What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 17th July 2022 at Connect Southwater Community Church, West Sussex. I also subsequently preached the same message at Manningtree Methodist Church on 31st July 2022. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
I had quite a memorable day recently. After working with my current employer for eleven years, I packed up my bag and left for the final time. It was quite sad saying farewell to some people who, over the years, have become good friends.
I start a new job in September. I interviewed way back in March, so it’s quite a long time to wait before starting. I did visit a couple of weeks ago, though and it was good to spend some time meeting colleagues face to face. I was also given my new email address, which meant that when my new boss emailed around brief introductions of those who start working in September, I was able to read what he wrote about me. He wrote:
Simon Lucas currently teaches History and Philosophy at Thomas’s Battersea Prep School. Previous to that he had worked at Worth and City of London Secondary Schools. He has also spent time as a freelance writer and this remains a passion of his. He is also an experienced sailor.
An interesting precis of 43 years of life! I assume that he picked out the details which he thinks are most relevant to the role I’m taking on, specifics that would vindicate his decision to appoint me, and something that might enable some of my new colleagues to make a connection with me.
Today’s passage is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. After his introductions in the earlier part of this chapter, Paul immediately gets down to business with a rich section in which he re-introduces his readers to Jesus. He summarises Jesus’ life and work into a few short sentences.
It’s complicated stuff, but it’s well worth digging into since it is truly remarkable. Let’s see if we can make sense of it together.
If you do have access to the text, it would be well worth your while having that in front of you. A reminder that we’re looking at Colossians 1:15-28.
Our first point this morning, then, is – Jesus is supreme.
Paul wants his readers to understand that Jesus is superior to all others in authority, power and status and gives a number of explanations of this.
The first is that Jesus ‘is the image of the invisible God’.
You don’t need to get too far into the Old Testament to see that many people before Jesus had close encounters with God. What is notable, though, is that in none of these encounters did anyone actually see God. He remained invisible.
Moses, in fact, asked God to show him his glory. But God replied, in Exodus 33:20, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
God is simply too holy to be encountered by humanity.
But when people see Jesus, they see God.
I find that absolutely amazing!
When we encounter Jesus in the gospels we’re not just reading about a great teacher, or a moral leader, but God himself.
What’s more, in verse 19, Paul says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”
All of God’s fullness, all of God, every aspect of his character, personality, power, righteousness and holiness are in Jesus.
Wow. Just wow.
The second way in which Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy over all is by stating that Jesus is ‘the firstborn over all creation’ – still in verse 15.
As the firstborn, Jesus is God’s heir, and as such everything in creation is his. Paul makes this clear in verse 16 – all things have been created for him.
But it’s more than that.
Paul says that all things have been created through him.
Jesus is the creative force by which the universe came into existence. Things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible – all created through him and for him.
And verse 17 tells us, in Jesus all things hold together.
Creation depends on Jesus because he is the force that created it and that keeps it together.
All of creation was made for Jesus.
All of creation was made through Jesus.
All of creation is sustained by Jesus.
The next way Paul explains Jesus’ supremacy is that he is “the head of the body, the church.”
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that the church is the body of Christ, and that each of us, as members of the church, are part of this body. Here in Colossians, Paul tells us that Jesus is the head of that body. As such, we depend on him completely. Without a head, a body cannot function. Without Jesus, the church cannot function. Indeed, without Jesus, there simply isn’t a church.
Finally, Paul says that Jesus has supremacy over all things because he is “the beginning and firstborn from among the dead.”
Just as he is firstborn over all creation, Jesus is firstborn over the new creation. It is Jesus who was the first to rise from the dead.
Jesus brought the new creation into existence through his death and resurrection.
As a consequence of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be part of a new creation and enjoy an unbroken relationship with God. We too can look forward to the day when we will be raised to new life.
Jesus has supremacy in all things because he is the image of God, he is the firstborn over all creation, he is the head of the body, and he is firstborn over the new creation. That’s quite a CV and certainly should provide us with plenty of motivation to love and follow him.
Paul now turns to consider the state of humanity before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this is our second point – alienation and reconciliation.
Claire and I recently enjoyed watching the final series of Derry Girls. When it first came out I watched the first episode and wasn’t impressed. Claire then made me watch every episode and it’s now one of my favourite television programmes.
I found the final episode really poignant. It was set at the time of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, which sought to end the years of violence by bringing together loyalists and republicans into a shared political experience in which all views could be represented.
Of course, nothing in this world is perfect, but the Good Friday agreement has generally been a real success. Northern Irish people who were once alienated by their views on Northern Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom have achieved some form of reconciliation.
Let’s hope that this continues to be the case, despite the current difficulties the province faces.
In the next section of his letter to the Colossians, Paul tells his readers how they were once “alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.”
This is the natural order of the world. It’s not what God intended but it’s what humanity have made of it.
Humans turn their backs on God and fail to live to the standards he sets.
Humans push God out of all facets of their lives, putting themselves and their own needs above everything else.
But there is better news. They were alienated from God. They were enemies of God.
Look at verse 22.
The negative has been transformed into a positive. The Colossians have been reconciledwith God. Reconcile means “to restore friendly relations between.” Humanity and God can now have a more positive relationship.
How this reconciliation has been brought about?
Paul says to the Colossians that God “has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” That’s verse 22. Humanity has had their friendly relations with God restored by the act of Christ dying on the cross.
We saw in verse 19 that all God’s fullness dwells in Jesus Christ. There is nothing of God that is not in Jesus. Jesus is wholly, fully God. It is because of this that humanity can be reconciled with God through Christ’s death on the cross.
Since Jesus is God, there is nothing wrong to be found in him. He is holy, without sin, without blame.
Because he has no sin of his own, he is able to take on the sin of the world – the wrongdoing of all people – and to take the penalty that should be ours.
The punishment for sin is death, but Jesus took this punishment for all of humanity.
What’s more, he defeated death by rising again to life.
The consequence of this is that Christ can present us to his father as “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” There is no sin for God to see in us, because it has been dealt with.
If I borrowed £10,000 from a finance company to buy a new car, I would be in debt to them. It would show up on their computer system. Now imagine if my friend phoned up the finance company and paid the loan off for me. That would remove my debt from their records. If I subsequently phoned them up and tried to pay off the loan, there would be some confusion as their systems would say that there is no debt in my name. There is nothing for me to pay off. It has been dealt with.
It’s similar, but on a massively more significant scale, with God and my sin. When a Christian appears before God on the day of judgement, there will be no record of sin because it has been dealt with. That means that if we turn to Christ and accept that he died and rose for us, we can have a relationship – we are no longer enemies.
If we read on, though, there is an “if” here. Paul continues in verse 23, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”
We must, as one of my teachers at school used to regularly tell us, “keep on keeping on.”
Being a Christian is not just about a singular conversion experience, but a life lived out day by day, holding onto hope held out in the gospel.
If we are to hold onto this hope it is necessary for us to know and understand the gospel message as found in scripture. We will want to immerse ourselves in the word of God regularly. We will want to live out the teaching we find in scripture, building on the foundations of our conversion.
It’s like doing anything – if you want to be a runner, you have to run. By running regularly you ensure you remain fit and healthy, and able to run. Over time you will get better at running. If you neglect your running, your fitness suffers and before you know it, running becomes very difficult, and eventually you’ll find yourself unable to run at all.
Once we were alienated from God, but through Jesus we have been reconciled to him. Now we need to live our lives holding onto the hope held out in the gospel.
Our third point this morning is perhaps the most challenging – sharing in affliction.
When I was a student I had a Saturday job working in the books department of WHSmith. By this point I was in my early twenties and had already undertaken management training with Marks and Spencer. With the exception of our older supervisor, the rest of the team were teenage girls. Together we did a great job, despite some strange requests from management. We went through a period where it seemed as if every week we were asked to reorder all of the books in the department in ever stranger ways.
Despite our competence, our supervisor did periodically like to get really cross with us. It was generally the girls who bore her wrath; I don’t think she liked the idea of picking a fight with me – maybe because of my gender, or my age or my experience. Sometimes, if one of my colleagues did do something wrong, I would take the blame as generally our supervisor would grumble under her breath for a minute and then move on, whereas if one of my colleagues admitted her wrongdoing, she would be strongly chastised. I guess I felt able to take the fire for the younger, less experienced members of the team.
That might seem like a rather random thing to drop in at this point, but I do think it is relevant – as we may or may not see shortly!
In verse 24 Paul tells the Colossians, “now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you” and continues with the even more confusing, “I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.” What does he mean by this?
Before we address this, perhaps we should look at what Paul considers to be his mission. He tells us in verse 25 that he has become the servant of the church, commissioned by God, who entrusted him with the task of presenting to the Colossians the word of God. Paul is to share “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people.”
But what is this mystery that Paul is commissioned to share?
Thankfully Paul answers this in verse 27 – the mystery, he says, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
If we follow Christ, then he lives within us as the Holy Spirit. He promised his followers that his Father “will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” This Spirit, he says, “lives with you and will be in you.” You can read this passage in full in John 14.
Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, lives within us. His presence marks us out for glory – a resurrection of our own.
Simply put, then, this mystery, which Paul is to share, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that through his death and resurrection we might share in his glory, be reconciled with God, and spend eternity with him in glory.
But why is Paul suffering? And why does he rejoice in his suffering?
Paul rejoices because he is suffering for the young church. Whilst he is in prison he is taking some of the fire away from younger Christians who might not yet have the same level of understanding or spiritual maturity that he has. As the figurehead of the new movement allied to Christ, he serves as the lightning conductor, drawing the ire of the authorities, and reducing the pressure on others. Paul endures it “for the sake of Jesus’ body, which is the church.”
But there is also a spiritual dimension here. Paul understands that we live in a period that could be known as the ‘between times’. Jesus has come, has died, and has risen. This brought about God’s new creation, of which Jesus is the first born, as we saw in verse 18.
But Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, and to take all who follow him to glory.
Paul, like us, lives between these two periods. The new creation has begun, but has not yet seen its fulfilment. That leaves us in a period of great tension, a period in which some people follow Christ and strive to serve him, whilst others continue to live in darkness, rejecting Christ. Those who turn their backs on Christ are often openly antagonistic to him, and subsequently to those who follow him. Thus when Christians are subjected to abuse, it is as a consequence of their love of Christ; in essence it is Jesus who is being abused. In verse 24, then, Paul understands that the suffering that fills up his own flesh is a continuation of the abuse that Christ received.
None of us want to experience suffering, and few would join Paul in rejoicing in suffering. It’s not uncommon to suffer for our faith though. I’m sure that there are people here today who have endured suffering because of their beliefs. You don’t have to look too far to see people who endure real hardship, punishment, imprisonment or worse for holding on to the gospel of Christ.
Maybe we can draw comfort from this passage, however. If we find ourselves enduring suffering, we are doing so on behalf of Jesus; it is he who upsets people, it is his gospel that people find offensive.
Jesus himself warned us of this in Matthew 24, when he warned “then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
Not an easy message at all, but again, it is clear that those who endure persecution do so as a consequence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Maybe we can also hold onto the fact that if we face trouble because of our faith, like Paul we may in a way be protecting those who are newer in the faith, younger Christians who, if they faced the same level of challenge, might be tempted to renounce their faith and fall away. Consequently, we can see how the persecution of individuals is actually persecution of the body of Christ, the church, and those who face it do so to protect others, and ultimately build up the church.
Well, we’re coming to the end, you might be relieved to hear! This is a really challenging passage, and I hope that we have a better understanding of what it means.
In summary, it starts with that terrific acclamation of who Jesus is – the supreme being over all things, no mere teacher or miracle worker, but the image of the invisible God himself. The whole fullness of God dwells in him. Our natural state is alienation from God, but through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have been reconciled by him. As a consequence of Jesus’ death, we can approach God as holy, without blemish and free from accusation. A truly remarkable gospel message which it is good to remind ourselves of frequently.
Paul drops in an ‘if’ though – we will be reconciled “if” we continue in our faith, establish and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.
As Christians we are expected to continue working to build up our own faith, not moving from the hope held out in the gospel. That’s why it’s so important that we regularly remind ourselves of this gospel message, and don’t neglect it once we have become Christians.
And then there’s that message that suffering may follow conversion, but if we encounter this we do so as a consequence of who Jesus is and what he has done, not because of who we are.
By suffering we play a part in building up the body of Christ, the church.
But ultimately, we need to remember that at our head is Jesus, the image of the invisible God, supreme over all. It is he whom we worship, he whom we dedicate our lives to serving and he on whom we build our hope.What a remarkable message that is!