“May you be made strong…” Colossians 1:11
So often we skip over the epistles – those letters from Paul and other early Church leaders written to congregations of early Christians to encourage and guide, teach and preach, reprimand and restore them in the faith. As a preacher I almost always head right to the Gospels, right to Jesus, and ignore what are actually the oldest writings in the New Testament made up of letters and sermons that shaped the early Church and continues to shape the Church. Not today.
It was the one phrase of Paul’s that got me: “may you be made strong.” Oh, how I need strength. You too? Strength to get up in the morning….to love when it would be so much easier to ignore…to forgive hurts and let go of grudges…to be a responsible neighbor, citizen, spouse, parent, daughter, pastor…to discern between what’s true and what’s false…to pray…to follow Jesus. One of our saints, Dottie Cassavechia, who endured physical suffering and yet continued to serve as a faith-filled leader at the Episcopal House, often said, “I pray to God for strength and he gives it to me.” What do you need strength for? To grieve? To recover from an illness or hardship? To host Thanksgiving Dinner? To sit at that table with your brother-in-law? To make it through puberty? To help your child through puberty? To endure your job? To bear almost unbearable burdens? Listen again, to Paul’s prayer for the Colossians and for us, “May you be made strong.” He asks this because the Colossians cannot muster up strength on their own. Nor can we. We need the strength comes from Christ’s glorious power. Eugene Peterson translates it as “strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy…”
Let’s leap into the Gospel where Jesus is enduring the unendurable as he hangs on the cross. Notice the strength that’s exchanged between him and a criminal. While one criminal derides him demanding that Jesus save himself and them, the other asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What an amazing gift is given to Jesus in that request. The criminal says, when you, not if you, but when you come into your kingdom. “When you come into your kingdom” is a profession of faith. It enables both Jesus and the criminal to endure the unendurable. Then Jesus’ promise of paradise spills over into Easter joy.
Well, so far I’ve used over 400 words, but Paul hasn’t even gotten to end of the sentence. He continues: giving thanks to the Father who has enable you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light – and then finally there’s a period. How have you shared in the inheritance of the saints in light? Of course, it’s in baptism for that’s when we are made saints, when we are given the promise of the kingdom, the gift of faith, the church, when we are marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Thanksgiving also invites us to consider this inheritance. This year it’s at our house which means there will be two kinds of stuffing – the first my mother’s Pennsylvania Dutch bread stuffing made with mashed potatoes, bread, eggs, onions and celery and with it comes memories of my family and all of the times we gathered to give thanks. The second is my mother-in-law’s stuffing made with bacon and bread, bacon and eggs, bacon and pepper, and more bacon. With that comes memories of John’s family who in spite of all that bacon lived to ripe old ages. Both remind us of our inheritance with the saints in light. The same thing happens when we gather at the Lord’s table, for we do so with the saints of every time and every place. So, here with us are Paul and Lydia, the Colossians and Corinthians, Augustine and Luther, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day, and you can add your own names, Bonnie, Helen, John, Carl, Bob, Ken… We share the inheritance of the saints in light and for that we thank God.
In the next two verses Paul gets very personal. As translated by Eugene Peterson, “God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. God set us up in the kingdom of the Son, that God loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.” One of my sisters visited with John and I last weekend. It was a wonderful visit and one of things that struck me was how happy she is. She’s been through a rough few years. Her visits often included listening to a list of grievances, large and small. Something I was happy to do, as she’s listened with great patience to plenty of complaints over the years. But now she’d let them go. She no longer resides in dead end alleys and dark dungeons. She’s free and it’s glorious to behold. How often do we hang onto sins and hurts, fears and failures when God has already forgiven us, rescued us and saved us? How often do we rehearse grievances so that the past controls the present and goes into the future? I wonder if we do this because of how hard it can be to trust that God’s grace is true and forgiveness is real not just for ourselves, but for others too? Is there someone you need to forgive in order to be free? Is that someone, you? Know in Christ we are rescued from the power of darkness and recused from our failures and fears. Be brave. Be strong. Be forgiven. Be free.
Then Paul launches into a hymn to Christ the King. Perhaps it was one the Colossians knew and so they sung along. It is such a glorious hymn so let us read it together. It’s on page 2 of the bulletin and starts with verse 15:
Instead of “he” let’s begin with the words: Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile himself to all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Word of God, word of Life. Thanks be to God!