The Church that Feeds People

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9th Sunday after Pentecost, Jonathan Hanneman

160717_Godescalc_c781_Christ in Majesty

Colossians 1:15-28

July 17, 2016

I had a lot of trouble deciding which passage to speak about today. I personally carry a lot of shaming baggage with the Gospel reading, which always leaves me feeling like “you’re doing it wrong.” Then there’s Paul, who almost seems like he’s having a manic episode in the epistle. Amos and the Psalm were pretty depressing, but with the recent #BlackLivesMatter and Dallas police shootings and the recent terror attacks in France and Turkey, I was leaning pretty heavily toward them. However, the phrase that kept coming back to my mind was Paul’s “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So that’s where we’ll be focusing our energy today.

“Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

As I thought about the phrase, a few questions came to mind. My first question was, “who is the ‘you’ Paul is talking about?” I grew up in an extremely conservative evangelical sect—so conservative they’d be offended if someone called them evangelical. In our tradition, holiness, separation from sin and the world, came mainly by personal effort. The “you” in almost any passage of scripture was a very direct, individual “you.” So my first thought was basically the whole asking Jesus into your heart thing. If you’re “born again,” Jesus lives in your heart, and that’ll get you into heaven. Personally, I’m not a big fan of that kind of thinking. It isn’t necessarily wrong, but in my experience, it’s been overemphasized to an extreme. And in this particular passage, it’s actually incorrect.

Modern English has a pretty big structural inconsistency, and that’s the word “you.” It can be personal and individual, as in, “You, David, are the priest at St. Dunstan’s.” But it can also be plural, as in, “You, the people, are St. Dunstan’s.” Other languages maintain that distinction, and regional English dialects substitute words or phrases to overcome it (think “you guys,” “y’all,” or, in places where “y’all” has become singular, “all y’all”). Formal written English, however, contains no distinction, easily leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

Several weeks ago David pointed out that in most of the epistles, “you” is normally plural, and that’s the case here. When Paul writes, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” he isn’t speaking to an individual about personal salvation: he’s speaking to a group, to all those listening and reading. Christ in you, all of you together, the hope of glory.

My second question was, “what does ‘the hope of glory’ mean?” I’m not an expert on ancient Greek culture, but I have read that they had a fairly loose concept of an afterlife. Plato talks about reincarnation, and we’ve all heard the myths of Hades and the River Styx. But as far as an eternal heaven goes, it was pretty much undefined. What we find instead is the concept of fame, or “glory.” All the heroes in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are seeking it. The characters in the ancient legends have achieved it. Basically, it amounts to being remembered. As long as someone remembers you, whether that’s your descendants or people who hear your story, you, as an individual, remain in existence. If people forget about you, you slip away into nothing and cease to exist. Today we talk about going to heaven when you die, but the ancient Greeks wouldn’t have understood that. They would, however, understand the concept of “glory.”

Now, Paul is writing to Greek believers. In other passages he demonstrates a knowledge of Greek culture and authors, so it isn’t a stretch to think he’s referring to the Greek glory tradition here.

Achieving glory was not easy. It might happen if you were from an important family, but for the vast majority of people, there was basically no hope of glory. Even nobles would eventually be forgotten unless they performed some sort of nearly supernatural feat and became a legend. Elsewhere Paul tells us that most of the people he’s writing to are not important or famous in the eyes of society. In fact, we know that many of them were actually slaves. None of them had any chance of achieving glory, of being remembered long after death.

This is where I think the first part of our epistle reading comes into play:

“Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him 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, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church.”

Jesus, as the incarnation of God, is the original, unforgettable being. He doesn’t even need to be a legend because nothing would exist apart from him. Creation itself remembers and proclaims him. Christ completely fulfills the glory tradition, not by any effort, but simply by his existence.

But Christ isn’t alone in this glory. “He is the head of the body, the church.” The church Paul is writing to is one with the glorious Christ. The people are Jesus’ body, joined together in reconciliation. Through their unity in and with Christ, as the body of the unforgettable one, they will never be forgotten. They are all participants, together, in the eternal glory.

So if we go back to our phrase, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” we find we have to think about it a little differently than I did at first. It isn’t “Christ in you as an individual, your promise of heaven,” but “Christ in you as a group, resulting in undying fame” or “forever remembered together.”

As most of you know, Shannon and I are moving to Austin, Texas, in the next two weeks in order to attend seminary. And I want to thank you, as a church, for your encouragement and support over our seven years here. Without the welcome you gave us the first day we attended a service (Kickoff Sunday, 2009), we may not have found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. Without witnessing the social and political struggles of David’s first few years here, we likely would never have seen how unity can overcome painful division. Without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the idea of a single man (Josef), and the work of you, as a community, we would never have believed that a small church could feed, not just 5,000, but tens of thousands of people in need. This is Christ in you. This is Jesus living today. This is the hope of glory: a people known for the love of God and remembered as the hands of Christ in a specific time and place.

This next part of the service is going to be uncomfortable. If it isn’t, you’re either extremely self-possessed and mature, or you’re doing it wrong. When I say, “go,” I want you to look into the eyes of the person sitting next to you for ten full seconds. Do your best to see as deeply as you can into your neighbor’s humanity while focusing your thoughts on the phrase “Christ in you.” I’ll give you more instructions when the time is up. Ready?

Go.

Now slowly bring the other people sitting near you into view. Stretch a little and look around more and more. Really try to see everyone in the congregation today. Stand up if you have to, but look thoroughly. This is the “you” Paul is talking about. You as an individual and the person sitting next to you: Christ in both of you together. You and the others sitting near you: Christ in you, as a group. You and everyone else gathered in this building: Christ in you as a congregation.

But don’t stop at the walls today. Look further. Keep trying to see where else and in whom else you can find Christ. Christ at the community dinner. Christ at the grocery store. Christ at your book club. Christ at the #BlackLivesMatter rally. Christ at the voting booth. Look hard, and keep on looking. Recognize your heavenly siblings all around you, and work to make Christ’s love and unity known. Is there an outcast? See Christ. Is there a community leader? See Christ. Is there an enemy? See Christ, overcome your divisions, and make God’s love known. Keep going and going until there’s no one else left!

Christ in you, the hope of glory!

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