July 21, 2019
William G. Carter
God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 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.
I completely understand if you found that a lot to swallow. The first chapter of Colossians is a colossal text. It’s right up there with the first chapter of John’s gospel, though not as mysterious. It may be the basis for a similar passage in the first chapter of Ephesians. This text is so enormous that it requires two writers, not one. Paul and Timothy sign their names to it.
What makes it so large is that this chapter reports on what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Not just in the smallness and the privacy of our hearts, but what God is doing in the universe. At least six times in a few verses, we hear God is at work in “all things.”
- “all things” are created in Christ
- “all things” are created for Christ
- “all things” are created through Christ
- “all things” are created after Christ
- in Christ, “all things” hold together
- through Christ, “all things” are reconciled to God
It’s a big text. With something so large, we need a way to enter into it. Today the best way may be to reflect on three words that sparkle like diamonds and are just as valuable. For the sake of memory, each word begins with the letter “R.” They are rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. The Gospel in its fullness is here in these three words. So let’s reflect on them, as we celebrate Christmas in July.
The first is rescue. Can you remember a time when you were rescued? Flat tire on a dark road? A crime broken up? An EMT showing up at an opportune time?
Let me tell you about a rescue. In the summer of my fourteenth year, I spent a week at Boy Scout camp. The camp is on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, not far from Ithaca, now surrounded by vineyards. It was a great place to spend a week. We ran around in the woods, slept under the stars, racked up a lot of merit badges, and avoided the distraction of girls. It was a perfect week for a young teenager!
My friend Mark and I were tentmates. On a free afternoon, we went down to the waterfront and checked out a boat. We were both inexperienced enough that they didn’t let us take out a small sailboat. Instead we got a rowboat, an old-fashioned rowboat, the kind with two oars. Aiming nowhere in particular, Mark and I traded off on the oars. Pretty soon we were in the middle of Cayuga Lake, maybe a half mile away.
Without warning, the fluffy clouds went dark. A huge thunderhead formed above us, went up about a mile. The smell of ozone burned the air. A big storm was heading right toward us, and we’re in a metal rowboat, half a mile from shore. One of us stood up to yell; the yelling was a good idea, the standing up was not. There was no response on shore. In fact, it looked like they were shutting down the waterfront and putting everything away.
So we yelled again, this time seated in a rowboat that had begun to bounce on some very wild water. Again no response, and we started to panic. In a Three Stooges moment, Mark took one paddle, I took the other. We started rowing hard and went in circles. Cayuga is a glacial lake, over 400 feet deep. We were on top of the water, but I tell you, we were in way over our heads.
There was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. We were immobilized by impending doom. Suddenly there was a boat right there, a Boston Whaler throwing us a line and saying, “Hang on.” We were rescued.
I reflect on that moment. We weren’t in trouble because we had done something wrong. Foolish, perhaps, but not something wrong. If we had done something wrong, it would have made things worse. No, we were up against something life-threatening that we could not manage. Help came from outside of our own incompetence.
That’s how Paul and Timothy describe the rescue of the Gospel: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s a shift of dominion. Sin is something more than the wrong deed we did or the good deed that we neglected to do. It’s a dominion that we will never be strong enough or good enough to avoid. That’s why we need to be rescued, which is God’s mission in sending Jesus to the world.
The grand old Christmas carol says it best:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day.
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O, tidings of comfort and joy!
This saving, this rescuing, is what God has done. It is the work of Christ. For our part, the only thing we must do is hang onto the rope when he pulls us ashore.
The effect of this rescue is the second big Gospel word: redemption. Redemption is not a word we use very much. English professors talk about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge; he used to be a terrible, stingy person, but some spirits turn him around and rescue him from himself. But biblically speaking, redemption is more than a change in personality.
Ancient ones among us may remember the redemption centers of S & H green stamps. You collected them in a book and cashed them in for something else. North of our state border, there are redemption centers for bottles and cans that can be recycled, something that Pennsylvania should have done a long time ago. You collect bottles and cans and cash them in to keep the environment cleaner.
Redemption has economic overtones. In the first-century world of Paul and Timothy, the economy was built on the back of human slaves. People were bought and sold to labor for their masters. It was brutal, ugly, and demeaning. Yet in rare cases, slaves could purchase their freedom. It might take years to save the money. Or it could involve an act of extraordinary generosity by a patron. Whatever the case, the act of purchasing freedom is the word Timothy and Paul use here: redemption.
Paul and Timothy equate this redemption with the gift of forgiveness. In Christ, we have been liberated from the addiction of sin. Thanks to God in Christ, the rescue offered by Christ redeems us from every form of slavery. No longer shackled, no longer demeaned, no longer unable to determine your own future – we are free! As long, of course, as we wish to be free. As long as we welcome that Christ has paid our redemption through the cost of his life.
That reminds me of a Christmas carol, the Sussex Carol:
On Christmas night all Christians sing / to hear the news the angels bring:
News of great joy, news of great mirth, news of our merciful King’s birth.
Then why should we on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?
When from our sin He has set us free, all for to gain our liberty?
When sin departs before His grace, then life and health come in his place;
Angels and (all) with joy may sing, all for to see the newborn king.
There is the rescue from the powers of darkness. There is redemption from the powers of oppression. And ultimately there is the gift of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is the bringing together of two parties that have been at war with one another. If we have been rescued, if God in Christ has redeemed us, there is nothing to keep us from living in peace with God.
You know the favorite Christmas carol:
Hark, the herald angels sing! Glory to the newborn king.
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.
To be reconciled is to be in complete relationship. There is nothing withheld and nothing to disrupt. There is, as Paul writes elsewhere, nothing that shall can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8). This is the experience of reconciliation.
Now, I know it’s hard to accept this completely. Life is full of disruptions that throw us off balance. There are people with whom we differ, opinions we find had to understand. Someone out there is always trying to disrupt the peace. Others are compelled by their own brokenness to attempt to break somebody else.
Yet the truth of the Gospel is God has provided for the reconciliation of “all things.” All things.
It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer described life in the church. You go to church and you’re surrounded by enemies. It’s no different than living in the world: there are enemies all around you. In the church, there are all these broken sinners, people whose lives have been a complete mess. And you are one of them.
Then the Gospel is announced: in Christ, God comes to rescue us. In Christ, all are redeemed, and sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven, and that is good news. Right over there, your enemies’ sins are also forgiven. You might not like that, because you are still holding onto a grudge, even if Christ is no longer holding onto it. Our reconciliation to one another, our ability to live in peace together, is because Christ has forgiven each of us. In Christian fellowship, you cannot hold onto the anger and resentment that Christ has already released and let go.
As Bonhoeffer says, “Christian (fellowship) is not an ideal which we much realize; it is rather a reality by God I Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all of our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.”
Or to quote Paul and Timothy, “in Christ, all things hold together.” Not “some things” but all things. Not merely the things we approve of, or the people with whom we agree; all things. And not merely the things and people we see, but all things – all things were made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ, both in heaven and on earth. It is the greatest claim of all scripture, that “in Christ, all things hold together.” And it’s remarkable that it says, “all things in heaven and earth.”
Fifty years ago this weekend, a Presbyterian elder landed on the moon. His name was Buzz Aldrin. Before he blasted off, he told his pastor he “had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing.” He wanted to find something that would signify how this mission transcended electronics, computers, and rockets. The two of them wondered if it was possible to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion on the moon.
His pastor gave Aldrin a small silver chalice and a vial of wine. A communion wafer was carried in an airtight pouch. Aldrin had thought about sharing the event with the world over the radio, but some atheists had recently sued NASA after previous astronauts read from the book of Genesis when they had orbited the moon. A public celebration was ruled out.
But the moment came when Buzz Aldrin went off the radio and read the words of Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.” Then he took the bread, broke it and ate it. With just enough gravity on the moon, he poured the wine into the chalice and drank it.
The quiet testimony of this Presbyterian elder was simply this: “Through Christ, God was please to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”
The testimony is still true. It gathers us every week and send us out to serve. We are rescued, redeemed, and reconciled to God. Thank be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954) p. 30.
 Here is an account of the full story: “9 Things You Should Know About the Communion Service on the Moon,” Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition, July 17, 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-the-communion-service-on-the-moon/