Sunday, July 18, 2010

Early Morning Sermon

This one was really hard to write. Why?

Hymn of the Cosmic Christ
Colossians 1:15-29

O What a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day!

I think I’ve told you before how much I love the movie and theatre moments in which characters burst into song. Viewed from the grumpy side of life, those moments seem kind of silly and embarrassing. But they also represent a kind of border between the mundane and the spiritual. Between ordinary life and rapture. Between what can be rationally stated, and what must be heart-fully expressed.

Our scripture reading this morning represents on of those moments - when the enormity and beauty of what he wants to express overwhelms mere prose. And he breaks into song.

This first part of our scripture lesson is a hymn - a song - extolling Christ and expressing the wonder of what God has done for us through Christ. This hymn was most probably sung in the early church
(I think it’s worth a moment to think about the fact that as the church was getting started and spreading, one of the first things they did was compse hymns and sing. Writing creeds came much later. Even writing alot of the New Testament came later. Hymns came quickly and took hold - that’s how closely linked our faith is to our songs. That’s why what Betty and our other accompanists do is not just . . . entertain us or show their personal musical gifts. When she plays for us, Betty connects us to one of the most basic forms of Christian expression. And we should never take that for granted. Thank you Betty, for enabling us to sing!)

Theologians and Biblical scholars refer to this portion of scripture as the Hymn of the Cosmic Christ, because it attempts to express who the one we call Jesus is and was, not only in his earthly life, but in terms of cosmic time and the context of all of creation.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, it begins.
In Christ were all things created.
All things were created by Christ and for Christ.
And in Christ all things are held together.
For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.

The majesty of creation is tied to the wonder of reconciliation in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A few weeks ago, I asked the congregation to fill out cards, with questions and issues that you would like addressed in sermons or bible studies. And I’ve been praying over those index cards, just keeping the faith of those writers and the themes they raised in mind as I planned for this fall.

And this week, as we continue to read in Colossians, I felt like the passage might help address one of the issues that were raised by thoughtful, faithful people. (Actualy, I thought I might address two of the questions, but the sermon got too long so I’m putting question #2 - about discerning God’s will back to be addressed more fully later.) One was about how we think about other religions, and whether or not God grants eteranal life to anyone but those who are Christians. What about good Buddhists? Good Jewish people? Good and devout Muslims? In our increasingly connected world, these questions take on some urgency. We see these people on tv. We read about them in books and on line. Doesn’t God love and care for them? Does God reject them because they do not call on the name of His Son, Jesus Christ?

Haven’t alot of us thought about that? People of faith, theologians and philosophers have spent alot of time thinking about that question. And this passage is one of the ones that they consider in that regard. Because it opens up a vision of Christ and an expression of the scope of His work that gives us a different vantage point or perspective on questions about God and other religions.

On the one hand, the hymn affirms that it is in Christ Jesus that we know God. He is the image - the mirror - the reflection - the representation - of Almighty God. In human form, God was pleased to dwell. We get much the same language in the first chapter of the Gospel of John- the Word became flesh and dwelt among us - the fullness of Grace and Truth. Christ is unique and we cannot know God apart from Him.

But, amazingly, as music sometimes can, the hymn also pulls us what feels like the opposite direction: Christ was present at the dawn of creation and EVERYTHING that was created was created by and for Him. Our Lord is not just a teacher in Palestine who founded a nice religion - one among many others, which are now in some sort of contest to see who can get the most votes in a worldwide “Earth’s Got Religion”. Christ created the earth, and holds together that creation. Which makes us think, well, Christ can and will work in and through all things to accomplish God’s purpose. In all humility, know that God is God, we have to allow for the possibility that Christ is working in and through in other peole, even of other religions, to care for and love and reconcile people to Himself. The Bible doesn’t just say, Everyone must believe in Jesus. It also says, with equal strength and power, “Through Christ God was pleased (past tense, you guys - Christ’s reconciling work is accomplished) to reconcile ALL THINGS to himself.

One of the ways that Reformed theology differs from Baptist and Anabaptist and New Wave popular TV evangelist theology is that our flavor of Christianity has also carried the insistence that God is free and God can and will “save” those whom God chooses, that it is not up to us to win or earn our salvation by works or any other way. Presbyterians have taken seriously that grace is a gift. And we respect God enough to think that God can and will give that gift out to whomever God wants.

And Christ’s own mission and ministry seem to point to God’s great desire to give it away to all. There is not an ethnic group Jesus leaves out, not a gender group he favors, not a religious boundary he encounters that he doesn’t cross, not a moral failure that is beyond his forgiveness. God’s grace is offered to all. Even to those who reject him and crucifed him. As he was dying - hanging on the cross that saves us - Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Those words are our ultimate hope and our ultimate assurance that we ourselves are saved.

Now - taken to the extreme - this thought has given rise to the position we call Universalism. The theological position that God saves everyone, no matter what, because God’s love is so great that no one has the power to overcome or reject it.

Presbyterians are not universalists. One of our greatest theologians, Karl Barth, puts it this way: "The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God's grace. But would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has he not ... been sacrificed for the whole world? ... [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides." [5]

For Barth, then, and for Reformed and Presbyterian Christians, the place we wind up is held in the same creative tension that we find in this hymn: Faith in Christ means that we can neither affirm nor deny the possibility that all will be saved.
So what can we do? Our answer is clear: we can hope (see CD IV/3, pp. 477-78). [6]
We can cling to Christ and the hope that he offers for our lives only as deeply and fervently as we offer and embody that hope in a world that clearly stands in need of his mercy and grace.
When we encounter people of other faiths, we look for Christ’s reconciling work in them, we have faith that Christ is there - because Christ is everywhere! - and we give thanks for that work, no matter who seems to be involved in it. We don’t presume to know what God is doing in their lives, even as we share with them the good news of what Jesus Christ is doing in our lives. We leave the question open. And we hope. We don’t judge. We hope. We don’t dismiss. We hope. We don’t ignore, or fail to make Christ known as WE know him. We hope and we hope to not only make him known to them. We hope to know Him more fully as we come to know these others, who are also His beloved.

We started by talking about the moment that ordinary life gives way to song . The magic of that moment is, it seems to me, matched by the way that a song when a song ends, the feeling, the melody, the rhythm of the song lingers on and flavors the more mundane, prosaic parts of our lives. You know? How, having heard great music, we sometimes find that the “hook” - that’s what they call it - the “hook” of the song - has caught us and stayed with us and changed us somehow?
The scripture hymn ends, but with these encouraging words:

continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

The great songs - like this great hymn of the Cosmic Christ - burst into our consicousness and then, even after the song ends, we live with the words and music running underneath our everyday lives.
Christ is the image of the invisible God. Even when things seem alien to us, in Christ all things hold together. In Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God has reconciled all things to himself. We, who are reconciled through Christ, in our lives and in our words and in our prayers, go out into the world Christ created and redeemed as bearers of that song.