“First Place in Everything!”Dr. Paul A. Baxley Colossians 1:15-28 Year C – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost - (Proper 11)
It is essentially impossible to hear Colossians 1:15-20 read without taking note of the way the language of the text describes Jesus. Theologians would describe what we find here as an extremely high Christology! Jesus is described as the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead, the head of the church, intended to have first place in everything. The text is nothing short of an affirmation of the absolute pre-eminence of Christ. Jesus is portrayed as being above all thrones, all rulers, all dominions, all powers, all things in the created order.
The radical affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation can be heard in several ways, as Charles Talbert points out in his commentary on Colossians. The Greek can be heard in reference to time or in reference to status. (Charles H. Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians: Paidea Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007. p. 187.)
In the first case, the language would be an affirmation that Christ is chronologically before all things in the created order, which would be true. The magnificent prologue of the Gospel of John, which is remarkably similar to this text in Colossians, affirms that the word was “in the beginning with God,” that through him all things were created, and without him not one single thing would have been made.
Similarly, Colossians affirms that in him all things were created. As true as it is to affirm that Christ is firstborn in terms of chronology, Talbert suggests that it is most accurate to hear the language of first born here in terms of status. In this way of hearing the text, Christ occupies a higher status than everything else in the created order and in the church, or as the text says, he will occupy “first place in everything.”
These verses in Colossians are an unmistakable affirmation of the supremacy, the preeminence of Christ. Christ is depicted in this way because of his person and work. As Andrew Lincoln explains, “Christ’s preeminence is not simply because he happened to be one individual whom God raised ahead of time but because he is a particular individual with a unique relation to God and a unique role in God’s work of reconciliation.” (Andrew T. Lincoln, Colossians: The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. XI. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2000. p. 599) .
Christ is first in everything because he is the image of God, in him the fullness of God dwells.
Christ is first in everything because of the uniqueness of his reconciling work of death and resurrection. Because of who he is uniquely and what he does, Christ is to have first place in everything.
To say that Christ is firstborn, to say that Christ is head, to say that in Christ all things hold together, to say that he is to have first place in everything; these are all synonymous with the most basic of all Christian affirmations.
For all of these are just other ways of expressing the conviction that brings us into the Christian faith in baptism, and that we are to sustain and grow all of our lives. What is that affirmation? Jesus is Lord! Doesn’t that capture all that this text says about Jesus? Beyond all else, aren’t these verses just an elaboration of the meaning of that most central Christian conviction?
That these verses profess an extremely high view of Jesus Christ cannot be avoided. But what is more easily missed is that these verses are quite likely the text of a very early Christian hymn that Paul has inserted in his letter to the Colossians at a pivotal point. While this point has been debated among scholars, there seems to be an emerging consensus that these verses in Colossians are not unlike Philippians 2:5-11 and even John 1:1-14, in that they contain quotations of some of the earliest hymns of the church. (So Lincoln, p. 601-604, also Margaret Y. MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000. p. 65-68).
So as Paul prepares to conclude the introduction to his letter and move into the body, when he will deal with significant challenges facing the church at Colossae, he quotes a hymn they would have known well from its use in worship.
Why would Paul do this? By using this hymn at this point, Paul guarantees that the Colossians’ reflection about who Jesus is and what place Jesus occupies in their lives and their world will not merely be an intellectual matter. He is taking this exalted language about Jesus and moving it to a different place in the lives of the Colossians, not just in their heads, but in their innermost places.
As we all know, the songs we sing, particularly those that come from significant times or places in our lives, work their way into our hearts and even our imaginations so that the words of the songs are implanted deep within us.
As soon as he begins to quote the words of the hymn, we can faithfully imagine that the minds of the Colossian Christians shifts out of a realm of philosophical debate or intellectual activity, and instead into their own worship life.
But Paul is not only seeking to root central faith convictions deep within the hearts of the Colossians. He is also seeking a profound connection between thinking and singing, between living and praising, between deciding and praying, between worship and life.
By placing this hymn and this point in the letter, I believe Paul is seeking to have the songs and prayers that are uttered in the worship lives of the Colossian Christians be formative for how they engage the challenges of life in their day. After all, no sooner than the hymn ends in verse 20, Paul turns in the very next verses to speak of the struggles that come in life related to sin and suffering. He wants this familiar hymn to be at the front of their minds as they engage the world.
So from the very earliest years of our faith, we see that worship is not intended to be an experience isolated from the rest of our lives, but instead that the words, songs and habits of worship are intended to be highly formative for our living. Tom Long expresses this conviction exceedingly well in his book Testimony, where he even suggests that worship should be a “soundtrack” for our lives. He writes:
It’s a provocative idea—worship as soundtrack for the rest of life, the words and music and actions of worship inside the sanctuary playing in the background as we live our lives outside, in the world. It happens all the time. The preacher says somewhere in the Sunday sermon that “God’s grace is present in the broken places of life,” and the words come back to challenge and comfort when the telephone rings late at night with sad news. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” cries the old creed and the phrase lingers in our mind when we discover that a colleague at work has not been altogether trustworthy. On Sunday we pray: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid,” and on Thursday night, when we are by ourselves in the house and the day has been hard and we are feeling alone and misunderstood, the words of the prayer come back to reassure us that we are indeed known, known to our depths by God. The conversation at the office coffeepot turns to politics, and someone says that he’s tired of paying hard-earned tax dollars to feed other people’s kids. Suddenly we remember a line from last Sunday’s Scripture lesson, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ,” and we know we are compelled to respond with a different word. (Thomas G. Long, Testimony. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2004. p. 48-49)
So what difference would it make for the Colossians to enter the world with the hymn: “Christ is to have first place in everything” at the forefront of their minds and in the center of their hearts? What would it mean for them to engage work and play, thought and feeling, philosophy and politics, family and friendship under the over-arching refrain: “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together?” How would their church life be different if they lived as though they believed the words of the song: “He is head of the church?” What if all of their lives joined their voices in singing the hymn “He has first place in everything?”
Or more to the point, what difference would it make for us, as Christians in 2013, to enter our worlds and our congregations in the firm convictions that Christ should have first place in everything? How different would our communities, our schools, our work places, even our congregation would be if we lived the song that in Him, and Him alone, all things hold together? What if our lives became a living embodiment of the abiding conviction that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is first place; that he is really before and above and beyond all things? What if this hymn in Colossians became the soundtrack for our lives?
I know. You and I don’t know the hymn in Colossians. It is language from a vastly different time. But more times than you and I can remember, we’ve opened services of worship singing: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name let angels’ prostrate fall, bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all! Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!” Many of us have even sung the verse that encourages us to “go spread your trophies at his feet and crown him Lord of all!” That heart of that hymn is remarkably similar to the one we see in Colossians 1. What difference would it make if that hymn became the soundtrack of our lives?
And I’m quite confident that in our congregation today are many of us who came to the end of a worship service, and walked forward to give our lives to Jesus singing words like: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him in his presence daily live. I surrender all! I surrender all! All to thee my blessed savior, I surrender all.” What would it mean to actually live that hymn? At work? At home? At school? In play?
More recently, some of us have been profoundly challenged and changed as we have sung a hymn like: “I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save. I, who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright. Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send? Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” What would it mean to live that hymn? As believers? As churches? At work?
Paul quotes an old familiar hymn at the moment where his letter begins to meet the real world. I’m convinced he does so because he dreams and prays that the church at Colossae will engage their world in a way that bears witness to their absolute devotion to Jesus until their lives become their hymns of praise. I think he wants the same for us. Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.)
In recent years, Paul has also served on the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, where he presently serves as Moderator-Elect. He has been chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds. In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for UHS-Pruitt in several local nursing facilities. They have four children (an 11 year old daughter Olivia, a 5 year old daughter Maria, and twin two and a half year-olds Matthew and Caroline).
Scripture and Music
All Hail the Power of Jesus
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
The Church s One Foundation
When the Church of Jesus
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
It Is Well with My Soul
Upon This Rock (John Ness Beck)
Rise, Shine! (Dale Wood)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)
Be Thou My Vision (Alice Parker)
It Is Well with My Soul (Tom Fettke)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
Of the Father s Love Begotten