Colossians 1:15-23 "Every Creature"
Like many of you when on vacation, so also my family and I had a nice summertime opportunity to enjoy the outdoor world of God's creation on our recent trip up north. We climbed the Sleeping Bear Dunes and marveled afresh at what a colossal pile of sand the winds have heaped up there over the centuries even as we watched a hawk soar along the thermals emanating from the warm sand. A hike through the forest revealed gorgeous wildflowers as well as a red fox bounding through a meadow. Bike and car rides were made the more fun by the sight of white-tailed deer with fawns, wild turkeys with chicks, and even a coyote carting off some prey for a mid-day feast.
These are the kinds of natural sights which we look for when on vacation. But how often do we ponder foxes and deer, wildflowers and hawks when we gather at the Lord's table? The answer is probably, "Not very often."
The truth is we have enough difficulty seeing in our mind's eye even the other people with whom we gather at this table. When we eat the body of our Lord, we thicken our union with the Nigerian Christians in Idachi with whom Dave and Jan Dykgraaf worshiped earlier today. We are one with the Navajo and Zuni Indians in Rehoboth among whom my father-in-law is working this month as an interim pastor. We are one with Chinese Christians who broke the bread and spilled the wine in some house church away from the watchful eyes of the communists. When we gather at this table, we sit among a vast congregation of people from all over the world.
That's hard enough to remember. So it seems unlikely that we would associate this sacrament with foxes and trout! And anyway, these days there are some who label "New Age" any association of Christian spirituality with the non-human creation. At a combined worship service a couple of years ago we used the classic "Canticle of the Sun" by Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis typically called the moon, sun, and wind his "brothers" and "sisters." But no one in the thirteenth century or since condemned Francis as a heretic. Yet when his words are used today, such sentiments are labeled New Age or pantheistic.
That's not the case, of course, but on the other hand given the recent rise in Mother Earth goddess worship some hedging is needed. The Bible everywhere forbids any blurring of the line between Creator and creation. We worship God alone and though we give thanks to God for what he has made, we do not worship those things instead of God or along with God, nor do we worship God through those other creatures.
Those are the up-front matters we need to keep in mind. However, with all of that in mind there is a sense in which Paul's words in Colossians 1 tell us that it is proper to sit at God's table and envision the good news which the bread and wine contain for also foxes, fish, coyotes, and flowers. Let me explain why that is so and why it is even necessary.
Colossians 1 is a most remarkable passage. For one thing, as we noted on another occasion, Paul goes on a verbal tear the likes of which you seldom see. In the NIV you will find eleven sentences between verses 9 and 23. Near as we can tell, in the original Greek Paul wrote exactly two sentences in those fifteen verses! The first whopper of a sentence has 218 words in it, running from verses 9-20. Verses 21-23 are one more sentence.
Paul is all-but tripping over his own words, piling on one subordinating clause after the next. Even as his thoughts spiral higher and higher, so does his rhetoric. He is like an excited child who cannot get the words out fast enough to describe a day at the amusement park. "And then we rode the ferris wheel and then we got some cotton candy, and, and, and then I think the next thing we did was go to the fun house, which was really spooky but I didn't get too scared because I knew it wasn't real, even though once I kind of screamed, but after that we walked right over to the roller coaster and, and, and, . . . . ." and so forth!
Paul's quill cannot keep up with the places to which his heart is racing as he realizes anew the truth of Jesus. And what a truth it is! Keep in mind that Paul is talking about Jesus of Nazareth here. Keep in mind that Paul wrote this letter probably sometime between the years 55-63 AD, a scant thirty or less years after Jesus died. Any non-Christian in Paul's day who read Colossians would surely find these words absurd. This Jesus was someone who had died a quarter-century earlier! What's more, even before he died he was just a carpenter's son, a peasant, a nobody from the redneck backwaters of the empire. But now Paul says this Jesus is the creator of every blessed thing that exists, rules it all now, and is finally the one in whom and through whom all of reality hangs together!
That's outrageous! This is one of those places where you sense the poignance of that comment C.S. Lewis once made about Jesus: either accept him as who he said he was (the Son of God) or consign him and the New Testament to the realm of mental illness. Because Colossians 1 does not allow you to accept Jesus as no more than an inspirational role model who, though just an ordinary human being, still has much to teach us. No, the New Testament insists that he is the One, God's One and Only who created everything in the beginning and who more recently redeemed it all, too.
Yes, he lived at a definite time on a piece of Middle Eastern real estate. But he was also the one who, when the Big Bang flashed, blew out the match with which he had lit the fire. He's the One who, as the galactic soup expanded, cooled, and slowly gelled into stars and planets, was cruising overtop of that spectacle, shaping and molding it according to his and his Father's and his Holy Spirit's designs. And so although he was born one night and laid in a manger, he is also the one who, a few billion or so years before that night, had created the atoms that made up the wood of that manger. Now through his resurrection he is preserving every creature in whose creation he took delight at the dawn of history.
He's the One. He's the Only One. If he is who Paul says he is, then Jesus is the Key to reality: it all makes sense in him. If the universe has a future beyond the limits of time and space, then it is because of him. If you have a future beyond that moment when the doctor looks at your heart monitor and declares "Asystole. That's it," then it is because of Jesus. That's who we believe Jesus is. That's what we proclaim in the bread and wine today.
And that's why our thoughts at this table simply must range so broadly. Paul's thoughts clearly did so. Four times between verses 15 and 23 Paul uses some form of the Greek word ktises, which is the word for "creation." And though Paul is clearly including humans in what he has to say about the scope of Jesus' work, it is equally clear that he is wrapping his mind around all other creatures too. In fact, at the end of verse 16 Paul caps off his list of creatures by throwing in the catch-all Greek words ta panta, which literally means "all things" but which colloquially could be rendered "the whole kit-n-kaboodle!"
Paul does not want to leave anyone or anything out. And just in case we still have not gotten the point by the time we reach verse 23, Paul goes so far as to say that the gospel has been proclaimed "to every creature under heaven." Clearly this is an example of hyperbole. Paul is exaggerating. Even in 55 A.D. it was not the case that every person had heard the gospel. And if that was true then, it is much more the case now when the world has about 5 billion more people in it than it did during Paul's lifetime. It is not literally true that even every person has heard the gospel, much less the trillions of other creatures on the planet.
But it is literally true that the gospel has something to do with every creature, and that is Paul's point. Paul is willing to exaggerate a bit if that's what it takes to convey the message that Jesus has scooped up all things and every thing. Paul makes a similar move in Romans 8 when he says that even the non-human creation bears within it somehow the seed of gospel hope. So strong is this hope in the breast of chickadees and sunflowers that Paul imaginatively declares in Romans 8 that the whole creation is groaning for Jesus' return, craning its neck like a child at a parade eager to see the next spectacle coming down the street. The whole creation is waiting on tippee-toes, Paul says, because the whole creation is exactly the scope of what Jesus made and is even now in the process of salvaging.
One of the oldest heresies that beset the Christian church is Gnosticism. There is evidence that Gnosticism was present as early as the first century. Alas, there is evidence that the gnostic view still rears its head today, too. A key characteristic of this heresy is the notion that salvation is mostly a matter of what you know--indeed, the word "Gnosticism" comes from the Greek word for "knowledge." Salvation is about receiving knowledge from God. Once that knowledge is in your heart, your interest in the natural world begins to fade away as a prelude to life in heaven when God whisks you out of this gross physical world of flesh and blood, dirt and feathers, into a vapory heaven of only cloud and light.
Recently Harold Bloom wrote that in his opinion Gnosticism is the quintessential American religion. American Christians tend to focus much on having a "personal relationship with Jesus" even as they eagerly await Jesus' rapture of them out of this world. So there has been suspicion in recent years toward those who celebrate the environment. Some dismiss concerns over the physical cosmos by hanging the tag of pantheism onto such matters even as others ignore issues related to the earth in that there seems to be no future in such things. We're going to heaven "and this earth ain't our home!"
The apostle who wrote Colossians 1 thinks otherwise! True, in verses 21-22 Paul talks to believers about their reconciled relationship to God through Christ. We've been given the gift of faith and we need to persevere in that faith, Paul says. In other words, the basic idea behind the "personal relationship with Jesus" line of thought is here. But Paul sets that into a huge context! Faith brings our hearts out into the wide open spaces of Jesus' galactic project of salvation. Colossians 1:15-23 begins by talking about the entire creation and concludes with a reference to "every creature." Nestled into the middle of that is each believer's salvation by faith. But what that means is that faith, far from disconnecting us from our fellow creatures, actually serves to connect us in the common hope we all have.
All of which brings us back to how I opened this sermon today. When we come to our Lord's table, we are right to give thanks to God for saving us, for granting us the gift of faith, and for securing for us a firm hope for an eternal future. But as we prepare for a summertime celebration of the sacrament, we would also do well to give thanks to God in Christ for the gorgeous physical world he has made even as we gratefully note that it, too, has a bright future. We do well to connect the joys of our vacations in God's creation with what we celebrate in the bread and wine.
This world's birds, fish, and fauna are craning their necks in anticipation of seeing what we will become when Christ Jesus is revealed. Those other critters with whom we share the universe are eager for that because then they will know that their long, sad history of hurt, decay, and travail will also be finished. We have plenty hurts and woes in our lives, too, of course. That's why, like most of you, when I savor the bread and wine of communion, I look forward to an eternal life of rest, joy, and peace. But as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we should also remember that at least part of what will make that eternal kingdom a joy for both God and us is the fact that we'll share it with all creatures of our God and King. Amen.