Things Hold Together

Scripture: Colossians 1:1-15

I’m a believer that there are some things that can only really be said in song.  When you love someone, it doesn’t really do you any good to try to describe your love for that person in prose.  Instead you sing, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”  Or, “How wonderful life is now you’re in the world.”  Or, “When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while.”

And when you’re angry or heartbroken, it might be of some use to try to write out how you feel, but also, you have to crank up I Will Survive and sing along at the top of your lungs.  Right?

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted by the beauty of nature, whether it’s true “lofty mountain grandeur” or just a beautiful sunset, the one thing I want to do is sing How Great Thou Art.

So when I read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I think I recognize what he’s doing here.  This poem he uses in the opening part of his letter is probably an excerpt from a hymn that people were already singing in church.  It’s like he’s trying to describe the majesty and grandeur of Jesus Christ, and he just doesn’t really have his own words to describe it, and so the only thing to do is break into the song that’s written on his heart.  I imagine that he sings as he writes it: “The Son 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 in him and through and for him…and in him things hold together.”  These are verses that early Christians may have used to formulate doctrine about Jesus’ preexistence as part of the Trinity and the nature of  his relationship to the Father, but they aren’t meant as doctrine in themselves: these verses are, quite, simply, praise for the risen Christ who reigns over all things.

It’s a song I find myself coming back to for Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday, which is today, and if I knew the tune I would want to sing it.  Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year before we start over again with Advent and the promise of Christ’s birth.  That means that in the past year, just like every year, we’ve waited for Christ’s coming, celebrated his birth in that stable in Bethlehem; followed him through his ministry in Galilee, healing people and teaching on hilltops and telling stories of the Kingdom of God; we’ve walked with him through his final week in Jerusalem, including his arrest, trial, and execution; we’ve gathered to celebrate his rising again and ascension into heaven.  And we’ve asked what it means to follow him and grow in our discipleship.  Now it all culminates in this, this Sunday that reminds us that this human figure whose birth and death and earthly work we’ve spent the year telling stories of is also “the image of the invisible God…the one in whom all things were created.”

For those of us who tend to spend a lot of time thinking about who Jesus was as a person on earth, and maybe less about who Jesus is now – or even for those of us who tend to think of who Jesus is now mostly in terms of our individual relationship with him – Christ the King Sunday always bring us back to the risen king who reigns over heaven and earth.

And the thing is, it’s really hard to preach on that.  Because where my heart wants to go is back to this song I heard, which puts things better than I ever could.  In any case, there’s part of me that just wants to leave this there, these words of praise of the majesty of Christ, without trying to explain it or theologize it away or turn it into doctrine.  But then, like with a favorite song, I also want to comb through the lyrics, thinking more deeply about what they mean.

If there’s one phrase that captures my imagination from this hymn Paul uses in Colossians, it’s the line “in him, all things hold together.”

I had to think a little bit about why that particular line stuck out at me so much.  There’s something almost mystical sounding about it, Christ as the underlying force or principle of the universe in a way that takes my mind to something much bigger than the human Christ I usually imagine collecting fishermen on the shores of Galilee.

But to be honest, mostly I think I like this line because so much of the time, life seems to be held together so precariously, as if it’s just one dropped ball away from falling apart altogether.  I don’t mean this in a dire way, like you should be overly worried about me.  I mean it in a way that I think a lot of us probably feel much of the time, as we try to balance the demands of work, and school, and parenting – making sure you follow all the rules, even though they keep changing! – or caring for our own parents, getting our oil changed, finding time for appointments, maintaining relationships and not forgetting friends’ birthdays, not letting the dishes pile up too high.  I know every year I think, “This is the year I’m going to have it together enough to send out Christmas cards!” and every year, it is not that year.  And, of course, it’s easy to look at other people we know and think how they’re balancing all the same things we are and somehow they’re managing to keep it all together, though I’m sure they also think they are not.

Do you feel me on this?  I know some of you may even have bigger and less mundane reasons to feel like things are falling apart, like whatever has been the center of your life somehow isn’t holding anymore – whether that’s a job or a relationship or a housing struggle or illness or some aspect of your identity that you seem to have lost.

In one way or another, I think, we’re all probably desperately praying for things to hold together.

To be honest, I really don’t think that the grand promise of this cosmic Christ is that I’m ever going to feel like I personally have it all together.  That’s much more the realm of self-help books or people who come over and give your closet a makeover than it is the one who is the visible image of the invisible God.  Jesus, as the one who not only reigns in heaven but is God incarnate, deals much more in the messiness of our real, barely-holding together lives.   He never really seemed to get along with the people who had it all together, anyway.  And yet I do really love this idea that underneath it all, whenever things seems to be falling apart, Jesus is there holding all things together.

In the world around us, too, there’s plenty that seems to be falling apart.  Climate scientists are telling us we’re just about at the tipping point where it’s too late to walk back the damage we’ve already done to the earth, and we’re left to imagine what that’s going to mean 20 years from now.  In California in just the past few weeks, thousands of people have lost their homes and possibly also loved ones to fire.  Across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, migrants in the caravan wait to see what’s next – which I don’t mention to evoke fear of those migrants, but out of a sense that our world is a place where so many people are forced to uproot themselves out of poverty or fear for their lives.  Our own political system seems so often on the verge of breakdown when we can’t work together and sometimes aren’t sure if we should even try, and, as we head toward February and the special United Methodist General Conference which will revisit our denominational stance on same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, the Church (big C) seems on the verge of breakdown as well.

Again, I don’t think that the promise here is that Jesus will magically swoop in and physically save us from the consequences of our actions, whether those actions are too-large carbon footprints or political extremism or economic policies with far-reaching effects.  And yet somehow in the midst of all of this, we cling to the same words Paul did: that in Christ, all things – somehow – hold together.

And while I don’t want to explain or theologize away a beautiful line from a hymn, it makes me wonder what this promise does mean for me, for us, for all of us living these messy and almost-falling-apart lives here on earth, while Christ reigns in heaven.

The hymn goes on to say that God, in Christ, was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself.  And while this work has been done – on the cross – it also continues: as God calls us back to Godself, as God calls us back together, as God calls us back to love, as God calls us back to wholeness in Christ.  Christ’s life and death made that reconciliation real in heaven, and it’s still being realized here on earth.

What I hear in that is that Christ is not only holding things together, preserving and sustaining what is, shaky as it may be, but actually drawing all things together into a state of shalom – in the full sense of that Hebrew word, which is to say not just peace, but love, and justice, and wholeness.

We all know that saying beloved by Martin Luther King, Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I go back and forth on whether I believe that or not.  Some days it seems like things really are getting better, as far as we still have to go.  Some days it seems like our only hope is for Jesus to come back real soon and set things right.  I don’t know which one of those things is true, to be honest.  But what I know, either way, is that there is something, or someone, who holds all of it in his hands, who will one day establish that shalom on earth as it is in heaven.

One of my commentaries put it this way: “What does it mean in a world of fragmentation, suffering and confusion to repeat its claim that all things cohere in Christ or that they have been reconciled in him?  It reflects an absolutely basic conviction that, despite the vastness of the cosmos, its determinative principle is not impersonal.  The God who is the ground of existence bears a human face – that of Jesus Christ.  This means, too, that despite fragmenting and chaotic forces at work, we humans can trust that the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is more fundamental and gives the power that sustains the world its distinctive character.  So, although it defies present empirical verification, we confess that what holds the world together is not the survival of the fittest or an unending cycle of violence but the reconciliation and peace of Christ.”[1]

There’s a boldness, a leap of faith, inherent in saying that, isn’t there?  That the underlying, fundamental holding-together principle of the cosmos is not any other of these things that seem to exert so much power and influence – but Christ’s love and goodness?

Paul usually closes his letters with exhortation – instructions on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ – and while he’ll get there in Colossians too, this hymn that he chooses to begin his letter isn’t that.  It’s not instruction to us, it’s praise.  And at the same time, it’s hard to deny that the one we praise in such a way has a claim on our lives.  Maybe that’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians that we, as Christians, have been given a ministry of reconciliation – that the ordering principles of our lives should be the same as that of the cosmos, lives that lead ourselves and others toward shalom.  What would it look like for our lives to be places of God’s reconciliation?

I asked a colleague this the other day and she said that if she can trust that in Christ all things hold together, then she can actually dare to live in this risky way that is following Christ.

Because this Christ we dare to follow “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…He himself is before all things, [and even when it seems like everything around us and in us is falling apart], in him, all things hold together.”

 

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI, p. 609

 

 

 

 

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