Pentecost VI, Proper 11, Year C
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Born in 1980, I’ve seen a whole lot of technological advancement in my lifetime. From Atari to personal computers to cell phones to 3D printing – I can’t imagine where the world is going to be when I’m 80 years old in the year 2060, God willing, of course. I can’t remember a single one of these advancements causing much of an emotional reaction, but this past week, when the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released, Jay and I piped the images from the computer onto the big screen, and we sat there and cried. They were so beautiful! Jay said, “I can’t imagine how anyone could look at these images and believe that humanity is the only sentient life in the universe.” I said, “I can see that. I can’t imagine how anyone could look at these images and not believe in God.” I can’t. It is unfathomable to me that the distant galaxies and star-forming regions we beheld appeared as they were over 13 billion years ago. During those awe-inspiring moments, this verse from Psalm 19 came to my mind, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handy-work.”
Using the strongest language about the divinity of Christ in all of Scripture, the early Christian hymn we heard from Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae declares that in Jesus, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” There was never a time – even 13 billion years ago – that Jesus didn’t exist. “All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” From the subatomic forces in every single molecule and atom in your body to the Carina Nebula where stars are born – Christ is present even there, holding all things together.
But I imagine that the early Christians didn’t have the stars above in their heavenly courses in mind when they sang this hymn. They lived in a world in which the Roman Emperor ruled supreme, subjugating the various people groups he conquered, including the Jews and the early Christians who lived in Palestine. Scholars believe the letter to the Colossians was written around the same time as the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD when the Jews rebelled against their Roman overlords. This hymn, seen in that light, is subversive, even seditious.
In a world in which images of Caesar were everywhere, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” In an imperial mythology in which the emperor is considered all but divine by virtue of his lineage, Christ is “the first born of all creation.” In a culture in which the emperor’s preeminence is embedded in socio-economic, political, and military structures, these Christians dared to cry out in song that “all things in heaven and on earth were created…through him and for him.” Even thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers are subject to his rule. Because of his bodily resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ is the one who will come to “have first place in everything.”
This reminds me of some of the hymns that enslaved black people sang that weren’t exactly what they appeared to be. “Wade in the water, children” told people how to escape in a way that the Master’s bloodhounds can’t pick up your scent. Wear black, said another verse, to escape detection. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” told slaves to find Ripley, Ohio, where a “band of angels” would bring a “sweet chariot” to carry them across the dangerous Ohio River to their freedom.
In a society that allows white people to own black people, Christ is the true Master who brings freedom and liberation to the captive! In an empire that views the emperor as the head of the body-politic, these early followers of Jesus sang that Christ “is the head of the body, the church.” Just as Jesus replaces Caesar, so does the church replace the empire.
In our day, there are many things that hold us captive, but perhaps nothing holds so many who call themselves Christian in this country captive than white Christian nationalism. I’m not talking about patriotism, or love of country, but rather the view that Christian and American identities are somehow one and the same. Christian nationalists believe that the tenants of their version of the Christian faith should influence both our national identity and public policy, even for those who don’t hold that same faith. This view is almost exclusively held by white people, and is deeply embedded in American society, expressing itself in everything from the seemingly innocuous “In God we Trust” on our money to a violent insurrection at the US Capitol Building. We should definitely love and pray for our country, but Christian identity transcends all ethnic and cultural claims and practices. We are Christian before we’re American, and the two are not the same thing. The Church embraces “every creature under heaven” including “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free.” It includes those who identify as American, Canadian, El Salvadorian, black, white, brown, gay, straight, men, women, trans, rich, and poor, even when the law of the land excludes and marginalizes them. Jesus Christ, “the firstborn of all creation, is the head of the body, the church” – a church that transcends all human divisions. Through Christ, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
The early Christians in Colossae needed to be reconciled with God because they were “estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil things,” Paul says. This indictment of their sinfulness isn’t unique to the Colossians, of course, but applies to all of humanity, including you and me. We are all sinners in need of reconciliation with God. This reconciliation isn’t forced by political leaders with the fear of being crucified on a cross as it was in the Roman Empire, nor is it brought about by Christians attempting to impose it on citizens of this country who hold different religious views. It is accomplished through Jesus’s fleshly body, the firstborn of the dead – through being buried with him in baptism and being raised to newness of life in his resurrection. Having reconciled us in his fleshly body, Jesus now presents us to the Father “holy and blameless and irreproachable…provided that [we] continue securely established and steadfast in the faith…”
What does it mean to “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith?” Paul fleshes this out in the next chapter which we will hear next Sunday, but Paul’s desire that the Church continue in allegiance to Christ is the motivation for this letter. Eternal salvation is not a thing that happens once-for-all when you ask Jesus to enter your heart and forgive you your sins, it’s the result of an ongoing, day-after-day journey of faith that begins with baptism and ends with the death of our bodies. Day by day, we struggle with the old self that died in baptism, and when that old self haunts us and we let us win, we turn back to Jesus, confess our sins, receive his pardon and peace, and continue onward on our way toward “the hope promised by the gospel we have heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” Creature means all the elements of creation, not only human beings. From the subatomic forces in every single molecule and atom in your body to the Carina Nebula where stars are born – Christ is present even there, holding all things together.
The early Church sang their subversive, even seditious hymn that proclaimed allegiance to Jesus over Caesar, and Church over Empire. Like the hymns sung by enslaved black people before the Civil War in this country, this hymn wasn’t what it appeared to be. The hymn that we will sing in a moment just before the consecration of the elements, the Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy” also isn’t what it appears to be. Even though we’re singing it in 2022 in Kansas City in this place, we are joining with the Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven in singing their everlasting hymn before God’s throne. In the Eucharistic sacrifice, time as we know it stands still as earth and heaven are joined, and we are transported to that green hill called Calvary, and Calvary is brought here. When we receive our Lord into our bodies, our sins are forgiven, our union with Christ and the Church is strengthened, our loyalties are confirmed, and we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.
The Church invites us to come to this altar, no matter what is holding us captive, laying aside our earthly allegiances to king and country, to renew our allegiance to the firstborn of all creation, the head of the church, and the author of our salvation. We marvel at the beauty of the distant galaxies and star-forming regions he created so many billions of years ago, and we behold him in the beauty of the simple creatures of bread and wine. Let us come and receive the One who reconciles us to God us with his own body and blood, receiving the grace we need to “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith.” Amen.
 Psalm 19:1, Coverdale translation.
 Brian Walsh: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-16-3/commentary-on-colossians-115-28-2.
 Col. 1:28
 Col. 3:11.
 Col. 1:23
 Col. 2:6-20.
 Michael D. Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : With the Apocrypha : An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th ed. (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2010), 2069.
 Amy-Jill Levine and Zvi Marc Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017, 411.
 1979 BCP 860.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.