This is the second of a 4-week series looking at St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Sarah kicked us off last week – and for those who weren’t there she reminded us the letter was written by Paul to the church in Colossae – eastern Turkey today – about 20 years after Jesus died. The town had been through a turbulent time recently including recovering from an earthquake. Paul writes to encourage the Colossians to hold true to their faith, that he shares with them.
I want to focus on the first part of the reading from the letter today in which Paul answers the question “who is Jesus”. Imagine you walked down the streets of Amersham this afternoon and asked people who they thought Jesus was. Don’t do it of course – that’s not how we do things in the Church of England and they’ll think you’re a nutter. But if you did, what answers would you get? Some might say they didn’t know; some might say he didn’t exist at all; some might say he was the son of God. But I suspect quite a lot would say that he was a good man, with good values like loving your neighbour.
Paul’s answer to the “who is Jesus” question is rich and complex but can be distilled down into two simple points. Paul says Jesus is the image and personification of God. And that he is our saviour – in that through his death on the cross our sins are forgiven and we are restored to relationship with God.
So, looking at these two in more detail. First, Paul starts by saying Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Throughout the Old Testament, when God spoke to the prophets, he never revealed his glory or took on visible form – he talks through the burning bush to Moses in Exodus 3, and in a still small voice to Elijah in 1 Kings, and in both cases the prophets hid their faces because they couldn’t look upon the power of God. Yet in Jesus we see God in human form – Jesus was a man who lived, worked, ate, slept, taught. He was someone you could see, touch and talk to. And yet he was the image and personification of God. In the opening of John’s gospel John says “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” And Jesus himself says later in John’s gospel chapter 10 verse 30 that “I and my Father are one”. So when you think of God – or try and conjure up in your mind an image of what God looks like – which can be hard to do – you should see an image of Jesus. In one of his lovely phrases Paul says that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. Jesus was God in human form.
Paul makes clear Jesus is equal with God in that he says that in Jesus “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”. Some of you may remember the sermon I gave about the Nicene creed and Arian heresy last October. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get into all that again! But simply to say the main point I made in that sermon is the same one Paul is making here. Jesus is fully divine, and was with God in the beginning. Paul isn’t pushing God out of the way. He’s emphasising that Jesus himself is God.
And that takes us to Paul’s second point. Paul says that through Jesus: “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 a couple of verses later Paul repeats this point and says that through Jesus’ death humankind can be presented “holy and blameless and irreproachable” before God.
In a couple of sentences Paul is summing up the essence of the Christian faith. Humankind is separated from God through sin – through our inability and unwillingness to live holy lives in accordance with what God wants there is a barrier between man and God. As sinners, we ought to have no place in God’s holy kingdom. Yet we do – and we do not because we have stopped sinning, but because God came to earth in human form as Jesus, who submitted to die in agony on the cross. Dying for the sins of humans to break down the barrier of sin that separates us from God. In Christian theology this is called the atonement – that the death of Jesus has atoned for the sins of man to make us acceptable before God, so that death is no longer the end and we have eternal life.
Quite how all this works again Christians have bickered about for 2000 years, but the basic point is simple. And if all the talk of atonement sounds a bit complex, perhaps I can bring it down to earth if I shamelessly steal an analogy I heard Tim Harper once use in a sermon here. It’s a bit like being in France, and trying to get on one of those motorways which have tolls you have to pay. You drive-up to the toll booth but you don’t have any money. You won’t be allowed through. But suddenly the attendant recognises you, opens the barrier and waives you onto the open road. Someone else has paid the toll for you. And that’s the guts of the Christian faith – that through his death on the cross Jesus has paid the toll for us. We don’t need to understand quite how it all worked. But we can rejoice that the barrier is open and we can go through.
So that’s Paul’s answer to the “who is Jesus” question. Jesus is not simply a prophet, a good man, an inspiring teacher. He is the image and fullness of God in human form, and is also the means by which we can be reconciled to God. That is the guts – and the good news – of the Christian faith into which these two children will be baptised shortly.
Mel is fond of quoting C S Lewis – the author of the Narnia books but also a Christian theologian, so I will conclude by quoting one of his most famous writings on the question of who was Jesus. Lewis said:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Edward Brown 17/07/2022