When image-consciousness is okay
A sermon on Colossians 1:15-28 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 July 1995
Christ is the image of God and our goal is that all grow to maturity in the image of Christ.
From time to time you encounter people who have a bee in their bonnet about the Bible and they tell you in all earnestness that every word of the Bible is relevant and authoritative for every person today, and that we all have to obey every word of it. And sometimes if I'm in a mischevious mood when I encounter such people, I ask them to give me a little sermon on Romans 16:8 and how obeying that verse has been meaningful for them. Now I'm sure you've all memorized Romans 16:8, because it has been so meaningful to you, but in case you haven't, it says Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.
Now hands up all those who have ever met anyone called Ampliatus. No, me neither. Now what would happen if my relationship with God was dependent on me obeying that specific verse. I would have to find someone called Ampliatus so that I could greet him. You can't look him up in the phone book, because it is probably his first name. You can't just wait until you spot him in the street, because you don't know what he looks like. You'd need a photofit or something, an image in your mind of what Ampliatus was like so that you had a reasonable chance of recognizing him if you bumped into him.
Now of course, I'm being a bit faceceous here, but I think it helps us to see a real problem that we can have. We are called, as part of our journey of Christian discipleship, to grow in godliness, or godlikeness. We are told that we were created in the image of God, but that that image has been distorted and that we are to reclaim that image. In one place the Bible even goes so far as to put it, be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.
So, just like if we were seeking to greet Ampliatus, if we are seeking to become godlike, we have to have an image in our mind of what it would look like if we found it. We can't work towards something without any idea what it is like. If you go down to any of the local gyms and see the people who are there everyday pumping iron and trying to build up some muscle bulk, you could ask any of them, and you would find that they all have an image in their minds of what it is they want to look like. The blokes all want to look like Tom Platz or Arnold Schwartznegger. The women would vary depending on which part of the gym you were in. In the heavy weights room they'd probably want to look like Cory Everson or Lisa Curry-Kenny, and in the aerobics room they'd probably want to look like Elle McPherson or Naomi Cambell. But all of them have an image in their minds that they are working towards.
It isn't just for physical attributes that we need an image in mind if we are to work towards. You remember the song Cat's in the Cradle. The little boy keeps saying I'm going to be like you Dad, you know I'm going to be like you. The kid grows with an image in his head of what he wants to be like, of who he wants to emulate, and much to his father's eventual dismay, he achieves it.
So if our goal is to be like God, then we need a good image of God in our minds to work towards. And just to clear up a misunderstanding before it develops, I'm not saying you can't make a start until you have the full picture in mind. You can respond to what you know of God and the gaps in your picture of God will continue to be filled in as you go.
So how do we gain our image of God? Clare spent several hours one evening grilling me, trying to get me to describe God in a way that was helpful for her. I failed on that occasion but a couple of weeks later we fell over an image that was a good starting place for her. We have all picked up different pictures along the way, some good, some bad. Our reading from the letter to the Colossians gives some thought to this question. It started by saying that if we want an image of God, Christ is the image of the invisible God. That is probably the most radical religious statement ever made. It is the thing that most distinguishes Christianity from the other major religions. Jesus Christ, a person who was born in disreputable circumstances, who lived a seemingly irreligious and irresponsible life, and who died a criminal's death, is the image of the invisible God. No other major religion claims that we have seen the exact image of the God of the universe in human form. Most of them would see that as a blasphemous reduction of God.
But Paul doesn't even stop at that. He goes on to say that the great mystery of God that was hidden throughout the ages and is now being made known, is that Christ is in you. The image of God is in you. We spoke a couple of weeks ago about the message that Christ preached and sends us to preach; the nearness of God. The Kingdom of God has come close to you. The image of God is within you. Christ is in us.
And what does the passage describe as the features of this Christ who is the image of the invisible God? This is not an exhaustive description of the image of God, but it is a good starting place. Firstly it talks about creativity. Christ is the firstborn of all creation, and all things on earth and in heaven were created in him, through him and for him. We had a reading a few weeks back that described the Spirit of God dancing with God in the creative process. God's creativity is not a routine sort of, O well, I better create something else, type of thing. The God made known in Christ is a joyous exuberant creator, a passionate artist pouring his very being into every creative act.
Next it talks about sustaining what is created. It says that in Christ all things hold together. This is a remarkable image, one that grows richer the more you think about it. Christ is the power of cohesian within the creation. The first image of creation in Genesis is an image of giving form to the chaos, and this image of Christ is one of holding everything from descending back into chaos. It suggests that if Christ's Spirit were withdrawn from the world, the whole structure of matter would just cave in on itself. Or we can think of it in terms of relationships. We often talk of how good relationships require ongoing attention, of how we need to keep working at developing and holding together our relationships. The more intimate they are the more this is true. Christ is the power that holds things together. The one who makes it possible for the togetherness to continue.
At the Ashburton church, most of you will be aware of the tragic situation where their senior pastor, Peter Walker, is still in hospital after a car accident at Christmas. And although he is heaps better there is no prospect of him returning to his job in te forseeable future. One of the things that has happened in his absence is that many of the divisions between different groups within the church have become moer obvious and problematic. Until he was gone, people didn't notice what an extraordinary ability Peter had to hold together the diverse groups of people in the church and keep them cooperating with one another. Pull him out and the tensions begin to surface. It is an aspect of Peter that is very Christ-like. It is in Christ that all things hold together. Remove the Spirit of Christ, and everything begins to tear itself apart.
Thirdly, the passage describes Christ as the reconciler. Christ is the image of God in that he seeks to restore all that is damaged within creation. He identifies that which has become separated from the creative and sustaining energy of God, and seeks to reconcile them to one another. And the thing that is especially notable about this characteristic of the Christ is that he is willing to suffer incredible personal loss, even an agonizing death in order to bring about that reconciliation. The letter says that in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. Notice that it doesn't just say all souls, or even all people. It says all things. All people, all animals, all mountains and trees, all families and ethnic groups, all institutions and means of production, all political and economic systems, all the realities that shape life in the world as we know it. Through Christ, God was pleased to undertake the task of reconciling all things that are not in a satisfactory relationship with their creator to himself.
And Paul uses as his example you. He says you, who were once estranged and hostile in mind - its a bit like broken family imagery isn't it. Our most common use of the word estranged is for an estranged husband or wife after a separation. You are estranged and there is hostility in your mind towards one another. This is how you were towards God, says Paul. But through his suffering Christ has reopened the lines of communication. Reconciliation is made possible, and now, says Paul, Christ presents you to God holy and blameless and irreproachable. Christ presents you to God absolutely clean, totally beyond reproach. There is no accusation anyone can bring about you to God that will stick. You stand holy and blameless and irreproachable.
That then, in a nutshell, is the image of God that Paul says Christ demonstrates to us. I only realized after preparing most of this sermon how trinitarian that description is. One of the many good alternatives to describing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is Creator, redeemer or reconciler and sustainer, and those are indeed the three roles that Paul attributes to God in this passage. There is of course much more that could be said about how Jesus gives us our image of God. Paul didn't know Jesus before the crucifixion, so in his usual style, Paul concentrates on the risen Christ. But the earthly life of Jesus also reveals much to us about God. Of course the only access we have to the earthly life of Jesus is through the writings of other people in the gospels, but that still gives us plenty of material to build an increasingly comprehensive image of God.
But even just with these images of godlikeness that Paul gives us here we have a lifetimes worth of growing to do. If we are to be more like God, if we are to grow to maturity in Christ, we are to be a people who are creative, who produce and appreciate and celebrate beauty and practicality. We are to be a people who are sustaining, who overcome what is divisive and nurture relationships of peace and hope, who seek to ensure the sustainability of the world and allits inhabitants. We are to be a reconciling people, a people who are willing to go out on a limb and even suffer ourselves if need be to ensure that the integrity of creation is restored, that all things are brought back into relationship with the creative, sustaining, reconciling God.
That is the aim we commit ourselves to. The passage finished by saying the purpose of our life in the church is to proclaim and warn and teach so that everyone may eventually come before God mature in Christ. The value of this church will not be judged by the imagination of the decisions we make in our meetings or the quality of our singing. It will stand or fall by its ability to encourage and enable people to grow to maturity in Christ, to grow in Christ-likeness, to be a creative, sustaining and reconciling people.