In the 21st century, we talk a lot about the countless varieties of cultures, languages, customs, and beliefs of the worldwide human community. And we celebrate that variety, rightly so. But variety isn’t a new idea (as we saw only a few weeks ago in the Empowered series*). Paul’s first-century context was full of variety, and just like today people had to navigate through various and often conflicting sources of truth. And just like today, the practice of “syncretism” was commonplace — creating a mixture of beliefs and practices to suit one’s personal needs: Jesus is good for the forgiveness of your sins, but not for informing policy. For that, you’ve got to enthrone the right leader. Right?
In this anthem to Christ, Paul subverts the worldly powers of the day by emphasizing the primacy of Christ. Jesus, he says, is:
- The “firstborn” over creation
- “Before” all things
- The “head” of the body (the Church)
- The “beginning” and “firstborn” of the resurrection to eternal life.
But why? “So that he might have the supremacy” (v. 13).
Of course, good human leadership matters. We’re called to steward God’s world responsibly. But besides Jesus, no idea is supreme. No policy is supreme. No leader is supreme. Because when we dethrone Jesus, we enthrone something else. But nothing and no one else is worthy. Nothing and no one else laid down their life for yours. Nothing and no one else reconciled the world to God and leads all people in reconciliation with each other. Nothing and no one else has ultimately set us free. In John’s vision in Revelation, the living creatures in heaven proclaim that Jesus is worthy “because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
In our world, where you can customize everything from your Subway sandwich to your sources of global information, a claim that anything is “supreme” over all creation is audacious and counter-cultural. Paul knew it. And we know it. But the truth of the gospel is compelling: Jesus is enough. Life starts there. And all the details that are important for living with health and responsibility are subservient to the one who:
- Shows us God’s nature
- Holds all creation together
- Gives the blueprint for peace and reconciliation.
- When the future looks dire, whom do you instinctively trust first for help?
- When the future looks grim, is there any good reason not to turn to Christ in prayer before we do or say anything else?
- When the future looks bright, to whom do we give the credit?
- When the future looks hopeful, where do we tend to invest our ongoing hope?
- Resistance to the idea of someone being “supreme” is based in mistrust that such a person might abuse their power. But Jesus is no ordinary person. What has Jesus done to assure us that in his power, we are set free?
*Variety and Unity, Part 1, and Variety and Unity, Part 2.
Paul lays the groundwork for the subversive message of God’s Kingdom
When Julius Caesar died, it was said that he arose to the heavens as a star and was thus deified. His adopted son, Octavian, who would later be more famously known as Caesar Augustus, identified himself as the “divine son.” Therefore, Augustus’s rule was meant to be seen as divinely ordained and empowered; he was the “son of god.” And in the chaotic aftermath of Julius’s assassination, the message was clear — all one had to do was give complete loyalty to Augustus, and in return he promised peace — the PAX ROMANA.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus’ birth would be accompanied by the appearance of a star?
Is it any wonder that the angels proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14 NIV)
Is it any wonder that Jesus would be known as the Son of God?
The apostle Paul writes his letter to the Colossians in a most ironically appropriate place: a Roman prison. And from there, Paul not-so-subtly lets them know that in Christ, a new, different, and subversive kingdom exists. No promise of “pax” from a human king will do, as all human kings and queens, systems and militaries, philosophies and ideals fall short of the glory of God. This is why Paul will urge in chapter 2: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”
This is not competition between forces. This is God’s desire to see the people of the world experience shalom, holistic all-around peace, that can only happen in dependence on Christ. This is Paul’s motivation for so strongly emphasizing Christ’s supremacy — the desire that the whole earth would know God’s everlasting peace.
- Have you ever put your trust for “peace” in your life in something that disappointed?
- Where do you place your trust now?
- How does Paul’s undercutting of human authority make you feel (nervous, relieved, angry, confused, etc.)?
- Are there any changes you can make your life, so that you can “continue in your faith, established and firm, and not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col. 1:23)?
Jesus in solitude, community, and ministry.
This passage in the gospel of Luke shows the pattern by which Jesus ultimately practiced what we think of as “ministry.” Jesus practicing these disciplines in a particular order that would empower his life and ministry: Solitude, Community, then Ministry.
Jesus founded his life and ministry in solitude with the heavenly Father. Why? Because it is in that place, one-on-one with our Creator, that we intentionally make room for him to express his divine love for us.
Then can we be equipped to live in community in a healthy, life-giving way. All too often we get these in reverse, expecting our human community to make us feel beloved. But we can’t expect people to love us unconditionally or perfectly, any more than we can expect ourselves to love others that way. When our community is basically “loneliness grabbing onto loneliness” we are set up for dysfunction and disappointment. But if we build our community upon the strength of our solitude with God — “beloved grabbing onto beloved”* — then we have the chance to experience community that freely and burdenlessly shares God’s love.
This is the power by which God’s ministry — the third step — flows through people. Ministry at this point becomes the living and sharing of God’s love to the world out of the unquenchable experience of our own belovedness, first in solitude, then in community.
- When is the last time you intentionally made ample space to listen for God’s Holy Spirit in your life?
- What are you expecting from your community (church, family, friends)?
- Have you ever experienced frustration, disappointment, or powerlessness in your work?
- How difficult would it be to begin your day in solitude with God?
- If you already have a habit of beginning your day in solitude with God, has it affected your interactions in community, or your work?
Paul gets real about hostility, destruction, death, and new humanity.
Last week we saw in the first chapter of Ephesians 2, Paul laying the groundwork for understanding how all the variety of the human race can be unified in Jesus Christ. We have in common our sinful disposition, God’s love for us, and our invitation to be part of God’s purpose.
In the second half of this chapter, Paul reiterates the division between first century Jews and Gentiles, almost as if to emphasize the power of reconciliation in Christ. The reality is that the differences between peoples have historically created hostility between them. Like, duh. Read any history book.
Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t just teach us to try and get along. He didn’t suggest shaking hands and making up. On the cross, Jesus’ death tore down the curtain in the temple, the division between us and God. Consequently, the division between persons is also torn down and reconciliation made possible. Jesus “destroyed” the barrier and put hostility “to death.”
- How many examples can you think of in history, where differences between peoples created hostility?
- If Jesus destroyed that which divides us, why do even Christians still experience hostility based on our differences?
- What kinds of steps must we take to live into our identity as a “new humanity” in Christ?
- Should the Church be leading the culture in celebrating the variety of human culture while still living in unity and peace? Why or why not?