August 15, 2010

…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell

Passage: Colossians 1:15-29, Luke 12:49-56, Colossians 1:19-20

19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

According to a BBC News report, U.K. experts have said that carrying extra weight on your hips, bum and thighs is good for your health. Apparently, hip fat mops up harmful fatty acids and contains an anti-inflammatory agent that stops arteries clogging. They concluded that “in the future, doctors might prescribe ways to redistribute body fat to the hips to protect against cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.” Can you picture a doctor attempting to deliver that message: “it would be good if you fattened up your thighs a little?”

It illustrates to us how powerfully ideas can dominate our collective imaginations such that the suggestion of anything counter to that idea cannot be heard or is treated with great suspicion.  Further, to challenge such collective, hard-to-dislodge ideas is at best a very steep uphill climb.

1. I am old enough to remember a time when the idea of what we call evolution—the notion that life on earth emerged as the result of some natural process of development—did not dominate our educational institutions as it now does.  So dominate is this idea in our current collective imagination that what Paul declares of Jesus Christ—“in him all things in heaven and earth were created”—is heard as the ramblings of the scientifically unschooled or weak minded.  So dominant is this idea that any contrary talk—such as those scientists today who argue for intelligent design—are often ruled out-of-bounds before a discussion can even begin.

So when we read a text of scripture like the one we are reading today that flies in the face of such culturally dominant ideas we are often conflicted.  The result has, for many, been a sort of dualism; religion and the things of the spirit over here and science and the things of “terra firma” over there.  Yet, Paul insists, Jesus Christ will not be so easily set to the side; Jesus Christ insists on his own identity that supersedes all such categorization—“in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

To illustrate, consider a recent article about the size of the human brain from the New Scientist magazine by Alison Motluk and listen for how evolution is spoken of as a given.  “One group of researchers has scrutinized the primate archaeological record and concluded that the human brain has evolved just as would be expected for a primate of our size. Meanwhile, a biologist who has compared the number of neurons in the brains of all sorts of animals says there is nothing special about the human brain compared with other primates. … These findings undermine a fundamental and long-standing belief about our place in the kingdom of life: that Homo sapiens is the greatest species ever to grace the earth and that we have become the greatest because our brains are the best ever to have evolved.”

In contrast consider how different the conclusions are in the picture that in Christ all things were created.  Jesus affirmed the creation story of Genesis when he said “in the beginning God made them male and female.” In Genesis 1 we are told that we were created on the same “day” as the animals.  They are our cousins (albeit not our brothers and sisters).  Since God loves all that he has made, he loves the animals as much as he loves us.  Then wherein do we differ from them?  While God loves them and us, God speaks to us alone.  Having spoken to us, he expects us to speak to him in return; to respond.  Because he speaks to us we are response-able, able to respond.  And because we are response-able, we are response-ible; we must respond.

You can see that while one account of the world looks to the size of brain to determine the value of life the story of creation suggests that worth is founded on the love of God who created all life.  Out of these accounts flow very different trajectories about how we relate to one another and our world.

It is my conviction that faith in Christ as creator does not diminish scientific inquiry. The scripture teaches us that we are to love God with our minds.  We can’t love God with our mind as long as we are ignorant.  Therefore the apparatus needed to educate citizens is divinely mandated, and it too is a sinew of God’s love holding his people together.  The impetus for study that arises from the idea that learning is to love God with our minds calls from us our best intellectual efforts.  The idea that to understand the physical world is to know more of God’s creative output is highly motivating.

In fact the creation story indicates that human intelligibility was for the very purpose of knowing creation (science)—the human was given the responsibility of naming the creatures.  Theologian T. F. Torrance said it beautifully: “the human’s own rational nature is so deeply coordinated to the intrinsic rationalities of nature that the human becomes the instrument under God through which the intelligible universe discloses its hidden secrets.”

It is now commonplace in print media of all kinds to capitalize the word earth as if it were a self-generating entity; you will never see earth capitalized in the Bible (unless at the beginning of a sentence).  I know that it is to stand against current trends to speak of the world as God’s creation and consider that the sun rose today because “in him (Christ) all things hold together.”  One thing we know about continuing scientific discovery is that today’s certainties are tomorrow’s curious artefacts.  I encourage you to hold on to your faith in the One who transcends time, through whom and for whom all things were created.

2. Paul wrote of Jesus Christ: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  The phrase “all the fullness” sounds like a tautology, a needless repetition of an idea.  If the “fullness of God” dwells in Jesus then the word “all” is unnecessary; the word “all” is to repeat what is stated in the word “full”.  Clearly this is grammatical devise used to emphasize a point; to underscore it in red; to repeat something so readers/hearers were not in doubt about what the author’s emphasis.

So why is Paul emphasizing the idea of the incarnation; that God himself dwells in Jesus.  Recall that Epaphras, the founding pastor of the Colossian church, has come to Paul for help in dealing with certain teachers who are influencing the congregation.  Some of them are Gnostics. Gnosticism maintained that matter was evil, inherently evil.  Because matter was evil, God couldn’t have created it.  Since God had nothing to do with matter, God had nothing to do with the human body.  And since all human beings are embodied, God had nothing to do with human history.  History can’t be the theatre of God’s revelation.  Then the Incarnation couldn’t have occurred for two reasons: one, Incarnation is an event within history, and God scorns history; two, Incarnation entails embodiment, and God scorns bodiliness.  Therefore Jesus of Nazareth can’t be God incarnate; history isn’t important to God; and therefore history isn’t important to Christians.  Then what is important to Christians, according to Gnosticism?  Gnosis is.  Gnosis is knowledge, privileged information.  Christians, according to the Gnostic heresy, are those who have come to understand that God acts on people only in the sphere of the intellect, the mind.

So when Paul writes Of Jesus “in him all things were created” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” you can see that he is addressing this Gnostic heresy that diminishes Jesus.  Paul insists that Christ, and Christ alone is God’s agent in creation just because Christ is God.  Paul insists that as the (visible) image of the invisible God, Jesus Christ is God incarnate.  Therefore Paul plainly maintains that matter isn’t evil, bodiliness is important, history matters, history is the theatre both of God’s revelation and of the Christian’s activity.  Your life matters.  The world around you matters.

I suggest to you that in a very similar way modern science has had the same effect; the sharp dualism between physical matter and spirit of the Gnostics is embraced, albeit for different reasons, by the science of modernity.  The conclusions are the same.  God has nothing to do with the evolving world.  At best God has only to do with the stuff of the spirit; God has been rendered a spectator.  Scientific materialism—meaning the belief that only the material universe exists—has the same view of history in that in the end it doesn’t matter.  Human life is unimportant—as a study of brain size indicates.

In the Biblical creation story human capacity to answer God renders us answerable to him, accountable.  The tragedy, of course, is that as sinners we do respond, and our response isn’t fit to print. “Shut up.  I didn’t ask to hear from you.  Buzz off.  Mind your own business.  Leave me alone.”

Since God gives us what we want (contrary to what most people think), what we want he ensures we are going to have.  We don’t want intimacy with him?  Then we are going to have estrangement.  We disdain right-relationship with him?  Then we shall remain sunk in unrighteousness.  That’s the human condition; the place the Colossians were in before meeting Christ—as Paul recalled with them: “you were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.

3. What is the nature of the world we live in?  As you rise each morning and take on the responsibilities of the day is this the day God has made, yes, that has its very existence because in Christ all things hold together?  Is my life simply the most current edition of an evolving humanity?  Do my loved ones who are deceased really matter?  This is the same question as does history matter?  Are the aches and pains of bodily life simply the way “nature” maintains sustainability; or are they an attack on the gift of bodily life given by God?
In announcing the supremacy of Christ over all things the gospel reveals reality to be the sphere of God’s activity and presence and that human life was made for glory.  The One who makes our reality “real” is God himself in Jesus Christ.

4. Consider a final reflection. In Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  The gospel announces that by faith this One would indwell us—in other words, the fullness of God in you and me.  Paul summarized the gospel to the Colossians this way; Christ in you, the hope of glory.  I find Christian faith such a compelling vision of life.

John of Kronstadt … was a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest at the time when alcohol abuse was rampant. John, compelled by love, went out into the streets. People said he would lift the hungover, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms, and say to them, "This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God." …

John of Kronstadt understood the gospel. Your brokenness does not define you. You are one in whom Christ dwells. You were meant to house the fullness of God."

This same gospel is announced in the sacrament of baptism.  We bring our little ones, believing for them as parents and guardians, believing in Christ Jesus that this child was meant to house the fullness of God.  We baptize them in that sacred name knowing that Jesus is faithful and by his Spirit indwells this little one with his own presence.

19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.