Moving from universal concepts to specific realities is a jarring experience. It’s one thing to talk about poverty; it’s another to walk two miles carrying dirty water with a thirsty child clinging to your waist. It’s one thing to discuss the nature of the Church; it’s another to work the registration table for Vacation Bible School. It’s one thing to proclaim the salvation Christ brings for the redemption of the world; it’s another to encounter the living person of Jesus and call him savior.
Our pericope in Colossians begins as universally as the whole universe, heavens and earth, all things visible and invisible. It leads us specifically to the toil, struggle and suffering of a first century Jewish Pharisee named Paul. At the intersection between the universal call of salvation and the specific calling to suffer with Christ stands the fleshly body of our crucified Lord. It is in this body and in this Lord that all things are held together.
Paul is pastorally confronting a Gnostic seed specifically within the church in Colossea and more generally the Gnostic influence in the Church of the Greco-Roman world. Generally speaking, Gnostic philosophy sought universal truths divorced from the specific realities of our embodied world. And who can blame them?! Exegesis would be so much cleaner if it only drew out universal truths and never had to rub against the grit of a local community embroiled in conflict and chaos. Salvation would be so much simpler if it only applied to promises of heavenly disembodiment and never had to crack through the crust of our rotting sacks of flesh.
In his powerful letter that would give guidance to the Church Mothers and Fathers working out Christians creeds in the centuries to come, Paul testifies to the invisible God made visible in Christ Jesus and that this God, through Christ, made both the heavens and earth and everything in them. It is a depiction of the wholistic nature of creation and defies categorizations and fragmentation. More importantly, it is a hope of salvation that reaches universally throughout the cosmos and redeems specifically through Christ’s fleshly body, bringing salvation to the very specific flesh of creatures like Paul. The flesh and blood of Christ broken and poured out on the cross, resurrected from the grave is the turning point in the conversation. The fleshly body of the crucified Christ stands at the intersection between the universal hope of salvation and the specific call to follow Christ in our flesh.
Paul very clearly understands the reality of Christ’s body in the world to be the Church, the saints who are in Christ. In other places in the epistles Paul talks about being a slave (doulos) to Christ, but here he says that he is a servant (diakonos) of Christ’s body, the Church. Isn’t the local church always were the rubber meets the road? Local congregations struggling to live faithfully under the Lordship of Christ in the midst of the chaos of the world have put Christian theology through the fire. Pastors know this all too well. We read scholarly journals and attend theology conferences only to return to our people and ask, “So what?”. Luckily for us, Pastor Paul gave his own personal sermon illustration. He places himself in the position of the specific creature who has encountered the living person of Jesus Christ, joined him in his death and now seeks to know him in his suffering that he might attain the hope of the resurrection. Paul has given his life for the Church and is suffering in love for the churches he serves. In fact he speaks like a father who loves his children so much he wishes he could suffer in their place. He desires to take the place of suffering within the body of Christ so that all the church might know Christ more through Paul’s suffering. Paul envisions himself within the order of all creation universally brought together in Christ and it looks specifically like suffering love for the church.
I can only assume that Paul’s offer to suffer for the body of Christ is extended to some of the very Gnostic heretics he is confronting. After all, the general category of Gnostic applied to some very specific people who had some relationship with the Church and were also struggling to come to terms with that reality of Christ’s Lordship. Paul would suffer in the place of those who already cause his suffering. This is his service to the church that gives witness to the Gentile world of the hope of glory in Christ. The love Paul is displaying for the church is deeply personal and comes at great cost.
To preach this passage only in abstract and generalized concepts of Trinity, lordship, or salvation would quite simply be unfaithful to the witness of Christ and the reconciling of all things that takes place in his broken and poured out body. As preachers we are rightly cautious to not be too specific, as singling out a person or situation denies the power of the Spirit to speak to all hearts. Instead of being universal or specific, make this message personal, as personal as the body of Jesus. Paul put himself in the message. His epistle is both theologically rich and intimately embodied in the life of local service to the life of the church. This is not too much to ask of you this week.
When we preach Christ crucified and resurrected we can speak both to the powers and authorities and the big universal questions of poverty, death, and injustice in a way that brings the good news of salvation to meth lab on Chester Avenue, the grieving widow who hasn’t been out of her house in three weeks and the foster child who was ripped out of another home. This is the mystery of Christ’s body and the hope of glory for the world God loves.