Ancient Answers


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The Provocative Jesus

Two versions of the same Gospel story, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

First, Mark’s version:

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. 

Then, Matthew’s version:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Mark calls her “Syrophoenician”, Matthew “Canaanite” – either way, a pagan, an outsider to the community of God’s people. She comes to the Jewish man of God as a beggar. Matthew writes that she called him Lord and Son of David. Perhaps that is the title that she heard other people calling him, for she a pagan would not “son of David” in her vocabulary. But more likely it is simply Matthew’s insertion, as Matthew among the four Gospel writers is the most concerned to refer to Jesus as son of David – 9 separate times in Matthew, only 2 in Mark, 2 in Luke, and none in John. And only in Matthew’s version does Jesus speak of “the house of Israel.” And only in Matthew does Jesus commend the woman’s faith! In Mark he simply commends “this word” (διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον) that she spoke to Jesus. I prefer to see Mark’s version as the more original version. Both Gospel writers recognize the Jewish-pagan contrast at the heart of this story, but by calling the woman a “Canaanite” Matthew places the encounter in the context of the ancient conflict between the Israelites and Canaanites. Matthew’s hand in his version is heavy indeed.

The much-missed late Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan reflected deeply on this passage in the Epilogue to his book, Sorrow Built a Bridge, Friendship and AIDS, a book in which he recounts his care of people with AIDS during the 1980s in the Supportive Care Program of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Berrigan’s ministry toward people with AIDS was one more chapter in his extraordinary life of resistance to the culture of death that reigns over much of human affairs. The fight against AIDS went hand in hand with his life-long fight against war and nuclear weapons and against social and government institutions that are indifferent to suffering, poverty and exclusion.

After quoting the passage from Mark’s version, Berrigan went on to write:

I commend this text to you, and to my own soul. Many of us have, we are told, for different reasons, something less than a human claim on the bread of Christ; which is to say, on his attentiveness, his response, his healing. Certain claims are neither large nor persuasive. What, after all, is the worth of a canine claim, proceeding as it does from a dog’s life? … Those securely in possession, established where they sit – they are given to glances, words, slamming of doors in faces, such acts as might improve the occasion when a stray dog enters a banquet hall. Or a church.

Berrigan is speaking to me and you. He is provocative as he always was in his books and in his life work. As a Catholic who devoted his life’s work to human suffering and exclusion, he cannot avoid bringing the “bread of Christ” into his meditation – the exact thing that most Christians, and certainly we Orthodox, do not date to do. Imagine that, bringing the holiest of the sacraments into a discussion about AIDS and a pagan woman’s encounter with Jesus!

The church has more rules about participation in the Eucharist – the communion of the body and blood of Christ – than about anything else. The modern rules that most people grew up with are pathetic – rules about food, sex, and other trivialities. Of greater importance are the developments during the formative centuries of Orthodox theology and jurisprudence. The bishops who met at the various ecumenical councils could not find enough reasons to exclude as many people as possible from communion! They were certain that God had entrusted them with protecting the holy sacrament from defiled hands and souls.

Jesus provoked the Syrophoenician woman by calling her a dog. In doing so, Jesus was parodying the way most Jews mocked pagans. But the woman had substance, she would not go away just because a man treated her this way. She met Jesus’ insult head on and earned his respect and her daughter’s healing. When the church today refuses communion, are we treating people as “dogs”? Do we exclude where Jesus included?

Last Sunday morning an elderly man of a rather haggard appearance walked into our church during Matins and clearly wanted to speak with the priest. I was in the midst of a service and obviously I could not attend to him. I actually felt bad as I saw him leave the church, and I placed myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Was I like the priest or the levite who were more intent on their religious duties than to care for the wounded man? Had I put my liturgical responsibility above hearing a man’s cry for help? I struggled with those thoughts as I continued Matins and Liturgy. However, after Liturgy was over, I was told what this man uttered on his way out: “I thought this was a church for whites!” Clearly he was disappointed to see black people in our church. He walked into our church that morning, intent even to interrupt a service in progress, to ask for money. This happens quite often in our church as we are an inner-city parish. And yet, this needy man could not avoid spewing out his racist filth.

Very rarely indeed are moral lines clearly drawn or visible. Human behavior never ceases to surprise and confuse. But whether it’s a man spewing racial hatred or governments keeping people out or religions seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are heading for disaster unless we begin to take Jesus seriously – not in the apocalyptic terms that many American Christians do, but in the terms he defines in the various Gospel stories that show us his true face.

The December issue of National Geographic magazine has a challenging article by Jared Diamond that paints in convincing terms competition for the earth’s limited resources as more and more people and nations aim to achieve the same standard of living we are used to. The results will be disastrous for the planet unless governments – starting with our own – take steps to decrease income inequality and the chasm between rich and poor. Unless a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources is achieved, the growing clamor of people to have what we have will spell disaster before this century is out. The article is available online. It’s well worth reading if you care about the world around you, or the world your children or grandchildren will live in.

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is a parable for today. It should provoke us to think deeply about how we view others. But more importantly, it is a parable for governments and churches. Who do we exclude? Who do we treat like ‘dogs’? And when are we who call ourselves Christians start following the example of Jesus?


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Leviticus to the rescue!

What is the least popular book in the Bible? Most people would say, Leviticus! For very good reason, as Leviticus consists mostly of laws that Moses gave to the people of Israel. And many of these laws are the kind of thing that give the Bible a bad name among many modern people. And yet, the central theme of Leviticus is HOLINESS. God is HOLY, and God’s people are called to be holy. God “separated” the Jews from the peoples of the world in the sense that they were set apart to be holy. This was to be the quality that identified them as God’s people. This matter of holiness was not meant for the people of Israel to feel superior to others; it was not a matter of ego inflating! It was a matter of their mission in the world.

I needed some uplifting inspiration when I logged into my Logos account at midnight to see what today’s verse might be, and I was very happy to see this verse from Leviticus. I had spent the afternoon watching Simon Rattle’s final concert this past June as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program was Mahler’s 6th Symphony, an overwhelming 85 minutes of music and an overwhelming performance by the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.  I got into the Mahler mood and continued by listening to couple older recordings of Mahler symphonies. But in the midst of Mahler, I turned to my Apple Music library and came upon John Lennon’s Christmas Song. One verse caught my attention: “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong,” But for some reason, I didn’t hear “the world is so wrong.” I heard “the world is so young.” And I thought, wow, what a great line, John! But then I went back to play the song again and I turned on the Lyrics that Apple Music provides and I realized that I had not heard correctly. “The world is so wrong,” were the words John Lennon sang. But I think the song would be better if John had sung what I thought I heard, “the world is so young”! “Young” brings hope, and it seems that’s what I wanted to hear. “Young” brings hope that we can overcome what is wrong with the world and once again rediscover God’s call to be holy. “The world is so young” can be the antidote we need to apocalyptic visions of an aging world and a humanity that has lost its ethical moorings and will to live.

I still have not recovered from the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago. It continues to haunt me and it has caused me to question so much of who we are. I can’t shake off the conviction that we Christians will be judged by God for how we have treated the Jews through the centuries. Every year I cringe at some of the words we read or chant during Holy Week services. The blatant anti-semitism that the Orthodox Church still promotes in our theology and hymnography is indefensible – especially after the Holocaust. And especially as we see antisemitism again on the rise. Will the Church ever wake up to the poison that medieval words and superstitions perpetuate? All the shows of solidarity with the Jews that our ecclesiastical leaders parade for photo ops will not erase our continuing guilt. When will we say, Enough, we will no longer use such horrible words in our worship?

There is wrong in the world, John Lennon, but the world is not wrong. As long as there is a holy God and people who are called to be holy, we can hope that we will see again that the world is beautiful and longs to be holy together with God’s people. Even Paul said something like this in chapter 8 of Romans. Read the whole chapter, you won’t regret it. Leviticus tells us what is the mission of God’s people in the world: to be holy, to bring to reality a different standard by which we live and by which we view each other and our beautiful world. The Jews through their adherence to those antiquated laws of Leviticus are showing that they have not forgotten their original calling. And they have survived thousands of years of persecution because they are and always will be GOD’S PEOPLE! I wonder when we Christians will realize that our calling and destiny are to unite with them in holiness. Holiness is not limited to monks who supposedly pray for the world; nor is holiness for those who the Church decided should be called “saints.” Holiness is the mission of all God’s people. Two thousand years later we still don’t get it. And that’s why “the world is so wrong.”


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Bless, do not curse!

The two verses highlighted today come from Psalm 67 – a short psalm. But verses 3-4 have to be read with the first two verses of this psalm. So let me quote the first four verses of Psalm 67.

May God be gracious to us and bless us 
and make his face to shine upon us, Selah 
that your way may be known on earth, 
your saving power among all nations. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God; 
let all the peoples praise you! 
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, 
for you judge the peoples with equity 
and guide the nations upon earth. Selah 

The psalm begins with a paraphrase of the famous blessing in the Book of Numbers (6:24-26):

The LORD bless you and keep you; 
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. 

So Psalm 67 takes the blessing of Numbers and turns it into a prayer for the whole people of Israel. But for what purpose? So they will be healthy and wealthy? It doesn’t appear that the prayer is so self-serving as that. Quite the contrary, the psalm asks for God’s blessing and grace; the psalm asks for God’s face to shine upon the people – so that God’s ways can be made known to all the earth and so the nations may praise God and sing with joy. It is a vision of global joy, peace and knowledge of God. But it starts with the people, God’s people. Only God’s people can ask such a prayer. And only God’s people can spread the blessing to all the nations.

But the psalm is a prayer, it is not a vision of a reality that exists. It is a vision of what our mission in the world should be. God will judge the nations with equity, the psalm says. God will judge all the nations and all the people of the earth equally and fairly. We are not the judges, God is the judge. But we are here to bring God’s blessing to all the earth. Instead of the hatred that is rapidly spreading throughout the world, we are to be a counterweight. If hateful people dominate the social media we should flood those same social media with messages of love, acceptance and blessing. Bless, do not curse, the Bible tells us (Romans 12:14). This is our purpose. If we are people of God we are here to bless the people of the world, the nations, the earth. As a matter of fact, let me quote that whole paragraph in Romans 12; it is the exact opposite of the hatred that drove the shooter in Pittsburgh last Saturday:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Does someone you know speak hate toward anyone or any group of people? Stand up to that person and speak up for love and acceptance. Do not allow any racist or hateful talk to to be spoken or written without challenging it. Whether in speech or in email or in social media, stand up to hate speech with words of blessing. And leave the judgment to God. Speech matters, words matter.

Did you notice the word Selah in the verses of Psalm 67? The same word is found in many of the psalms, but no one is sure what it meant. Perhaps it indicated a musical interlude. Perhaps it indicated a place to stop and meditate on the words, perhaps a sign to be silent for a bit before continuing. The psalms are prayers. We do well to read them slowly and allow their message to sink in so we can be inspired to do what they are gently telling us to do. And as I’ve said many other times, the psalms also often contain words of hate and revenge – because many times those are our honest reactions. Many of us I’m sure felt hate for the Pittsburgh shooter. But it’s not the same hate that drove him. Nevertheless, this is the cathartic aspect of the psalms that allows us to bring our own gut reactions before God and allow God’s healing to act on us. Perhaps if the shooter had paused and allowed his hatred to be healed by the psalms he would not have carried out such a heinous act. So listen to that word Selah, and take a break from what you’re doing and what you’re feeling, to enter the world of God’s shining presence. And may the Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you.

P.S. After writing the above I came upon this extraordinary commentary in today’s New York Times.


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Responses of the Heart

I can’t let go of this beautiful psalm that I wrote on yesterday. So instead of the Paul verse which my bible software has highlighted today – I do get a little tired of too much Paul – I prefer to focus on verse 8 of this beautiful psalm:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

I quote the NRSV rendering of this verse, because David’s heart seems to have initiated Davi’d desire to dwell in the house of the Lord, where he will behold the beauty of the Lord (yesterday’s verse). It is true of human nature in general that our desires are most genuine and most fruitful when they arise from within our deepest inner being – which in biblical language is the ‘heart’. But our hearts are divided, especially in our advertising-dominated world. When we talk about our ‘heart’s desire’ we often mean nothing more than something we saw on an afternoon talk show or online. That’s not what ‘heart’ means in the Bible. Heart in the Bible – as in Psalm 27 here – means the undivided self. Thus Jesus can say, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). We sing this verse every Sunday in the Liturgy, as part of the Beatitudes.

Hearing, singing, responding – this is the dynamic of David’s psalm. And it is the dynamic of Christian worship! David heard his heart, he sang his psalm – and he responded, he took action, he sought the face of the Lord. He went into the house of the Lord. And he found confidence not to be terrorised by his enemies. (Remember, David was a warrior and a king. Who said warriors and kings can’t also be poets?) Read the entire psalm again and see this dynamic at work in David’s stormy life.

I know for myself how easy it is to talk the right words, but do nothing more than talk. Life is full of honourable intentions. I can’t count the times that a parishioner feels it necessary to tell me, “You’ll see me in church soon.” But I still don’t see them. But the real matter is not whether I see them “in church” but whether God sees them. And whether they see the face and beauty of God! As we move into an increasingly non-participatory form of Christianity, people think nothing about separating themselves from the corporate worship that is the essential task of the church. Kids sports can only suffice as an excuse to a point. At some point the question needs to be asked: What does your heart tell you? Is there still any warmth in your heart for God? Is your Christian faith just words?

David’s heart commanded him to get up and seek the face of God. You want to dwell in the house of the Lord, David? Then don’t just write psalms about it, go and seek his face. This is heart talk – the inner dialogue of an undivided self, the “pure in heart.” So here now is the big question. Where do you seek the face of God? Jesus told us where we would find his face: in the faces of the poor and suffering! But we might never recognise the face of God in the suffering and the poor if we don’t allow Liturgy and worship to train us and to reveal the face of God through words, songs, icons, and the responses of the heart. Worship gives us the eyes and compassion to see God “in the land of the living”, and that is how David concludes his wonderful, heart-shaping psalm:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!


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The Beauty of the Lord

Psalm 27 is one of the highest points of inspiration in the Bible. The verse highlighted today provided the text for a very catchy contemporary Christian song I first heard many years ago and I still often sing it to myself. I’m singing it right now as I write this, but silently as it’s 2:00 am. I prefer the translations that say “behold the beauty of the Lord” instead of “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” “Behold” conveys more of the sense of awe.

Although it’s not part of the Orthodox funeral service, I occasionally I insert Psalm 27 in a funeral service, in abbreviated version:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,

be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Do not hide your face from me,

for you have been my helper.

Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,

O God of my salvation!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord

in the land of the living

Wait for the Lord; be strong,

and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

What a marvelous expression of confidence. What a wonderful vision of life lived in full awareness of God. Our verse today tells us that David’s only desire is to live in the house of the Lord so he can behold unceasingly the beauty of the Lord. The Lord is indeed beautiful. Have you ever used the word ‘beautiful’ to describe God? How different from the usual ways we refer to God. David not only wants to live in the house of the Lord, but he wants to converse with God, “to inquire in his temple.” It reminds me of Jesus when he was twelve years old and his parents found him in the temple at Jerusalem conversing with the priests and teachers.

Do we listen to our hearts, or do we force our hearts to obey our minds? David listened to his heart, and his heart told him, “Come, seek his face!” And David obeyed: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” Do you seek the face of the Lord? Listen to your heart, it will guide you to seek the Lord “in the land of the living.” The heart and soul of life lived in Christ is in this Psalm. And it invites every one of us to the land of the living.

Although God does not dwell in any earthly temples built by human hands, there is a unique divine presence in every sacred place and house of worship – yes, in our ‘temple’ too, on the corner of Pleasant and Park Streets in Portland, Maine. My own conversion to personal Christian faith did not happen at a Billy Graham crusade or some miraculous experience. No, my conversion began (it began!) when I stepped inside the Cathedral at Chartres, France, in July of 1978. The churches of Paris, including Notre Dame, were impressive but left me unmoved. Chartres was different. I spent two days inside that huge Gothic church, studying every stained glass window, every statue, reading everything in my detailed guidebook and twice joining the guided tours of the most amazing tour guide in the world, Malcolm Miller. As far as I know he is still there, doing his daily tours, full of insight, full of theological depth and understanding and a master communicator of his deep knowledge. And there in the great space of Chartres Cathedral I experienced the beauty of the Lord. The space itself conveyed the beauty of God, and I believe something similar happened to David when he was in the temple. As a result, he desired to be in the presence of that beauty all the days of his life. Malcolm Miller has spent 60 years in Chartres Cathedral by now, guiding countless visitors to an appreciation of magnificent, beautiful Christianity.

Carved statue of Christ and Adam at Chartres Cathedral, France (click to enlarge)

One of the most moving stone carvings at Chartres is that of Christ cradling the head of Adam. How can one look at this carving and not be overcome by the incredible divine humanity and infinite compassion of the Lord. But it’s only one of many hundreds of carvings at Chartres, a luminous place, a place of spiritual transformation – as long as you allow yourself to linger and not be on a tour bus. So when I read David’s Psalm 27 I am drawn to memories of Chartres and memories of chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The beauty of the Lord is indeed something we can all experience. And we can experience it wherever we gather to worship the Lord. But you have to linger, you can’t be in a hurry. And you have to be quiet in your spirit so God can speak to you in the silence: Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12). God was in the silence. The beauty of the Lord is best encountered in the silence.


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Thank God for the Fall

My Logos Bible software posts a Bible verse every day as a color slide. I use this daily verse to compose my own reflection on it. So when I logged into my Logos account early this morning, I found today’s highlighted verse is one that I referred to yesterday when I reflected on Jesus as the icon/image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Today’s verse draws a sharp contrast between Adam and Christ. As any mention of Adam needs some explaining, it is incumbent for me to do so here. Just like yesterday, the discussion has to be a bit on the theological side, as necessitated by the verse itself.

Adam was, according to Genesis chapters 1 & 2 the first human being created by God. And Eve was created from Adam’s rib, according to Genesis 2. Male and female God made humanity; in his image and likeness he made them (Genesis 1:27). The story of origins culminates in Genesis 3, the story of the fall, where Adam and Eve transgress against God’s commandment and are sent out from the garden where they were created. The most crucial result of the fall was that human beings became subject to death. Presumably there would have been no death if they had not transgressed, and they would have remained in the garden.

The story, of course, is archetypal and no one who has gone to school and knows anything about science can accept the story as anything more than a poetic explanation for death and sin. I have never taken the story literally. It is simply impossible for me as a former scientist to accept the story of Adam and Eve literally. It’s a powerful metaphor of human sin and mortality, but impossible as fact. Sorry if that offends any literalists. And Paul, of course, takes the story literally and states the obvious: Death came through Adam, but resurrection and eternal life comes through Christ. The Fathers of the Church (why are there no Mothers of the Church when we talk about theologians?) were inspired by such statements in the New Testament and were motivated to call Jesus the “Second Adam”, in the sense that Jesus undid the fall and reversed the sentence of death that fell upon humanity. As I said, powerful stuff – regardless of whether you take the story literally or not.

But here is a conundrum that arises in my mind. Let’s for the sake of argument take the story as factual history. Some of the Fathers of the Church saw dimensions in the story that Paul did not appreciate or conceive. Some of the Latin Fathers saw the fall as a felix culpa, a “happy fault”. Among the Greek Fathers, Irenaeus of Lyon saw Adam and Eve as childishly immature in the garden, before the Fall – with potential for growth, to be sure, but immature nevertheless. Here is my question. If Adam and Eve had not fallen and had remained in the Garden, would there have been any civilization? Would there have been a Homer or Socrates? Would there have been a Parthenon or the pyramids of Giza? or the Sistine Chapel? Would there have been a Shakespeare? a Beethoven or Mozart? a Tolstoy? Ella Fitzgerald or the Beatles? Sorry if I’m so eurocentric in my examples. I’m not one of these new folks who put down the achievements of western civilization.

Without the felix culpa, we would have none of the great achievements of human civilization – nor, of course, any of the evils, like the Holocaust or 9/11. We accept the evils as manifestations of the dark side in human coexistence, because the manifestations of light and beauty are so much grater and more enduring. This is the great tradeoff of human history. But the greatest gift of the fall is that it made possible the coming of Christ in our midst. We look at Christ and we can’t imagine life without him. And I prefer to focus on the felix culpa version of the Fall. Because it gave us civilization in all its great achievements. And it gave us Christ, who brings gifts and promises greater than anything Adam and Eve received in the proverbial Garden. We’re not in the Garden. Thank God for that. If we were still in the Garden we might still be Irenaeus’ immature children. We’re in a magnificent place called Planet Earth! Can we start treating it as a garden of delight and take better care of it? That would be another glorious result of the felix culpa.


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The True Icon

Who is Paul referring to in Colossians 1:15? Jesus Christ, of course: ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως. He is the icon – that’s the Greek word translated as image – of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see God. Not physically, for there is no physicality to God. God is spirit, Jesus told the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the true icon/image of God in the sense that Jesus is everything God is. He represents God to us. He is the Word of God, the wisdom and power of God.

But an icon or image is meant to have a viewer or witness; someone to receive and see the image – just as you are receiving and seeing the image that is attached to this email. We are the witnesses, the recipients of the “image”! When we honor him, when we listen to him, when we follow him as disciples, we are recognizing that he is the image of the invisible God. God who is invisible chose to become visible to us through Jesus Christ. Can you understand the profundity of that statement? For us and for our salvation, God became visible.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” proclaims this verse. Does that mean that Jesus Christ was merely the first to be created by God? Would that mean that Jesus is none other than Adam? After all, Adam was the first man created by God, according to the archetypal language of Genesis chapters 1 & 2. And Adam and Eve were created “in the image and likeness” of God. So is Jesus Adam? It would have been very weird indeed if Paul meant anything like that. After all, he clearly differentiated between Adam and Christ in his other letters:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:14 – the one to come is Jesus Christ, and Adam was a “type” of Christ, someone who foreshadowed Christ. Typology is a topic on its own.)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Clearly Paul is not equating Jesus to Adam, nor is he implying that Jesus was the first of God’s created beings. Translating πρωτότοκος as the English word “firstborn” is misleading if we don’t go on to include the remainder of what Paul wrote: for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17) This is a big statement that can sustain a separate email exposition.

Not only is Jesus the one in whom everything was created (remember John 1:3?), he is also the Savior. Note how he links the theology of who Christ is to what Christ has done. It’s brilliant: He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)

Just as in yesterday’s extraordinary paragraph in Colossians 3:12-17, so also here he sees the church as the place where everything finds its purpose. In chapter 3, the church is the body of Christ, where our discipleship has its true home, and from where we learn how to go out into the world as disciples and messengers of Christ. In the chapter 1 passage, Jesus Christ’s works of creation, re-creation and reconciliation (which is another word for cosmic salvation) all find their culmination and focus in the church.

The church is all-important to Christ’s work. The church is the home of God’s purposes to save the world and bring us to glory. Is the church important to you? If yes, then how is it important to you? And how do you express that importance in your life and your participation in the life of the church?