“Christ the sustain-er”
When I read our epistle lesson for today, in contrast to the news this week, I was greatly comforted. At least at first. After all, Paul’s letter to the Colossians describes Christ Jesus this way:
He 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. (Colossians 1:15-17)
Or, as The Message paraphrase puts it, “[Christ Jesus] was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment.”
That was the comforting part, when the whole world seemed to be melting down this week:
- Race riots, revealing the limits of our progress in recognizing each other as equally beloved of God. When I chose the image for our bulletin cover, I didn’t know that there would be more fear-inducing news this week.
- Terrorist attacks here and around the world, purporting to be done in the name of God.
- A coup attempt in a particularly volatile part of the world.
- Not to mention extreme polarity in our national election politics and the seeming diminishment of the Christian Church.
All of this anxiety, all of this fear, all within the sphere and control of Christ, who “holds everything together,” according to Paul. And yet, everything seems to be coming apart.
I don’t often think of Christ “holding everything together.” Do you? I am much more familiar with the concept of Christ being involved in creation. God spoke and all that is came into being. But, as we say each week in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ …. Through him all things were made.”
The very ancient claim being made here, both in the creed and in today’s letter to the Colossians, is that in God, Christ existed before even time existed, then came to dwell among us as Jesus of Nazareth. So as God this pre-existent Christ must have participated in creation. But Christ Jesus as sustainer—who holds all of our existence today in his care, enabling our existence today—I don’t often think of Christ as sustainer. Particularly when the thrones, dominions, rulers, powers, and even the polarizing politics that seem to shape our world are so un-Christ-like. It was thinking of the thrones, dominions, rulers, powers, and polarizing politics that un-comforted me for a while this week.
What we Christians mean when we think of God sustaining creation is that God both holds creation in existence and directs creation towards God’s purposes. God sustains the world and directs it. Everything is in his hands. Otherwise, the events in the world would have a kind of autonomy over and against God, that there could be things that happen in the world that escape God’s control.
Given the events of this week, we can see why a doctrine like this might be attractive. There are horrendous evils that occur which we do not want to either attribute to God or make them part of God’s ordering and directing.
This is one of the things that we ask on a personal level all the time. Did God intend that I have this illness? Does God direct me to this suffering? Is it under God’s sovereignty that my child died?
“So,” I wondered this week, “if Paul is correct and Christ Jesus is the sustainer of creation, why does everything seem to be coming apart at the seams?”
Our epistle lesson today hints at the answer. Our lesson names “thrones, dominions, rulers, and powers” as part of creation, all given purpose by Christ, their creator, even when we cannot fathom Christ’s purpose.
- Maybe, we can speculate, Christ Jesus wants everything to come apart so that our world can be put back together in a more Christ-like arrangement.
- Maybe, we can speculate, Christ Jesus wants us to see the extreme polarity of our national politics so that we can see what happens when we leave our creator and sustainer out of our dealings with each other.
Whatever the reason our sustainer Christ has allowed the events of this past week to happen, our epistle lesson attests that Christ is in control. And this is where I got my comfort back. The claim is that God can work good out of evil. The claim is that our suffering today is so that Christ “might come to have first place in everything.” Paul’s letter says that peace on heaven and in earth only comes through “the blood of the cross.” We say this another way. We say, “gain requires pain.” In this case, though, Christ Jesus has already endured the pain for us on the cross.
Here is where Paul reminds us that Christ’s suffering has allowed us to be eternally transformed. Once we were sinners, headed for death, whereas now through the work of Christ we are on the way to and participating already in eternal life.
What Paul prescribes for the young Christians in Colossae is to keep on keeping on, and to grow in the knowledge and love and practice of Christ. Paul says that we are engaged in living the mystery of God, which is this: the Christ who died for us now lives within us. And when we live for Christ, and suffer for Christ, all things will turn out gloriously in the end. “We walk by faith,” Paul said elsewhere, “not by sight.”
In other words, “Even when the bad guys seem to be winning, Christ Jesus, whom we can no longer see, has everything under control. Keep on keeping on, and proclaim Christ Jesus. The one who created all things also sustains all things. Fear not.”