Lingering another moment here, I’m fond of Gerhard Lohfink’s thoughts: “According to biblical faith, the deceased are judged not according to a system, but by the living God.” So it's not Rules, and did you meet them? but a Relationship, and were you in it? I’d add God isn’t simply the judge, but also the defense attorney, and even the scapegoat bearing your judgment. More Lohfink: “When we encounter God in death, we will for the first time recognize with full clarity who we really are. God has no need to harangue us. We ourselves will judge and condemn the evil in us… The encounter with God in death will become an encounter with truth – about God, others, the world and ourselves. We can even hope for judgment, because truth is something in which we can rejoice.” For our hope is in the judgment that is God’s mercy – which clarifies, then purifies, then heals.
Colossians 1:15-28 is an astonishing wonder of a text a preacher might marvel over – and not just to piece a sermon together. The style of this? Elevated, eloquent, with rhythm. It’s poetry, lyrical, maybe a hymn. Can the preacher’s style in the sermon be elevated, not chatty? Maybe we quote hymns, or poems – or just trust the text, re-read it to them people in short segments, or building to a crescendo, and then let it do its own work, of which it is more than capable. The writer wants readers to slow down, ponder, parse, reflect, re-read. Can the sermon help listeners to do so?
In 1953, J.B. Phillips (the Eugene Peterson of his day!) published Your God is Too Small. The title tells it all. We eviscerate Jesus, narrow him down, putting him in some small box (personal savior, prophetic revolutionary, conservative stalwart, liberal pundit, compassionate guru) – yet our text blows our mind with how great Jesus is. The words are big (fullness, all, etc.). Hifalutin philosophical terms (eikon, arche, etc.) are trotted out by Paul (or "the author of Colossians," if you prefer) to try to capture how fabulous Jesus was, is and will be, always has been and will be. Jesus is expansively amazing, over, under and beyond all of creation – reminding us that our worship of him isn’t about us; we praise, adore, listen, fall slack-jawed on our knees, dizzy from the grandeur.
It’s edgy and countercultural too. If you adore this Jesus you might wind up suffering (as the latter segment of our text underscores) – but you won’t even mind as you’re so lost in wonder, love and praise. Jesus is set though against claims of empire, as Jerry Sumney (in his very solid Colossians NTL commentary) explains: “The church possesses an allegiance that supersedes the claims of empire. This alternative allegiance will require them to live in ways that people around them see as disruptive and perhaps subversive of even illegal.” You can’t just swoon over Jesus if you don’t see him clearly, and if you don’t embrace what he’s about. I might praise my wife incessantly, but we might still wind up divorced if our values are out of sync (reminding us of the Amos text!!!).
I will surely clarify to my people how this text alone debunks all the DaVinci Code nonsense (I still can't believe the guy who played Gandalf also played Sir Leigh Teabing!) – that Jesus was just a guy, and later politicians hatched the notion of his divinity to hold the empire together. As early as two decades after Jesus, while plenty of folks were around to know better were it not true, Colossians has the most gargantuan, high Christology imaginable – higher even than pedestrian Christians today.
Luke 10:38-42 gives a narrative, at-home version of the praise in worship articulated in Colossians. Visiting with his friends in Bethany, Jesus did the unthinkable in Bible times: he permitted a woman to sit at a rabbi’s feet. Shocking, way out of bounds, overturning religious convention – again. The story’s context is crucial: he’s still unravelling the primal commandment to love God and neighbor. First he picks up love of neighbor with the Good Samaritan story. Now he dovetails back to love of God. It looks like Mary – and not Martha.
We may well sympathize with Martha. It is probably the Feast of Tabernacles, so she is doing the right hostessing but also religious thing: providing a festive, complex meal. Quite rightly she upbraids Mary for doing nothing. Isn’t prayer and praise always doing nothing? I know of churches that have “Marthas,” a band of women who serve at meals. You just have to chuckle. Martha is scurrying about doing good – even for Jesus! But Jesus asks us to listen – for to what Jesus might want you to scurry about doing, but also just to him, just to be with him, to adore him.
Listening is the heart of the life of faith. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, said (in his memoir of being a biographer, Working) that the key to research is leaving long, awkward silences during interviews. People will eventually fill the void. His notebooks are filled with marginal markings: SU, SU, SU. Shut up! We SU. We listen, we relish the silence with Jesus. Instead of Lord, hear our prayer, we say Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Mary listened – and the Greek is ekouen, the imperfect tense, implying “she kept listening.”
Jesus chides Martha for being “anxious about many things.” What could be more apropos for people in our day? The solution, the conversion, is to fix on “one thing.” Søren Kierkegaard’s book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing comes to mind. How daunting is this for us? Early copyists of Luke Gospel made a fascinating textual change that can’t be a booboo! Instead of henos, “one thing” is needful, they shifted to oligos, “a few things are needful.” I can just imagine the abbot, the spiritual leader, getting frustrated over the monks not getting their work done; perhaps they even countered his demands by saying Jesus said only one thing is needful. He replied, and inserted it into Scripture, Well, a few things are needful.
Jesus upends things by saying Mary has chosen the “better part.” St. Augustine suggested he meant “a better meal,” namely the Bread of Life, the Eucharist.