The Cosmic Christ (Col.1:11-20)
University Congregational Church, Wichita, Kansas
Gary Cox (11/25/01)
By now most of you know I usually follow the lectionary. The lectionary, quite simply, is a list of Bible passages. Each week of the year the lectionary suggests a few passages for study. Now, I never feel enslaved by the lectionary. If I want to talk about a biblical text that is not listed for a particular week, or if I want to talk about something entirely outside the Bible, I feel free to do so. But in general, I follow the lectionary, and I do so for a couple of reasons.
First, nothing upsets me more than a preacher who decides what point he wants to make, and then goes through the Bible and picks out passages that support his agenda. It is this method of preaching that over the years has allowed preachers to justify the oppression of women, the owning of slaves, and the killing of those who follow the wrong faith, to name just a few of the ways the Bible can be abused.
Second, following the lectionary keeps me from standing up here week after week and telling you what I think about a wide range of social and religious issues. The fact is, I don’t think my opinion on such matters is any more important or any more relevant than yours.
And the third reason I usually follow the lectionary is that it forces us to think about a wide range of religious and spiritual ideas. It keeps me from consciously or unconsciously trying to channel each of you into my own personal theology.
Although the lectionary typically lists four Bible passages for study each Sunday morning—two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament–I usually try to base each sermon around one particular text. This morning I could only narrow it down to two of the passages the lectionary suggests for discussion on this last Sunday of November.
One passage is found near the end of the Gospel of Luke, and the other is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The passage from Luke may seem out of place. After all, this is Thanksgiving weekend, and Luke’s story involves Jesus upon the cross. It certainly sounds like a Good Friday story, or an Easter story. And the passage from Colossians involves a vast theological statement about the Cosmic Christ—an amazing theological vision of the eternal Christ that is about as far from our images of Jesus of Nazareth as you can get.
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Of course, the lectionary doesn’t just pull these Bible passages out of thin air—there is a reason they are placed where they are in the church year. And that’s the key: today is the final Sunday of the church year. Of the church year’s six seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost—we now come to the end of the longest season of them all—the six-month-long season of Pentecost—which ends the church year.
Not being an especially liturgical congregation, I know that most of you are thinking, “so what?” And I have no great answer to that question, other than to say that I have promised to keep you apprised of the rhythms of the church year. And when your more liturgical friends comment that we are entering Advent, which is the season of anticipating the coming of Jesus into the world, you’ll be in step with them theologically.
Since this is the final Sunday of the church year, it is not surprising that we would deal with a text involving the crucifixion of Jesus, which is the final element of Jesus’ earthly ministry, along with a text involving the Risen Christ, which is God’s exclamation point that what we thought was the end wasn’t really the end at all.
First, let’s look at the passage from Luke. In the 23rd chapter of Luke, Jesus is crucified. All the elements of this story are familiar. Jesus says of his executioners, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is a criminal on either side of him. People stand by and watch as the executioners cast lots to divide his clothing. The religious leaders scoff at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Soldiers offer him soured wine to torment him, and say, “If you’re the King of the Jews, save yourself.” An inscription is placed above his head on the cross, which reads, mockingly, “This is the King of the Jews.”
And then one of the criminals who has been deriding Jesus says, “Are you the Christ? Save yourself, and us!” But the other criminal rebukes the first criminal and says, “Do you not fear God? We’re getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And today’s passage ends with Jesus saying to that criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
There is plenty here for discussion, but since I want to also include some thoughts on that great passage from Colossians, let’s consider just the interaction between Jesus and the criminals. It doesn’t take a theological genius to figure out that Luke wrote his story with the idea that those criminals represent you and me. Of course, if you are one of those rare folks who has never done anything in this life for which you would rather not have to answer, then the criminals are not representative of you. However, since I note a clear absence of halos in the sanctuary this morning, and since I’ve never found one hovering over my own head, we’ll move forward with the assumption that while none of us is an evil and uncaring criminal thug, each one of us falls somewhat short of the glory of God.
The first criminal says what you would expect a guy in his predicament to say. He says, basically, “Hey buddy, if you really can perform miracles like they say you can, this would be an opportune time to zap us down from these crosses.” This criminal is, in a word, unrepentant. He has done some bad things; he knows he has done some bad things; and all he can think about is saving his skin so he can get on with his life and, presumably, do some more bad things.
The second criminal though—he seems to have an epiphany while he’s hanging there next to Jesus. Next to the perfection he sees in the person of Jesus, his own life comes into frighteningly clear perspective. I can imagine the thoughts that must go through his head. Every little lie, every little misdeed, every act of selfishness suddenly comes flooding into his consciousness, and he realizes with painful certainty that he is getting exactly what he deserves. He deserves death. And if, as I have wondered aloud before, every part of a person that deserves to live forever will…then this guy has come face to face with the fact that there is nothing within him that deserves to escape death.
But unlike the first criminal, he becomes repentant. In the face of his shortcomings he feels absolutely heartbroken for every time he took what was not his, for every time he used his life for the fulfillment of his selfish desires, for every time the way he lived his life answered the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding NO!
And instead of asking Jesus to figure out a way to get him off the cross, he simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And that is all it takes! The Jesus we find in scripture does not ask us to be perfect, or holy; he asks only that we turn to him with a repentant heart. And when the criminal does that, his slate is wiped clean. And Jesus says to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It’s a powerful story, and I see no need to expound on it because it really does speak for itself.
Before I move on, however, I have to tell you about a conversation I heard on so-called Christian radio several years ago. And no, I don’t listen to Christian talk shows and radio sermons anymore—I was in danger of converting to Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Judaism, or something other than the religion those folks claim to belong to. But I love the Christian faith, so I vowed to remain a Christian, and made a quiet promise that I would stop torturing myself with Christian radio.
Before I made that commitment to myself, I heard a couple of guys arguing over today’s passage from Luke. And one of them said he was struggling with it, because of that line where Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” If Jesus was going to meet the criminal in heaven on the same day he was crucified, well, that caused all sorts of problems, because the scriptures clearly say Jesus wasn’t resurrected for three days. Furthermore, the scriptures are clear that Jesus spent about forty days walking around on earth after the resurrection before he ascended up through the sky to sit at the right hand of God.
Now, I’ve never had a problem with such matters, because while I have a strong belief in the Risen Christ, I have never tied that belief to a rigid interpretation of the post-resurrection Bible stories. But these two guys on Christian radio finally figured it out. The problem is that the people who wrote down the scriptures put the comma in the wrong place. As the passage currently reads, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you—comma—today you will be with me in heaven.” According to our radio friends, the passage should read, “Truly I tell you today—comma—you will be with me in heaven.”
Moving that comma gave these two men great comfort, because they were able to maintain their literal view of scripture. According to their interpretation, Jesus wasn’t telling the thief when they would meet in heaven; he was simply reminding the thief that he was telling him this news right now–today. In the face of the countless problems God has given us to deal with in this beautiful but hurting world, all I can say about such theological nitpicking is the same thing Jesus said about it two-thousand years ago: they strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Whatever you think happened regarding the body of Jesus after his death on the cross, one thing is certain. He was resurrected. I for one cannot envision the physical body of that first century man now sitting at the right hand of an embodied God. That is indeed a part of many people’s theology, and I would not belittle it. It simply is not a part of my theology.
But the resurrection is a reality. It’s not something we can prove, but consider this: Jesus of Nazareth was born in a tiny backwater nation in the poorest part of the world to a poverty-ridden family, and he died the death of the lowliest criminal. Two-thousand years later, on the opposite side of the globe, in the richest country in the world, there is church which bears the name of the religion founded in his honor on practically every corner. That doesn’t prove a thing, but it does indicate that he lived on past the days of his earthly existence in some way, even if one denies any sort of spirituality to that existence.
Today’s passage from Colossians elevates the spiritual reality of the Risen Christ to its highest biblical heights. We turn now to what theologians call the Cosmic Christ. I think you’ll agree this figure far transcends the earthly body of Jesus of Nazareth that so many insist must at this moment be physically sitting somewhere in the universe.
As we reflect on this passage, it is good to remember that many modern Bible scholars and theologians say we should draw some sort of distinction between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ. My favorite New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, calls this the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. Theologian Sallie McFague says we should always pause and draw a breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ.” These people aren’t lowering the status of Jesus. They are simply reminding us that the reality Jesus embodied—the Christ—must be thought of in terms that are not bound by the physical world the way Jesus’ body was bound by the physical world.
The passage you will hear has what theologians call a “high Christology.” I’m aware that the theology of the members of this church is all over the board, and I like it that way. It helps keep all of our minds open. From those who think that Jesus was an embodiment of the eternal Christ—high Christology—to those who think Jesus was the most normal of human beings and was simply a great teacher—low Christology—nobody in this place inflicts their theology on others, and that includes this church’s ministers.
But since this passage has the highest Christology you’ll find in the entire Bible, go ahead and draw in that deep breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ,” and listen to this amazing reflection about Christ. Christ 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.
Now, believe what you will about the relationship between God and the historical human being named Jesus of Nazareth: this passage is talking about something much bigger and much more profound than the physical body that carried Jesus through life. Getting our minds around this little passage can be of great assistance in building a mature and honest theology. We need to draw that breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ.” This text says that Jesus was a human being who embodied something much bigger than himself. He embodied God. But even for those with a high Christology, that doesn’t mean he was the exact same thing as God.
In John’s gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan women by the well that “God is spirit.” According to the powerful spiritual statement in today’s passage from Colossians, Jesus became a sort of reflection of that spirit, or as the passage says, “the image of the invisible God.
This is an appropriate passage for the final Sunday of the church year. Next week, as Advent begins, the Bible texts start thinking about the coming of the baby Jesus into the world. The texts that run through December reveal a very human Jesus, born to a very human Mary, in the most humble of circumstances. But today, we are asked to remember that the little baby who would be born in Bethlehem, who would grow into a man who presented a moral vision unparalleled in human history, and who would suffer the most ignoble of deaths, is in some mysterious way one with the very power that calls us into being, uniquely revealing of the very presence in whom, according to Paul’s words, we live, and move, and have our being.
And I don’t think we are meant to take the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ and hammer it into complicated doctrines to which we must fanatically adhere. But I do think we can get a glimpse of God when we look at the cross. And I think we can be extremely thankful for the words that come from that cross, words that are perhaps as relevant for us as they were for the people to whom they were directed two thousand years ago.
To those who hammered the nails into his hands, we hear the words, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And to the thief who, like ourselves, looks to Jesus with a repentant heart and asks only to be remembered, we hear the words, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
For many, those final words from the cross are the most comforting words in the world.