He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.After 4 days of hanging my sorry head over those bars (riding 250 miles, often up very steep grades), I got it right. And it was life-changing... because these particular words are transformative. In repeating them over and over, I got the biggest thoughts about Jesus drilled in deep. And best of all... they remained.
Over the years I'd come to that passage over and over. Sometimes I would walk students through it to help them start wrapping their brains around the deity of Christ. Or I would linger over it myself -- especially that opening line. The Phillips paraphrase is poetry itself:
Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God...Other times I have prayed these verses over friends or students:
And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father...In my first year after college, I memorized this passage from the opening of chapter three:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.I'll never forget the feeling in my chest when those words, handwritten on a beat-up index card on my desk, caught the eye of my boss. I was working as an editor and writer at a scientific research firm with a bunch of PhD's who were respectful but not terribly interested in a green college grad. "Hmm... what's that?" he asked. "Oh, just something I'm... memorizing," I mumbled. "Hmm. Interesting." I saw his eyes follow the words. Who knows what he thought.
But in my reading this morning, what I am reminded of most is my visit to Colossae in May 2005. We had visited so many remarkable sites already on our trip - we were touring key sites related to the Apostle Paul: Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Antioch, Antalya, Ankara, Laodicea... and we were heading to Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens... I'd seen so many remarkable places directly out of the Bible. I was having the time of my life!
Given my own history with the Book of Colossians then, my heart welled up with excitement even more. We stopped first that day at Laodicea, where we saw actual ancient water pipes caked with lime deposits, and we were told that the water was very hard and distasteful there. It was so full of particulates that it was neither cold nor refreshing. This gave completely new meaning to the letter to the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-16...
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.We hopped back into the bus, and headed to Colossae. Picture my face nearly pressed against the window as we approached... then imagine my dismay when we saw the dusty and unremarkable little hill pictured in the photo above.
It was nothing.
Colossae was nothing more than a beat-up sign. We climbed up over the steps you see in the picture at the top and walked along the flat area. With our shoes we could easily find pieces of broken pottery. This was clearly an archaeological goldmine.
Instead, it was just sitting there. The tour guide went on to tell us that the country of Turkey, a secular Islamic state, had absolutely no interest in excavating an ancient Christian site like Colossae. Not only that, but it was very reluctant to give permits for others to dig there. (Read a little more about it here.)
I was heartbroken. With my bare hands I wanted to start digging. We piled back in the bus and drove on through the Lycus Valley. I really couldn't shake the image of that rich trove of knowledge, buried under centuries of soil and rock.
But later I realized that perhaps that is a great reminder of life for each of us. When it comes down to it, over the long haul we won't be remembered for anything we build or any material items we leave behind. On this earth, we too will merely end up as a forgotten pile of dirt! (Sorry, I don't want to sound so bleak. Keep reading...)
What we will be remembered for are the lives we have invested in, which then in turn pour into others. That is how the faith spread throughout the Roman Empire and the rest of the world. It flowed through Epaphras (see 1:7) and Paul in Colossae, and his words to them later spurred them on as a church to ongoing fruit and labor.
If all of my efforts are spent in building markers and material wealth, it will all come to nothing... I'll just be a neglected hill with a beat-up sign :) But if I focus my energies on people and their deeper lives, the potential is great joy beyond words. As Paul says in Colossians 1:6
All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth.That is our purpose. So as it says at the end of chapter one:
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.Amen and amen.