Monday, February 20, 2012

Colossians 1.15–20

A Sermon heavily reliant on Tom Wright, Scot McKnight (and a bit of St. Athanasius). I am in your debt.

This morning I want us to think about image, or eikon, a Greek word you might be familiar with. We live in a society where image is incredibly important. Businesses spend huge amounts of time and money on making sure the image they put forward is the right one. People do the same. You want to make the right impression on people so you need to have the right image – smart and business like if you are expected to be efficient and financially productive; grungy, bohemian and a bit disheveled if you are expected to be creative and artistic. We pick up on these messages: that’s a nice suit (I bet they have a large bank balance), what an interesting kaftan (They must produce some… interesting paintings). Image really counts. But whether it is part of a business strategy or part of a lifestyle, the image we choose communicates something about us to those around us. It projects something of how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us.

The Eikon of God
Image is important in the Bible too. It is there in the second reading we had this morning, ‘He Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God.’ What on earth can Paul mean here? If something is invisible, how can it have an image? As is often the case with Paul we can get a clue by looking to the Old Testament, in this case, by looking to the earliest chapters of the Bible, to the book of Genesis. In the beginning God creates the heavens and the earth and all that fill them, plants, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects. Everything that was brought into being came from him. And then God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ (Gen. 1.26). God places his image in his creation, and as a sign that God is the true ruler of all things, they are graciously and lovingly to rule what God has made. Human beings were made to be images of God to the whole world; we represent his goodness, kindness, justice and love. we were made to live in loving communion with God, with each other and with the the rest of creation.

A World of Cracked Eikons
It is not long before the story of God’s Eikons takes a downward turn. The people who were to rule according to the wisdom they received from God, decide to reject that wisdom in favour of finding their own. A snake, an apple and the rest, as they say, is history. A fracture develops in the loving relationship between God and humanity, a fracture develops in the loving relationship between human beings each other, and a fracture develops  in the relationship of human beings to the rest of the world. Human beings are still Eikons, you can still see the goodness of the creator in us, but we have become cracked Eikons. I think we all know that within us there is the potential to do great good, but there is also a less pleasant side. A side which fails to live up to the good which we believe human beings to be capable of. Paul knew this tension well. In another of his letters he says ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Romans 7.15). 

The Image Restorer
But into the world of cracked images comes someone extraordinary, Jesus Christ. He had eternally been the perfect image of God, perfectly reflecting the truth and love and character and life of God the Father. It was through him, according to Paul, that all things were made. It was through him that the order and beauty came out of chaos. He was the word which God spoke which created plants and animals and humans and angels. And because he is the eternal image of God it was completely appropriate for him to become ‘the image of God’ as a man. In a sense we can say that at Christmas, Christ became what he already was. The pre-existent image of God became the human image of God. The pre-existent ruler of the universe became the human ruler of the universe. Jesus comes into a world of broken images as the perfect image of the invisible God. And so it is in Jesus Christ that we find out not only what God is truly like, but what human beings should truly be like.

But Jesus doesn’t just come as the perfect image of God to show us how far from perfection we are. If that were the case Christianity wouldn’t be good news at all. Paul goes on to say that ‘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.’ Jesus didn’t come just to expose the cracks, but to repair them, to make the broken beautiful and whole again. So when Jesus heals someone, he isn’t just showing us that he has great power, he is at work, restoring brokenness. When he forgives he is healing wounds. When he hangs around with the sinful and society’s outcasts and calls them to be his followers he is raising people up to be everything God intended them to be. And according to Paul, this healing work happens most clearly on the cross. On the cross Jesus bears our brokenness in his own body. He bears our wounds in himself, so that in him, human beings can be healed, we can be reconciled to God, to each other and to the whole of creation.

But I still feel like a cracked Eikon
Now I know this has been a very dense sermon and really we should finish with something of more practical use. What difference does all this stuff make? I think it makes a big difference because it causes to ask the question, ‘is the image of God being seen in our community?’ when people look at us and the way we behave towards each other and towards the rest of the world, do they see the reflection of the creator of the universe ever more clearly? I think that is a very important question for us to ask ourselves regularly, though it is one that could be quite depressing. But when we look at ourselves carefully and ask a question like this, and when we still see the cracks and wonder what is going on and whether God has ever been at work in our lives transforming us, it is at this point that we also need to remember that it is in the cracks that God makes flowers grow. We come to God as we are, not as we wish we were, or as we think he wants us to be, and we allow God to work with what we are. We allow him to repair the image which we still bear. We can allow God to take our brokenness and make it fruitful.


Ian M said...

Yes, excellent. Thoughtful and with a beginning, middle, end and message.
Though I sometimes wonder how texts that read well come over as the spoken word. I must turn up some Wesley, since he kept the crowds in thrall for hours.
Meanwhile, your thoughts hang largely on Paul. Which comes back to the fashionable rejection of Paul's instruction on not having women in charge.
If Paul was wrong about that, then why do we hang onto the rest of Paul. Is it simply because it is part of 'tradition'.
And so, what would a Paul-free Gospel look like? 'Bishops' sort-of come from Paul, not Christ, who was not very keen on 'rulers', male or female. But that's a specific, local, issue. It goes far wider. Re-write your homily as Paul-free, and much of the message stands, but the argument has to be re-shaped.

Barnaby Perkins said...

Thank you for your comment Ian. Yes, my thoughts hang on Paul. And I would NEVER want to amputate Paul from the canon, I happen to love Paul greatly! Neither would I wouldn't want to attempt to decouple Paul's theology from the context in which he wrote. Nevertheless, I do think it is important to remember that Paul wrote to specific churches with specific problems. Even when his letters were first circulated, there surely would have been some things which he wrote which were less applicable to certain congregations than to others? I can't imagine that every congregation had quite the same problems as the church in Corinth, for instance. The question, therefore, is not whether one rejects Paul holus bolus, but whether one allows some parts of Paul to read differently in different contexts. We don't therefore utterly relativise 1Timothy 2 for instance, but we certainly must acknowledge that there are certain specific problems which Paul is dealing with in a text like that which may not be precisely replicated elsewhere. So to make a decision as to whether or not women can be ordained on the basis of these texts alone seems unsound to me. This is particularly the case when you read these texts in the light of some of the other things the NT has to say about the place and ministry of women in the church. Consider Junia, who was an excellent apostle (Romans 16.3). I am not sure that Paul meant to prohibit her from teaching or exercising authority.
Again, many thanks for an interesting comment.