she did not have to work so hard. He did not say that doe-eyed discipleship is more important than hospitality, only that hospitality can be kept in due proportion. He comforted Martha about her excessive worries and distractions. This is not Jesus the charismatic teacher or magical healer. This is Jesus the very human and hungry friend who adjusts and perfects the way people around him exercise love.

Compare this presentation of Jesus—it’s not even fitting to attach the title “Christ” to him in this vignette—with the text from Colossians. Colossians is what theologians call “high Christology,” focusing on the divinity of Christ. Our passage does not use the personal name “Jesus,” although Colossians elsewhere uses the phrase “Christ Jesus.” The first thing our passage does is to call attention to the distinction between the invisible God and Christ as its image. “Invisible” as applied to God in the first century does not mean only that God cannot be seen because of being an immaterial spirit. It means rather that God is so high above human comprehension and categories that nothing can describe God directly. John says (1:18) that no one has ever seen God, which is a change from claims in Exodus that Moses and others saw God; by Jesus’ time, people understood God as so high as to be the creator of everything that can be imagined at all. As our Colossians text puts it, God created all things visible and invisible in the sense of being spiritual, and therefore is above them. To say that Christ is the image of this High God is to say that he is the first thing that can be known and described about the unimaginable God. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4, and the author of Hebrews, in the first chapter, also say that Christ is the image of God in this sense.

Colossians says that Christ provides an image by which we can grasp the unimaginable God, because Christ is the firstborn of all creation. Christ is the first creature who then becomes the means by which all other creatures come to be. “[F]or in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” “ Thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers” are various ranks of angels, invisible spirits, according to the first century belief. The idea of Christ as the one who is “before all things” and in whom “all things hold together,” is like the idea of Logos at the beginning of the Gospel of John, a primordial structure and power by means of which all the world is created. In John, the suggestion is that the Logos is a companion to God the creator. Colossians is plain that Christ is the first creature, subordinate to God yet prior to all else.

Later theologians in Western Christianity would side with John, interpreting him to mean that the Logos is equal to God, and is fully a part of Trinitarian divinity. Theologians in Easter Orthodox Christianity would keep the emphasis on subordination in Colossians, emphasizing that the Son is begotten by the Father and that this is not a reciprocal relation. However we line up with that later dispute, Colossians says that we understand the incomprehensible God by understanding Christ.

What is it that we understand of Christ? First, as mentioned, that Christ is the structure through which all other things are created. Second, Colossians says that Christ is the head of the Church and likens the Church to the body of Christ. Because the Church is supposed to be the body that properly worships God, Christ is the Head that directs that worship: we should worship God as Christ says to worship and comport ourselves ethically in God’s kingdom according to the model of Christ our Head. Third, Colossians says that Christ is not only the firstborn of all creation but the firstborn of the dead, the first to be raised. Here the text is clearly talking about Christ Jesus, the man, whom the Christians knew to have been crucified and raised from the dead. Thus, as image of God, we understand Christ Jesus to reveal God as not only creator but as redeemer. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” which is to say that everything divine that can fit into a human being fit into Jesus, and by relating to the person of Jesus we find the redeeming Creator.

Now I know this high Christology is complicated, working with symbols that seem strange and unintelligible in our culture. But please bear with the argument in Colossians for a few more minutes. The text characterizes the ordinary state of human beings as estranged from God and hostile in mind: this is the human predicament from which salvation must rescue us. We are estranged and hostile. God reconciles us to himself, says Colossians, “by making peace through the blood of [Christ’s] cross.” The reference here is to the institution of ritual sacrifice in Israelite religion. According to Leviticus as well as Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, Israel was a holy nation that could present
itself blameless and irreproachable to God so long as it kept the covenant. But when the covenant was broken in any way, large or small, the people had to sacrifice something to God, grain or an animal, in order to repair their holiness and ability to approach God. God in the Torah instituted the sacrifice rituals as means to repair the covenant, because God knew the covenant would be impossible for people. God’s mercy provided a ready remedy.

Christians interpreted human sin as so great as not to be repairable by any sacrifice of grain or animals. So just as God had earlier provided the rituals for sacrificial repair of the covenant, now God provides Christ the firstborn of all creation as himself the sacrifice that once again reconciles human beings to God.

The idea that a sacrifice can reconcile estranged and hostile parties is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. We are very far from the Levitical sensibilities of the ancient world. Yet we do understand something of Colossians’ argument: it was human beings who were estranged from and hostile to God—God was not estranged and hostile, according to our text. So God sent that which is most precious, the firstborn of creation, as a sacrifice to call us back from estrangement and hostility, and that in the form of the man Jesus who had to be crucified. Because of that sacrifice we have a fresh start, and never again does the sacrifice have to be made no matter what evil we do.

You might ask how we can tolerate these images of blood sacrifice. They were commonplace for first century Christians but are gross for us. Yet there is something in human evil, something in the evil of natural suffering and the deep injustice of the institutions on which we have built our society that is even more gross. The blood guilt we bear for what it costs the Earth for us to live, for the harm we do one another, for the repressions built into civilization even at its best, calls for blood sacrifice. This is only a symbol, a symbol used by the early Christians to understand the crucifixion of Jesus. But we cannot do with a less powerful symbol. Christ the symbol of God reveals God as the creator whose love accepts blood guilt and reconciles us even when we are estranged and hostile. That symbol cleanses our hearts and directs our faith even when we cannot take it literally.

The practical question for contemporary Christians is how we can relate to Jesus Christ whose blood bought us redemption, knowing how alien these symbols are. I believe we need to understand first that wise and loving Jesus who traveled about teaching that we always live in the sight of God, that we are in God’s kingdom whether we know it or not, and that what counts in God’s kingdom is our practice of love. The teaching is important, but the person who taught it is the more important to know, the friend so kind as to straighten out Martha and Mary. The Bible gives us much to work around in our imagination as we think about this Jesus who would be our friend too. Can we imagine Jesus gently correcting our faults as he did Martha’s? To be related to Jesus as his friends, and to him as our friend, is the first step in relation.

The second is to see God in Jesus, who is his primary image. God is humble, like Jesus, condescending to heal our little estrangements and hostilities as Jesus healed Martha’s. Yet the savagery of nature’s indifference to suffering, the outrage of death, the depths of greed, and the perverse human pleasure in causing pain constitute an evil strain in creation so profound that a simple teacher’s love cannot heal it. We need to symbolize the extremity of God’s love with the savagery of the crucifixion’s blood sacrifice if we are to recognize what needs healing. So it is Christ Jesus crucified that lets us engage the High God whose redeeming power is equal to creation’s need. And it is Christ Jesus the firstborn of the dead who leads us to live before God as redeemed and renewed persons.

Only through such powerful symbols can we admit the problem and embrace the cosmic power of the answer. These symbols allow us to engage the problem honestly and to engage God as imaged by Christ Jesus. Even if the symbol of blood sacrifice cannot be tolerated as a literal explanation of redemptive history, only that image can engage us with the unimaginable God so that we see the seriousness of creation’s redemption of which we are a part. Only when we live in Christ Jesus, firstborn of all creation and friend of Mary and Martha, can we let God’s cosmic love seep into our bones and sinews to heal estrangement and hostility, and finally make us lovers. Only then can we envision the invisible God in the person of Christ Jesus, our lover and beloved, pioneer of our faith. We are grateful for people who can accept these symbols naively. We praise God that we can see the symbols broken and yet also live by them to engage our Creator and redeemer. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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