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Re-Imagining Christ

A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

November 24, 2013.

Colossians 1:11-20

Back in 2007, some 425 Wal-Mart stores nationwide began carrying faith-based action figure toys, including a 12 inch talking Jesus, a hippy looking white man in a white robe.  My curiosity piqued, I surfed around the web to see what else I could find.  At amazon.com, I found a Jesus action figure for $8.49, described as a hard plastic model “5 inches tall with poseable arms to reach toward the heavens and wheels in his base for smooth gliding action.”  If you want to upgrade, for $11.99, you can buy the Deluxe Jesus Action Figure, Miracle Edition.  The company describes the product this way: “There is no action figure more deserving of a deluxe edition than the Son of God. This 5-1/4 inch tall, hard vinyl figure comes with eight amazing plastic accessories: five loaves of bread, two fish and a jug for turning water into wine (not guaranteed to work for real). Also features ‘glow-in-the-dark miracle hands!’”    But wait there’s more!  I also found other websites that sell a bull-riding Jesus, a biker Jesus (who isn’t wearing a helmet, just a crown of thorns), a football player Jesus (wearing of all things a Dallas Cowboys uniform – now that’s blasphemous right there!), a surfing Jesus, and a skateboard-riding Jesus.  I must say, when I think of Jesus, those are not the images that I have in mind.

Today, the church calendar asks us to consider a different image of Jesus, as a king.  Today is Christ the King Sunday on the Christian calendar, and many churches around the world are celebrating the kingship and rule of Jesus Christ.  But for many of us American Christians, even though we use the language of “king” to describe Jesus Christ, I think it can be hard for us to relate to this image.  After all, we live in a republic, not a monarchy.  In the United States, we have a representative democracy, where the citizens have a say in how they are governed.  Often, we think of kings and kingdoms as oppressive and tyrannical.  We fought a war of independence to free ourselves from a king.  So, the image of a “king” is not necessarily the most positive image for some of us. 

Besides, kings are distant and aloof, sitting on their thrones all high and mighty.  So we often prefer more personal images of Christ.  We might not go as far as imagining Jesus as our surfer dude, or Jesus as our Hell’s Angel, but we do like to think of Jesus as our friend.  Among evangelicals, I hazard a guess that the most popular image of Jesus is thinking of Him as “our personal Lord and Savior.”  But that also seems so far removed from the images of Christ described in our New Testament Lesson from Colossians this morning. 

Before I go on, let me give you some brief background and contextual information behind the book of Colossians.  The city of Colossae was located in what is now Turkey.  It was once a populous city on a common trade route; however, by the time this letter was written, Colossae had dwindled into a small town.  This letter was written to a small group of believers, in the small town of Colossae, dwarfed in the middle of the mighty Roman Empire. 

Now, if you were an inhabitant of Colossae, this is likely what you’d find.  During this time in the Roman Empire, all subjects were expected to worship the Roman emperor.  Daily, you would be reminded of the emperor because his image was everywhere, replicated on statues, on coins and in the many temples built for emperor worship.  In the Roman empire, the birthday of Caesar Augustus on September 23 was seen as the beginning of the whole universe and the beginning of life for everyone.”[1]  The emperor was understood to be the defender of the empire, the one who held the empire together through public rituals and community festivals.  The emperor was seen not only as the head of the state and government, but also the one who brought and sustained world unity and full prosperity through a pact with the gods.  He maintained peace throughout the empire by executing traitors and insurgents on the cross.  Refusing to worship the emperor was seen as a heinous crime and high treason.  He was the supreme power that penetrated into every aspect of the life of the Empire and its people.

Now, with this background in mind, listen again to Paul’s rousing assertions about Jesus Christ in Colossians 1:15-20:  In a world filled with images of the emperor depicted as a god, Christ is the image of the invisible God.  In a world where time itself was marked by the birthday of the emperor, a day understood to be the beginning of life and living for everyone, Christ is the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  In a world where the emperor was seen as holding the empire together, Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together. In a world where the emperor was affirmed as the head of society, Christ is the head of the body, a new society called the church.  In a world where the emperor had supreme power over every aspect of life within the empire, Christ is the beginning and the firstborn among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  In a world where the emperor was touted as bringing world unity and full prosperity through a pact with the gods, the true God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  In a world where the emperor maintained peace by executing traitors and insurgents on the cross, Christ made peace through his blood, shed on the cross!

Theologians Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write, “In the space of a short, well-crafted, three stanza-poem, Paul subverts every major claim of the empire (and the emperor), turning them on their heads.  He proclaims Christ to be the Creator, Redeemer and Lord of all of creation, including the empire.”[2]  This subversion is accomplished by using images of Israel’s own story in Genesis, where in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, where Adam is the first-born created in the image of God, and where God made a covenant with Noah and all living things.  Paul connects Israel’s ancient story with the new story of Christ as the new Adam, who is the image of the invisible God, and Paul uses these stories to counter the story of the dominion, rule and power of the Rome empire.  Paul was telling the Jesus followers in that little church in Colossae to not let the massive empire capture their imagination for envisioning how their world was supposed to be.  Instead, Paul provided alternative images from Israel’s history and story to affirm Christ, and not Caesar, as King, and to re-imagine the world where Christ, and not the Roman empire, was sovereign and supreme.

Now, some of you may be thinking, all this sounds good for the Colossians, but we live in America, land of the free, and we’re not subject to an emperor or a king. Nobody is telling us who to worship or flooding us with propaganda.  That may be true, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not subject to outside powers or that our imaginations are not captive to a lesser god.  When I was a teenager in the early ‘80s, I was a scholarship student in an expensive, private, college-prep high school.  There was no school uniform, but almost all the male students wore Polo or Izod knit shirts with their collars turned up, pink or blue Oxford button-down shirts, plaid pants or Calvin Klein jeans, and penny loafers or boat shoes.  Remember those?  I couldn’t afford any of those clothes, and the best I could do was to go to Sears, where my dad worked and had a 10% discount on purchases, and buy knit shirts with a fire-breathing dragon as the logo.  I knew that a dragon wasn’t the same as a crocodile, and I knew that my fellow classmates knew that it wasn’t the same.  Image was everything, and even though no one coerced me to wear those clothes or made fun of me for not wearing them, I felt the pressure to fit in.  I didn’t have the imagination or the self-confidence to be who I truly was and not let clothes define my identity and self-worth.  Looking back, it seems so silly that I would allow myself to be subject to the power of preppy-dom.  But that was the world that I lived in, and I couldn’t imagine otherwise. 

It’s not only teenagers who succumb to the various powers vying for our allegiance.  According to Walsh and Keesmaat, the two theologians that I just mentioned, among the major powers that compete with Christ today are the powers of global consumerism.[3]  Whereas in Colossae, Caesar dictated almost every area of citizens’ lives, in twenty-first century America, the economic market dictates almost every area of our lives.  Whereas in Colossae, Caesar set himself up as a god, in our world, most people pursue the almighty dollar, or euro or yen.  Whereas in Colossae, the emperor could move his subjects wherever he wished, in our world, the market can move whole industries—like textiles, furniture, manufacturing—overseas in order to save a buck.  Whereas in Colossae, images of the emperor were everywhere to remind citizens that their role is to be a loyal subject, in our world, images of corporate logos—Starbucks, Nike, Apple, Disney, Coca Cola, Google, Amazon, McDonald’s—confront us thousands of times a day to remind citizens that their role is to be a loyal consumer.  Whereas Caesar built newer and bigger temples to promote emperor worship, in America, newer and bigger shopping malls and sports arenas are built to promote the religion of consumerism.  Whereas Caesar promoted festivals and public rituals to bring the empire together, in America, the market promotes “black Friday” as a high holy day where the whole nation goes shopping.  Friends, we may not be subjects of an actual emperor, but we are subjects of forces every bit as pervasive, powerful and punitive as a Caesar.  And images of a surfer dude Christ, or a biker Jesus, or even a “personal Lord and Savior” Christ will not be enough to save us from our situation. 

That’s why we need to re-imagine Christ, not in a make-believe, action-figure kind of way, but in order to see Christ as He truly is.  And this passage from Colossians helps us to see that Christ is the King in the sense that he is supreme over all things, not just our individual lives, but over all creation.  Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.  Jesus died and was raised for the whole universe, so that the whole cosmos might be in a right relationship with its creator God!  Jesus Christ is big!  Huge!  Cosmic!  And rightly re-imagined, Jesus is a threat to all rulers, powers, empires and emperors!  That’s why the Jewish religious rulers had to arrest him.  That’s why the Roman empire had to execute him.  That’s why Paul, in proclaiming this Jesus, was a threat to the empire, forced to write this letter in a Roman jail.  But it was this image of the cosmic Christ that allowed this fledging group of Jesus followers to remain faithful, to survive and even flourish in the midst of opposition from the empire. This cosmic Christ intimately cares about you and me, no matter how seemingly fledging and small we may be.

Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we are called to see a different image of Christ, as one who is truly supreme over the whole cosmos and all powers, empires and rulers that are in it.  On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am thankful that Christ is Lord over everything.  As Pastor Henry Brinton recently wrote, “Jesus Christ is the one who is at the center of everything that is precious to us: Children, friends, partners, health, kindness, generosity, knowledge, artistry, imagination, and creativity.  In Christ, all things hold together … Whenever two or three are gathered, in church or around the Thanksgiving table, Christ is present.  Christ shows us the fullness of a God who loves us so much that God sent him into the very middle of human life, to do the work of making peace.” 

While we can’t escape the empire of global consumerism any more than the church in Colossae could escape the Roman empire, perhaps we can at least have the imagination for another way of living, a way that does not revolve around consuming things and people, but a way that follows Christ’s kingship in loving and serving others even at a cost to ourselves.  For those who have eyes to see, let them see this majestic, re-imagined Christ.  Then let us thankfully pledge our ultimate allegiance to this King and faithfully live in Christ’s Kingdom.  Amen.

[1] CORPUS INSCRIPTIONUM GRAECARUM 3957b, cited in Mark T. Finney, “Christ Crucified and the Inversion of the Roman Imperial Ideology in 1 Corinthians” in Biblical Theology Bulletin (March 22, 2005).  The article is found on the web at http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-131856472.html.  My description of the cult of emperor worship in Colossae is heavily indebted to this article. 

[2] Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, p. 84.

[3] Walsh and Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed, p. 85.