NRSV COLOSSIANS 1:11-20
11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 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. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and 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.
It may be a bit out of season, but several years ago I remember when the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox were engaged in another of their epic contests on the baseball field. On this particular day – sad for me to say – the Red Sox were coming out on the short end by a wide margin, which was surprising because their star pitcher, Pedro Martinez, was on the mound. Pedro had a reputation for pitching high and inside – and usually effectively – but on this day it was mostly high and down the middle, and the balls were flying out of Yankee Stadium at a record clip, much to the delight of that crowd.
After the game the writers gathered around Pedro’s locker to ask him what happened. He just said, “I guess they’re my Daddy.” The insinuation was that the Yankees took him to the woodshed, an act of power over a pitcher who once upon a time had little problem getting them out.
For Pedro, having power meant that someone was over you, using their power against you, against your will. That might be okay for an All-Star pitcher; you just admit that and hope the next time you take the baseball it will be a different game with a better result. Over the last week we have witnessed the effects of power in another realm – the Impeachment Inquiry is full of power on both sides, running over others, making a point, seeking to come out on top in the court of public opinion. Neither side wants to back off on power at all.
And neither do we normal, every-day folks. We like to be the ones on top, the ones in control; and if someone is going to have power over us, we want it to be used gently and with great care. To have to give up power to someone is not something we like. We might admit that some people have authority over us and we might respect some of them. But we like to have the power, and we do not take well to it being used on us.
This is Christ the King Sunday, the traditional name given to the last Sunday in the liturgical year. It’s not an old title; it’s only been around less than a century. For most of us, it must sound strange. Christ the King – okay, we admit that Jesus fits that role, especially when we examine the ancient Middle Eastern world and know that in that culture kings were symbols of national unity, might and authority. Jesus is all of that and more, we say by faith.
And yet what do you do with Christ the King Sunday in a country which fought a war to be free of kings and often takes a rather disgruntled attitude toward royalty? I mean, we can get all excited whenever there is a royal wedding, or when a baby comes along and there is a christening. But for the most part many of us don’t adjust our lives to the House of Windsor, or any other royal family. They are just relics of a by-gone era.
While we may be somewhat dismissive of royalty, we know all about power. We see it used over us, we use it ourselves, we see it demonstrated in our playgrounds, in our jobs, in our social structures, and, yes, in our churches. Power is something that people will often say they don’t have and don’t want; ‘…oh, I don’t want any power in all of this…,’ they will say about a particular situation, which is rather ridiculous when you think about it.
Power exists. It is a morally neutral term. That is to say, power is neither good nor bad. It just is. The question is not do you have any power, but what are you going to do with the power you have? Are you going to use it for good or for ill?
This is a question not just for ourselves, but for those we give power to. Who are the people you are willing to give power to? Political leaders – your political party or those who share your views; lawyers, judges, doctors, community leaders? All of these have power, and they have it because we give it to them. We give it by electing them, we give it by paying them to do work for us. In fact, the exchange of money and the act of consumerism, in which we seem to be obsessed with in this culture, are enormous demonstrations of power.
A few years ago the social media was lamenting what someone termed, “The Death of Thanksgiving.” And what caused the death of this great holiday? I thought it was very much alive, coming as it does this Thursday with family members and friends gathered around the table to dig in and enjoy being together. But many are concerned that the meaning and power of Thanksgiving will be distorted by the fact that many stores will be open Thursday evening. It used to be that stores would wait until Friday morning, opening their doors at ridiculous hours (I know, I’ve been dragged there) to take advantage of tremendous sales that entice shoppers to get a jump on the Christmas season. ‘Black Friday’ it is called, because that is when many stores earn a profit.
Enticed by that power, some stores have taken to opening their doors Thursday night, which has really sent people into paroxysms of disgust on Facebook and other places. The concern is that the power to earn money has taken precedence over the power of the holiday to bring people together. As someone wrote, “The true thanksgiving-killer is someone who leaves the table and heads to the mall.”
The power to kill a holiday. That’s some kind of power. We don’t need to be shown what it’s like to have power from kings. We see it all the time from people who either think they are royalty or act like it. We see power being sought, struggled for, clutched from, given up all the time in a society that often sees power as one more thing to consume.
What a different picture, then, about power and kings is given to us from these opening words to the church at Colossae? In many ways, their world was not that different from ours. Sure, no computers or jets or McDonalds. But there was plenty of power, and people who were willing to give power to an assortment of gods and goddesses. In that time and place the attitude of seeking a certain deity to placate for every little thing you wanted was pervasive. If you wanted a child, you prayed or made an offering to this god. If you wanted improved business, you went to that one.
But here Paul writes to the church to tell them, or probably just to remind them, that this was not the way it would be with them. To wander around looking for power from a particular god or goddess was to live in the darkness. It was a way of groping, of thinking you had power when actually all you were doing was going down one blind alley after another. And in many ways we are still doing that; thinking that once we get this job, make that move, put that kid through school, find the perfect retirement home, then we will have power and everything will be perfect.
But perfection does not come from the darkness; it comes from trusting in the light. And the light is given, of all things and of all places, by the cross; the ancient symbol of execution. Through that symbol and the One who hung there, we have been brought back into the right relationship with God that was intended from the beginning of creation. That’s the meaning of Christ the King Sunday.
If that doesn’t sound like a strange way to look at power, maybe we need to recheck our bearings. Because it is. And because it is strange, out of whack, beyond our ability to figure out, there can be no other way to understand this than as an act of God. And not one of the gods who could be manipulated; but through the one true God who is beyond manipulation and who lives and gives grace – the free, unmerited gifts that adorn our lives and a power that the world can never figure out.
As opposed to all those false gods whose buttons could be pushed if you knew the right god to appease, it’s interesting to note that in verses 15 through 20 Paul uses the word “all” eight times to describe how the resurrected Christ is everything for everyone throughout all of creation. Everything has been created through him and for him, he is the first born of all, he is all in all. But it comes down to one basic thing – that God through Christ was reconciling all on earth. Think about that. What a statement of power! Not that we were controlled like a bunch of puppets, but that God loved us so much that God would not leave us alone in our darkness. The fullness of God enters humanity and rescues us from our crazy attempts to take, grasp, give up or control power. God does it through the power of love, a love in human form. Christ brought us all back into proper relationship with God, not by our smarts or efforts or our own power. But by a sacrificial love that death could not hold.
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the best preachers around these days, was writing about this, about our need, or so we think, for a god who will fight all of our battles and put out all of our fires, a god we can manipulate rather than a God who very often leaves us scratching our heads with more questions than answers. She writes:
“I want a safer world. I want a more competent God. Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power – the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves – and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.”
I want to be embraced by that kind of power. I need to be held by that kind of power. Not to keep to myself, but to experience as the love of Christ flows through me and through others who claim Christ as King, as ruler of their lives. It’s a constant struggle, because there will always be something within us that wants to keep power to ourselves or to give it up to someone or something else that will ultimately disappoint us. And always, when that happens, we are in the act of making ourselves less than we are.
But even when we do that, Christ reaches out with compassion and healing to us, and asks us once again to trust his way, his truth, his life. To hang in there and endure even when the times are tough and it seems that power corrupts. In those times we ask for the strength to open our hands and let go, so that the love of Christ might flow through us and touch a world that is tired of power games, and needs to experience the power of love. Even in those times Christ seeks to redeem us, and all of creation. All we have to do is ask him for the strength to endure, and all the power we will ever need will be ours. Amen.