I have a friend in Minnesota who is a landscape architect. A few years ago, shortly after she had moved to a new place, she led me around the front yard and showed me the Dogwood, Hostas, and Northern Waving Oats she had planted near the porch. It was beautiful, and though it was a small beginning, it spoke of things to come. I asked my friend what else she had planned, and her eyes lit up. She led me around the side of the house to some scraggly shrubbery and talked animatedly about her plans to dig it up and do something different with the bed.
A couple of months ago, I was back at my friend's house for a visit. It had been about two years since I'd last been there, and things had dramatically changed. The landscaping in the front yard had become even more beautiful—now, in addition to the shrubs and grasses there were peonies and alpine strawberries and Coral Bells. And the side yard was now arrayed with Lady's Mantle and climbing roses. Likewise, the back yard flowerbed, at the foot of my friend's screened porch, boasted a range of kitchen herbs and flowering bulbs. In other words, from that first hint of what was to come in the front yard came a whole profusion of colors and varieties of plants. What began as a foreshadowing became a fullness.
As I approached our Scripture reading (Colossians 1:15-28) this morning, I thought of my friend's landscaping. The apostle Paul describes for us a movement, a progression. We see Christ exalted in his resurrection glory to be the first embodiment—the "firstborn," to use Paul's word—of a much wider resurrected and restored creation. We see that resurrection glory of Christ fanning out to encompass not only other humans, who share the same human nature that Christ took on in the Incarnation, but also heaven and earth itself. Redemption in this passage starts with the quiet hush of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning and then finishes with the sweeping, cosmic, banner-in-the-skies triumph of the renewal of the whole world, so that "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Hab. 2:14).
The firstfruits of Christ's resurrection
Let's watch how Paul does this. First, look at verse 18: God's beloved Son, Christ, "is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent." The beginning of what? The firstborn among how many others? Paul is using terms here that are similar to what he wrote earlier to the Corinthians. Listen to how he says it there (1 Cor. 15:20-23):
Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Here's how he says it to the Romans (6:4-5, 8-10):
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of the capital-R Resurrection from the dead. He is like the first apple that appears on the tree, a sign of the harvest that will soon come. Or he is like the older brother, who plunges into the pool first and surfaces, laughing, telling you the water's great; you then follow him in diving in. As with the first, so it is with the second.
At the San Marco Cloister in Florence, the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico has a fresco that illustrates what Paul is talking about in each of these contexts. In one of the monk's cells, covering the better portion of one wall is an image of Christ trampling down the gates of Hell. Demonic figures huddle in fear against the wall, shirking from the radiance of Christ's appearance. He is robed in white and bears a victory flag. His arm is extended, beckoning a line of dead men to come with him and leave behind their chains. Whatever we may believe about the underlying theology of the "harrowing of Hell," Fra Angelico has given us a powerful picture of how Christ's resurrection is only the beginning: He is preeminent, but that means he is first, following by a long line of the faithful departed.
Notice how Paul celebrates this glorious status of Christ by zooming out and focusing on Christ's role before his resurrection and after. Look at verses 15-17:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The cosmic hope of Christ's resurrection
Here Paul is directing our attention to how the resurrection publicly confirms and seals the preeminence that Christ already enjoyed with God the Father before the world began. From all eternity and not just in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Christ has been the perfect image of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word spoken by the Father and bonded to the Father through the Third Person of the Trinity, the Spirit. In creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit act together, bringing the world into being out of the fullness of divine life and love. Christ is at the center of this picture, the preeminent one—that's what Paul means when he calls him "the firstborn of all creation." He doesn't mean that the eternal Son of God was a creature himself; because he participated with the Father in the creation of all things, he cannot be one of the created things himself. Rather, he is the "firstborn" of creation in the sense of being the supreme ruler of creation, the one who, in love, initiated and guided and shaped the world, along with the Father who spoke light out of darkness and the Spirit who hovered over the face of the primordial waters.
Next Paul fast-forwards to the very end of history. He has given us a glimpse of the beginning, he has shown us history's climax in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and now he zooms past that to the final consummation. Look at verses 19-20:
For in [Christ] all the fullness 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.
This is not just portraying a private spirituality in which my little life is rearranged. This is not talking about "your best life now." This is talking instead about something cosmic—Christ's work reaches out to "all things," even in the inanimate creation itself. Again, listen to how Paul says it elsewhere (Romans 8:18-20):
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Paul's teaching is that Christ wasn't simply involved in creation in the past and now removes himself from it. Nor does Paul present Easter as a kind of isolated icon of new life, disconnected from what came before or afterwards. Rather, Easter has dramatic consequences for the entire cosmos. "All things," including deforested mountain ranges, toxic seas, and stripped caverns and fields, will be remade and healed by the resurrected Christ.
Living in Christ's resurrection
But do we see this? As we look around at our world, do we see reconciliation and healing? Or what about the Colossian believers themselves? Can you imagine them looking around their world and believing what Paul says about Christ? Colossae's glory had long ago diminished. When Xerxes stopped there on his way to Greece in 481 BC, the city was a bustling, attractive place. But by the time of the first century AD, that reputation had declined. According to one commentator, "without doubt Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul was addressed."
What's more, in the face of this economic slump, the new Christians in Colossae were facing judgment and rejection from some of their fellow believers. We know that because Paul exhorts the Colossians in chapter 2 (verses 16 and 18) not to let anyone pass judgment on them or try to disqualify them. The details are sketchy, but we also know that this dispute among the Colossians had something to do with the Law of Moses, the great barrier that separated Jews and Gentiles at the time of Paul. As Paul says, "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."
So here is Paul proclaiming that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ and through Christ to reconcile to himself all things, and yet the world and the church don't look very reconciled. What should we say about that? What is Paul up to?
Notice what Paul says immediately after he announces the cosmic reconciliation achieved by Christ's cross. He says, "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled bin his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him" (1:21-22). In other words, he announces the fact of reconciliation to the Colossians. "You Colossians are Exhibit A of the cosmic reconciliation I'm talking about!" he says. "If you want to see the world reconciled, look at yourselves and what has happened to you."
"But," the Colossians reply, "we are divided among ourselves. We are judging and being judged. We are finding fault with one another and disqualifying one another. So how can you say we are already reconciled?"
Paul answers, "I am talking about Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim …" (1:27-28). Christ is your reconciliation, Paul says. It has happened. It has been accomplished. It is finished.
But then Paul does something very interesting. After describing to the Colossians what has happened to them in Christ, Paul launches into a discussion of his sufferings as an apostle on behalf of the Colossians. And he finishes by saying that he "warn[s] everyone and teach[es] everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (1:28-29). In other words, Paul says, he works so that what is already true can be seen to be true. It is a done deal that Christ has reconciled all things to God, but now that truth needs to be embodied in the concrete, day-to-day life of the Colossian church. Those who are laboring under the lie that they are condemned and disqualified need to wake up to the reality of what God has done in Christ. There is no enmity anymore because of Christ's cross. The old dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, between the religious in-crowd and the second-tier citizens has been abolished. Here's how Paul says it later in the letter: "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all" (3:11). That is what is truly true about the world, Paul says. Now live into it! Live it out. Live the freedom of it.
What might that look like?
A couple of months ago one of the greatest storytellers of the Civil Rights movement, Will D. Campbell, passed away. "Brother Will," as he was called, was a controversial figure. Originally from Mississippi, he returned to live there after graduating from Yale Divinity School, and he founded an organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization published a journal called Katallagete, which means, in Greek, "be reconciled." Brother Will was one of the very few white people who escorted the "Little Rock Nine" into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was also there when Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Brother Will believed with all his heart in the cause of Civil Rights. But he also believed, equally firmly, that Christ died for the racists as much as he died for the victims of racism. The great preacher Fleming Rutledge tells this story about Brother Will:
Will attend[ed] the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home. At the Mississippi trial held almost forty years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time. A baffled reporter asked him why he did that. Will growled, "Because I'm a [damn] Christian."
When his fellow activists got angry with Will for spending time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said,
I'd identified with liberal sophistication, and had lost something of the meaning of grace that does include us all. I would continue to be a social activist, but came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.
God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ—all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Like my friend's garden in Minnesota, the first flowers are already blooming; the transformation of the front lawn has begun.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. You are reconciled. Christ is Lord of the cosmos. He is Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all. Now, let us go and live like his reconciled people, not condemning or passing judgment on one another, but spreading the beauty of the front lawn around to the other lawns as well. Spring has arrived; the buds are turning into blossoms. There's an old saying about perennials: "The first year they sleep. The second year they creep. The third year they leap." The aroma and color and lush growth continues to grow, more and more, until, one day, we believe, it will cover all things.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Dr. Wesley Hill is the Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania and the author of Washed and Waiting (Zondervan 2010).