He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him – 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. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone is all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.
A few years ago, I was with a group of people from Northern Virginia who regularly traveled into Washington D.C. to help serve food to the homeless with a group called Sunday Suppers. The team would gather together on a Sunday afternoon, prepare countless bag lunches and a large dinner and then travel into the city. The point of the mission was not so much just to provide food for the hungry, but everywhere we stopped we would set up tables so that all of us could sit and eat together.
I had gone on a few of these Sunday evening adventures, and had even gotten to the point where I recognized a few of the “regulars” and knew them by name. On one particularly cold December evening, I was with a group of youth serving food near a metro station when I struck up a conversation with one of the “regulars” named Charles and a church member who was on his first Sunday Suppers trip. Charles stood there in front of us with his hands outstretched waiting for food, his ripped navy sport-coat showed years of ware, and his curly grey and black hair was billowing outside of his knit cap. “I really appreciate this,” he said, “but you Christian types always come out around Christmas and Easter. The people out here, we have more food than we know what to do with, but where are you in July? You might not realize it, but that’s when we need you to come. I’m with these people everyday, and I know what they need.”
I was distracted for the rest of the evening. I kept thinking about how happy and pleased I was with our missional activities, and how quickly those feelings disappeared after I had talked with Charles. It wasn’t until the ride home that the young boy who I had been standing with talked to me. He was looking down at his knees when he finally began to speak: “Sometimes we feel like we’re being Jesus for people, bringing them food, sitting and eating with them. I guess it makes us feel good. But tonight, I felt like Charles was being Jesus for us.”
The gospel is for all people and all minds. Throughout the book of Acts and the epistles Paul is notorious for using the contexts of particular people to help illuminate the glory of Jesus Christ. For the Colossians, he bends to their philosophical speculations to demonstrate the importance of Christ for the world. He searches for a point of contact and then pushes there again and again until the fullness of God in Christ permeates throughout their common understanding. For the Colossians Paul relates Christ to their Natural Theology, presenting God’s unique revelation of himself in Christ in the categories of thought with which they are familiar. He exalts Christ in terms that they would understand. This is how he spread the Good News throughout the Mediterranean.
Throughout the history of the Church we have similarly tried to rediscover who Christ is for particular times and places. Pastors, preachers, and prophets have used many names and adjectives corresponding with peoples’ understandings. Jesus has been referred to as “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, The Rabbi, The Turning Point of History, The Light of the Gentiles, The King of Kings, The Cosmic Christ, The Son of Man, The True Image, The Crucified One, The Monk Who Rules the World, The Bridegroom of the Soul, The Divine Human, The Universal Man, The Mirror of the Eternal, The Prince of Peace, The Teacher of Common Sense, The Poet of the Spirit, The Liberator, The Man Who Belongs to the World” (Chapter Titles from Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries).
John Henry Newton, the Anglican priest who wrote Amazing Grace, also tried to convey this searching for appropriate descriptors through one of his hymns:
“Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.”
We, like Paul, have continuously adapted Jesus to terms, ideas, and images acceptable to particular peoples and cultures. This has been an incredibly important element of the Christian message as we have made the Gospel approachable from many different places. And though we should continue to make the bible relevant for those outside the church, we have fallen prey to our own self-righteousness and sin. Like the group that night serving food to the homeless in DC, we often think that Jesus is walking along with us, that we are bringing Jesus to people, when in fact we should be following him because he is already there.
We always try to make Jesus look just like us. Each successive period in Christian history has found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was one of the only ways to make him live, but we have continuously created him in accordance with our own desires, hopes, and character. We don’t realize it, but most of the times we think we find Jesus, its like we are looking into the bottom of a well – all we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves.
Just look around our church, you can find all sorts of images of Jesus. Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes, Jesus with slight stubble, and Jesus with a full-blown beard. I’ve seen pictures of Jesus wearing a black leather jacket standing in front of an American flag. I’ve seen images of an African American Jesus working in the fields in Pre-Civil War America. I’ve seen Jesus in jeans and a flannel shirt cutting down trees. I’ve even seen Jesus in a business suit speaking with clients.
All of these portrayals are important. They get at the heart of Jesus being Emmanuel: “God with us.” They help to adapt Jesus to a particular culture and set of people, making him and his message relevant for the masses. However, when we use all these different images of “God with us,” We cannot forget that Jesus’ identity begins with God.
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, fully God and fully human. In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth were created, things both visible and invisible. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. He is the image of the invisible God, the word for image in Greek is εἰκών, meaning likeness or a representation. Jesus in not merely a picture of God but contains God’s likeness: literally divine.
The letter to the church in Colossae contains all sorts of information necessary for the people to align themselves with the Lord. Paul uses the language of natural theology for them, he adapts Jesus to their culture, but he is unwilling to separate the identity of Christ from almighty God. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The letter to the Hebrews also tells us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb. 13.8-9). Jesus is God with us, made incarnate to all people, but we must remember that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in order to reconcile himself to all things; the same yesterday, today and for ever.
This past week I spent two days on a retreat at the Conference Center in Blackstone Virginia. I gathered with all of the other provisional candidates from our Annual Conference as we discussed our journeys of faith and the future of the church. There were clergy present from all over the state of Virginia, some young, some old, some newly Christian, and some Christian since birth. We gather twice every year to help maintain our connectional system while working together for the future of God’s kingdom. Our Bishop, Young Jin Cho, opened our time together with a service of worship and preached to us about following Jesus. He talked about the story when Mary and Joseph had accidentally left Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Mary must have been moving along, assuming that Jesus was walking right with her, and then she discovered that he was missing. She had to completely turn around until she realized that she had left without him. Bishop Cho encouraged us to continually ask ourselves these questions: Are we walking and hoping that Jesus approves what we’re doing, or are we following him? Have we turned ourselves back to the Lord like Mary? Or are we wandering around the desert? He concluded by stating: “Without spiritual disciplines in the church there can be no discipleship, without spiritual disciplines we will not be able to follow Jesus.”
Bishop’s Cho thoughts are relevant for us this morning as we consider Jesus being the image of the invisible God. We need to ask ourselves. Are we almost Christians? Do we live our lives in such a way that we assume and hope that Jesus is on board with us? Do we imagine that Jesus looks just like us, talks like us, thinks like us? Do we believe that God would be proud of the way we live our lives?
Or are we truly Christian? Do we recognize that while Jesus is just like us, he is also totally unlike us? Do we follow behind Jesus letting him lead us? Do we love him with all of our heart soul mind and strength? Are we willing to allow ourselves to recognize that Jesus is in the people we encounter rather than us bringing him to them? Do we hope in God in Jesus Christ? Are we comfortable standing in the shade of the cross while looking for the glory of the resurrection?
When I sat in the van on my way home from Washington DC the light of the gospel was made real through that young man sitting next to me. For the rest of my life I will never forget his words: “Sometimes we feel like we’re being Jesus for people, bringing them food, sitting and eating with them. I guess it makes us feel good. But tonight, I felt like Charles was being Jesus for us.”
We’re not Jesus, and that’s a good thing. We gather together here to worship the remarkable God who became flesh in the man Jesus Christ, the man who walked and talked among us pointing back toward God. We no longer need to adapt Jesus to particular settings, but instead adapt ourselves to Jesus Christ. We are here, like Paul, to make the Word of God fully known. The scripture today helps to remind us that we are not Jesus Christ, but that we have the responsibility to be shaped by the Word of God to be the body of Christ for the world. God has chosen to show us the riches and glory of this mystery, we’re not Jesus, but Jesus is in us and is leading us toward the future hope of glory.