First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christ the King

William Loader

Christ the King: 20 November  Col 1:11-20

Our passage begins midstream in a bounding long sentence, picking up just its final few words about empowerment. Before that in 1:9-10 we read what the author announces as his prayer for his hearers. It includes that they be filled knowledge of God's will and they live in a way which reflects that knowledge and expresses it in worthwhile activity. The reference to power in 1:11 is more a reference to empowerment. It is not about ideals for which to strive by our own efforts, but about living in a way that both produces fruit and nurtures the empowering nourishment which makes fruit possible.

While this applies as much to individuals as to groups, what follows broadens the vista to something much wider which involves the whole world. Traditional imagery of angels in the light of God's glory form the backdrop for the first statement. Believers are to see themselves having a special place of belonging with what God is about and with those who most closely share God's being. It is possible that "the holy ones" in 1:12 could refer not to angels but to the holy people of Israel. Then part of the joy is about Gentiles joining to be one with God's people. But in any case it is about a strong sense of belonging and for a purpose.

The belonging is not a kind of passive membership, but engagement in a struggle which is fundamental to life. We have moved from being driven by powers opposite to God and love and good to become participants in stream of goodness that flows from God (1:13). Using language favoured by the historical Jesus the author speaks of the kingdom or reign. This is not something abstract or ethereal, but a sphere of power and influence which expresses itself by changing things. Part of that change includes forgiveness of sins (1:14). Part of being able to move spheres is the recognition of and facing up to the fact that one has been serving other gods, other priorities, than what is good for others and oneself.

The vision expands further in the carefully crafted verses which follow in 1:15-20. They could easily be lifted from a hymn of the time. Certainly they have been composed with care. Their substance takes us right to the heart of God and the universe. The Christ whom we follow is not just a founder of a religion, nor even a religious figure who was raised from the dead to delight and encourage a religious sect. Rather, the author asserts, he embodies both what humanity was made to be (the image of God) and simultaneously embodies God's wisdom. The phrases which follow echo thoughts expressed in Judaism and taken up into Christianity according to which God's wisdom has in a sense a life or being of its own, almost like God's intimate companion.

We find such ideas first expressed in Proverbs 8 where wisdom meets us as a woman. Elsewhere authors spoke of the figure as God's word. These are daring metaphors which allowed speculation that God's being generates its own dynamic, almost to the degree that one can speaks of more than one persona in God. Such speculation found a Christian form ultimately in the doctrine of the Trinity. Here we are not that far down the track, but there is little doubt that the author identifies Jesus with God's wisdom in this way. Christ embodies the very wisdom which makes sense of the universe and helped set it in motion. These are big claims. But they are ways of avoiding the trivial sectarianism which turns Jesus into a religious hero of a cult. Instead what we meet in Jesus takes us to the heart of God and universe and its meaning.

The focus is not just on beginnings but on endings. The chaotic state of disjunction and estrangement which characterises the universe out of harmony with its creator is something Christ came to set right. So 1:18-20 takes us beyond creation to the events of Christ's life. His message of reconciliation was, again, not about getting a few human beings forgiven, but about creating something much larger, a genuine reconciliation which would reverse the effects of the alienation which the gods of hate and greed have caused and cause. The author asserts that God deliberately resolved to be engaged fully in this act (1:19). This is big thinking because it is about all alienation and about holistic reconciliation. It interprets the resurrection as a symbol of a new beginning. Christ is the firstborn not only of creation as God's wisdom and word (1:15) but also from the dead (1:18). In that sense he leads the way to reconciliation and renewal (1:19).

Deep within this line of thought we find an allusion to the church (1:18). At one level it seems out of place. Are these verses perhaps not as universal in vision as we suggest, but really just another version of Christian imperialism, somewhat laughable in the light of history? Worse still is the author really suggesting that the church with Christ as its head is going to swallow up everything and have the universe at its feet? Such dreams have been dreamt and occasionally inspired behaviour which must be described as empire building. Then the church becomes the world's fool.

Yet if we turn such objections on their head, perhaps these verses offer a new definition of what it means to be church. In the best sense church is where the reconciling compassion of God is making some headway and is recognised and valued as such. This leaves no room for pretensions. Our joy is then not the power of influence and control, but that love flows and change happens. It is when destructive powers, including those gilded with religious sanction, lose their deity and people see that what matters is love because love lies at the heart of the universe and is God's wisdom and will. Talking about Christ as king is, alas, still very ambiguous and the gods never pass up the opportunity to crown Jesus with their own interests, even in the church.

Christ the King: 20 November Luke 23:33-43

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