Visible and Invisible

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. 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. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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. ~Colossians 1:15-20

In the recently released Netflix series, “The Crown,” we are given a window into the world of Queen Elizabeth II. We see her as a young girl, and as a young woman preparing for her wedding (and, just in case you are wondering, yes, she vowed to “love, honor, and obey” her husband Prince Philip—as his wife, not as queen of England). While the vast majority of the series is taken from historical accounts and letters of the royal family that have been made public, every so often the series presents a turn of events that isn’t based in history, but is there to heighten the drama. It doesn’t happen often. It takes the form of a “What if…?”

Case in point: Prince Philip is accurately portrayed as a dashing man-about-town with his own frustrations at how constricting he finds palace life. So the series asks this question: How easy was it for Philip to bend the knee to his wife on the day of her coronation? In a tense dialogue between the queen and her husband, Philip begs Elizabeth to make an exception for him, to allow him to be the only person at the coronation not to kneel to her. She replies with a terse “No.” He complains that kneeling to his wife will make him feel like a eunuch. “Are you my wife or my queen?” Philip asks. Elizabeth replies, “I am both, and a strong man would be able to kneel to both.” In the end, as the world saw in the first British coronation to be televised, Prince Philip did kneel to his wife the Queen of England.

To whom or what would we be willing to bend the knee?

Today, as we come to the conclusion of our “Season of Visions and Dreams,” we celebrate “Christ the King,” or the “Reign of Christ.” And I must confess that I have had an uneasy relationship with this particular celebration for many years. I take my cue from Jesus’ own words. Now, Jesus talks a lot about “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven.” He tells us that God’s kingdom is just about here—right around the corner, rising like yeast, hidden like treasure in a field, embodied in a boss who pays people too much, not too little. Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” (Matt 5:3, 5): These folks, Jesus says, the poor and the persecuted, are the ones to whom the kingdom of God belongs. They are its true owners.

Jesus teaches us to pray for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And we do that…so Jesus doesn’t seem to believe God’s kingdom is fulfilled by his coming alone—at least, not yet.

And when people in the gospels try to call him king? Try to lay that title on him? Well. Jesus seems to reject that… “Your words, not mine,” he says (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3). He says, “Who told you to ask me that?” (John 18:34). Or, he says, “I am not an earthly king. My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). And then, in exasperation, he says, again, “Your words, not mine! My one and only purpose is to tell the truth.” (John 18:37)

And this makes sense, because it’s consistent with Jesus’ way of being in the world throughout the gospels. After all, it is Jesus who also says, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Jesus doesn’t even want to be called father. It just doesn’t make sense to me that it would please him to be called king.

And yet, here we are, carrying on a tradition that spread from the Catholic church, beginning in 1925, when Pope Pius XI issued his letter urging trust in Christ as King above all earthly leaders. And we do this despite the words of Jesus that seem to push away the title, because the visible actions of Jesus convinced his followers, then and now that he was and is the king promised by scripture.

To whom or what would you be willing to bend the knee?

Our passage this morning from the letter to the church at Colossae is filled with rich, visionary, dreamlike imagery—none of which says, specifically, Christ the King, but all of which evokes so much more. It is as if the writer has a window into the invisible nature of Jesus, the one you couldn’t see when his feet were walking the dusty roads of Galilee or the city streets of Jerusalem, but which, maybe, you could intuit once you’d seen him heal someone. The passage is much like the lyrics of a song. That’s because it is a song. The writer of this letter, who, many believe, was the Apostle Paul, interrupts his own greeting and thanksgiving with a hymn—scholars believe, a found hymn, one that already existed, one he likely knew from hearing it in worship with other Christians. Maybe the ancient version of “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” I have to assume, Paul places it within this letter because he decides the hymn can say it better than he can.  What vision is spun here? What are the dreams of the early church that are expressed in this song?

The central point is that Jesus is the image of God, and in him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:15, 19). There was something about Jesus that convinced the early church to write a hymn claiming that he was, in fact, one with God in creating and redeeming, not only the those things we can see, but also those we cannot see.

This is very hard, very dense stuff. And… if I may be so bold, it can be easy to lose the thread, to say to ourselves, “Fine, fine… but, really, why does this matter? What does this even mean?”

Songs can so complicated. Some of my favorite songs are so cryptic, they’re like the Sunday crossword puzzle on steroids… only they manage to reach deep into you, to a place beyond words. Leonard Cohen sings of his “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and we are taken into a mysterious world of love, and loss, and houses in the desert, and people hurting and trying to forgive one another. In the end, the song has reached inside and made its home in the listener, and we understand, even if we don’t get all the details.

I think the language in this passage is like that. Somewhere in between walking the dusty roads of Galilee with Jesus, and seeing him die on the cross, and then, knowing with their guts they had, even so, encountered him alive again… the followers of Jesus realized this was beyond their ability to articulate. These folks were fishermen and tax collectors, maybe subsistence farmers. I don’t think they thought of themselves as the kind of people to sit down in a library and write theological treatises. But I do think they were the kind of people who might make up songs.

And in the songs they found themselves singing, songs they used to invite one another, and then people outside their little circle, to know more about Jesus, they stumbled into a deeper understanding than they had ever imagined: Jesus the Christ. Christ the king.

To whom, or to what, would you be willing to bend the knee?

Jesus’ followers were living in a culture that was telling them, “Kneel to Caesar, the man who declares that he is a god,” or “Kneel to Herod, the murderous puppet-king of the Jews.” But suddenly, they knew exactly to whom they were prepared to kneel: to the one who, himself, knelt to bless their children, to place his hands on their broken bodies in healing, to wash their feet. They were ready to call “king” the Jewish teacher who went to the cross in silent protest of the structures that said, “Jewish lives don’t matter.” They were ready to sing songs of praise to the one who, in stark contrast to every religious leader they had ever laid eyes on, actually did image forth the love of a powerful God, rising to life breathing forgiveness, urging his followers to do as he had done.

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” they sang with gusto, “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. ~ Colossians 1:19-20

That last phrase… it lands with a thud. After all the language of the invisible God, and thrones, dominions, and powers, here we are. We encounter the blood, and the cross. We are so used to this story. I once heard someone say, “You know how weird it is that Christians wear crosses around their necks? It’s like, ‘Let’s wear instruments of torture. I’ll wear a little electric chair around my neck!” Like it or not (and I know that I have gone through periods in which I did not like it at all), we Christians have embraced as our primary symbol a thing that the people of Jesus’ time knew to be the instrument of painful death to suspected insurrectionists, traitors, people we would call terrorists.

That’s what we wear, when we wear crosses around our necks. Because our faith claims that, in some utterly twisted way, God managed the ultimate never-to-be-topped conversion of lemons to lemonade by raising Jesus from the dead, turning an ignominious defeat into a moment of glory. Christus Victor, early Christians called him. “Christ Victorious.”

And they wrote songs about it.

To whom, or to what, would you be willing to bend the knee?

“Christus Victor!” they sang, merrily. “Christ Victorious, crucified and risen! The image of the invisible God, who was pleased to dwell among them, and in him, and with him, at the cellular level.

Because our God is a God who is willing to kneel to us… to welcome our children, to place his nail-pierced hands on our broken bodies and spirits and say, “Be well;” to wash our tired feet from the work of the day, so that we will remember, and wash one another’s feet.

And so, we are asked. Again and again, really, every day, we are asked: “To whom or to what would we be willing to bend the knee?” On this day, Christians around the world respond with one voice: To Christ the King.

And what does that mean in our lives? How will we walk the Galilee road with Jesus? How will we welcome all his little children? How will we join in his ministry of bringing good news to the poor, and the sick, and the captives, and the oppressed? How will we deny ourselves, and pick up our own particular crosses, and follow him?

How will we good Christians bend the knee to Christ, the King?

Thanks be to God. Amen.