"No one created to be excluded": Sermon at the Ecumenical Centre chapel, Geneva
"No one created to be excluded" (Colossians 1 :15-20)
There are some words that should be used with great care. Because we do not really know what they mean, or because we know too well that they mean: something more than we really can say. Still, these words exist. And they are used, and we should use them, because we know they are real words.
One of these words is “all”. This is a key word in the hymn conveyed in this letter (Colossians) to what was probably a tiny, vulnerable and marginal Christian church. They are challenged by their surroundings, the great social and political powers of great aspiration: the power of the market, the power of competing ideologies and faiths. They are challenged by some within their own flock who ask whether what they have in their faith in Christ is not really enough, not something real. They are in Colossae, a city of diminishing importance in Phrygia, a hundred miles away from Ephesus in Asia Minor, in what today is Turkey. A city that now has disappeared after earthquakes at the end of the 4th century; it has never been excavated. These strong words we have heard about “all” and the perspective of “all creation” and “all things” are, surprisingly, directed to someplace rather marginal, at the margins of geography, power and history. Perhaps this fact actually serves to underline the strength of these words, so that they have become significant for the Church in all places, through the ages, and particularly significant for the modern ecumenical movement.
The letter is written in the name of Paul, the apostle who had travelled and travelled – if not in all, then in many of the places in the world known to him. He travelled to preach the gospel; to proclaim that the mystery of Christ is made known to “all”: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27). However, he had probably never been in Colossae. Only his good friend Epaphras – a less known leader of the early Church - had been there to start that congregation and to give them the guidance and leadership required. Epaphras is interestingly called both “our beloved fellow servant” (1:7) and, later on, “one of you” (4:12). Perhaps this hints at what it means to belong to the mystery embedded in that word “all”, a sign of what it means to be one and singular, yet belonging to all?
The members of the church in Colossae faced challenges from some among them who apparently aspired to know something about the whole, and to represent the whole, seeming to represent the tradition of the Jewish faith and practicing the sign of circumcision; and there were challenges arising from others characterized by “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to elemental spirits of the universe” (2:8ff), a faction that seems to claim alliance with powers that control the whole and the fate of all.
The writer is definitely not writing out of any privileged and powerful position. He is in prison, or a captive, as have been so many at that time and later, even today, as a result of preaching and living in the name of the true gospel.
We are here, in this chapel bearing the name “Ecumenical”. We are together, although in an imperfect but still symbolic manner, symbolizing in our own personal presence the whole world, particularly the whole fellowship of the Church in the world. We are here, carried to this place by the legacy of the ecumenical movement, in which the mission movement definitely is included. The WCC central committee was speaking in the name of the WCC in 1951 in Morges when it spoke about carrying the whole gospel to the whole world. In this ecumenical movement we aspire in a courageous and ambitious way somehow to address what are global realties, challenges and relations.
Sometimes I really wonder what words like “all”, “global”, “cosmic”, “ecumenical”, “holistic”, “catholic” really mean. I know something about how these words are used, what concepts and discussions are connected to these wonderful but very big words. Still – we should ask: What do we mean by these words?
Today I wonder what this prisoner, the writer of this letter, including this hymn, meant, and how the recipients of this text were meant to respond to it. How could they think of themselves as global or holistic? They did not even know the world we know, or the vision of the founders of the modern missionary and ecumenical movement with all its continents and cultures. They did not know and were not able to communicate with the whole, as we undertake to do, much less were they able to dominate and take the power of the whole – in a way that, at least on the surface, could somehow justify this language.
Still, I hear in this hymn – and in the letter to the Colossians as a whole - some messages that go deep into our lives and our calling, that speak to why we are here this morning at the beginning of an important year for the ecumenical movement and in particular for the WCC.
First, the sense of the whole, of “all”, includes my own reality. In a sense, we can understand the whole world only through ourselves. And we each belong somewhere, in specific relationships, even if they are only on Facebook. Paradoxically, the universality of communication today has made it even more private. Maybe this is part of the reality of words like “all”: They make real sense only when I am part of it, when my experience of reality is part of it, when it is here and now. My understanding of creation grows from my experience of being created, given life by the God of life. My understanding of “the powers” is always related to my own experience of having some power and my experience of the limits of my strength, of being to some extent powerless, like St Paul in prison. The mystery of Christ is the mystery of Christ in you and in me.
This leads to a second realization: It is only through the presence of God in the depths that I can also know God in the heights. It was by being somebody, somewhere that the incarnate Christ could come to be known everywhere; it is only through breaking into the reality of evil that the good can be revealed; it is only through the experience of darkness that we really appreciate the light; it is only as we acknowledge sin as a power and reality that we see the need for the mystery of forgiveness of sins; it is only because God is in our reality, be it local or even personal, that we come to believe in God who is in all and above all. This is, in the strongest and most dramatic way, expressed in the cross of Christ. It is in becoming a victim of a particular injustice that Christ becomes the one who creates peace and justice for all. The theme of our assembly is a prayer relevant to everyone, everywhere, yet it is a prayer we pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
This leads to a third observation: The Church is a mystery amid the realities of the world, but it is also a reality amid the mysteries and miseries of the world. To be part of the Church of Christ is to belong to the one who is highest, no matter what kind of claims or powers we are facing, because he is the one who is found at the point of the most profound challenge to our lives: Death. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Whatever the reality of the personal, local, national or global scene seems to be, there is also the reality of belonging to the one who came to us, suffered with us and for us, and who was raised again from the dead before us, in order to lead us to justice and peace.
The letter to the Colossians is different from other letters carrying the name of Paul. It speaks of a change of the reality that already has taken place, and not only of a change to be awaited: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13). The Epiphany at the river Jordan, of Jesus being the beloved, is here clearly in continuity with the revelation that we are the beloved sisters and brothers of Christ.
Finally, in this mystery of Christ we can speak about “all”, even though we do not entirely understand what that means. One major meaning in this hymn speaking about “all” is that no one is meant to be excluded, no one is automatically excluded. No one has the right to exclude the other because everything, even “the powers”, were created through Christ the divine Logos. In this mystery of being in Christ we can be ourselves, belonging to the global reality of Christ, knowing that we are what we are – and still something more. This letter says it in words that remind us of words we often quote from the letter to the Galatians: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). In Galatians 3:28, the author includes the gender perspective, “neither male nor female”.
In this mystery of Christ we can pray for ourselves, for all, and work accordingly, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace!” In this mystery of Christ, seen through the letter to the Colossians, it makes a lot of sense to speak about mission from the margins, as the new Mission statement of the WCC does. And we know that therefore more are included, and many more than we have understood or than would be included under our control alone. In Christ, the word “all” does not refer to any measure attained through colonial, imperial, globalized or geopolitical power, or anything like that; it means that no one who has been created is meant to be excluded from the love of God.