This week’s sermon is on Colossians 1:15-28. The story I told in our Children’s message can be found here: Communion in Space. May God shine in and through your messy, beautiful lives this week.
The Cosmic in the Everyday
With Bob and Joe I talked about how yesterday was is the 44th anniversary of the moon landing, and how Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, had communion on the moon. It’s an incredible story. And it makes me wonder, who it was who had the idea, first, to go to the moon. What was it like when Kennedy proposed it to the nation in ’61, that by the end of the decade, they would put a person up on the moon. Just think of that idea for a minute. We are going to go out and land on one of the lights in the night sky. One that we only recently discovered was not made out of green cheese. We are going to cross the vast space between it and us, and touch something we have been looking at for milllenia. We’ll put our fingers in its scarred surface, and scrape our feet across its bare landscape. To send people to the moon is to reach out into the cosmos/heavens and make a connection between it and us, to put our bodies onto one of the heavenly bodies we’ve seen up in the sky for all these years.
This is kind of the reason for the writing of the book of Colossians. Not that a moon landing was about to happen, but that people were trying to make a connection with the heavens. Only they thought that in order to cross that vast expanse between the human and the heavenly, they thought they had to leave their bodies behind.
The book of Colossians was probably written around year 80 in the Common Era. It was probably not written to the Colossians. While the letter says it comes from Paul, most scholars think that Paul himself did not write the letter, but someone who came later, perhaps a disciple from one of the churches Paul founded. There are several reasons they think this. The first is that the writing style is very different. In general, Paul reads like Hemingway: short, direct sentences, the kind of sentences that someone trained as a newspaper reporter would write. The book of Colossians, reads more like Dickens, who was paid by the word, and therefore famous for long, winding sentences.
The other reasons are theological and historical. The author of Colossians assumes a level of church hierarchy that wasn’t present before Paul’s death as far as we know, and the book of Colossians disagrees with several theological points that Paul made in his undisputed works. These disagreements seem to fit with later developments in Christian theology. And finally, the author of Colossians seems to put Paul on a pedestal that seems a lot more fitting for someone writing after Paul’s death.
There are some scholars who disagree, who point out that the vocabulary is not all that different between this and the undisputed letters, and that it is not all that impossible for a writers’ style to change over the years, and if Paul was writing against a different heresy/problem, he might make arguments that don’t line up perfectly with his arguments against the previous heresy. People aren’t always perfectly consistent in their arguments. To make a long story short, everyone agrees that we don’t know much about the book of Colossians, and most scholars would argue that we know even less than that.
What we do know is that the author of Colossians wrote to a group of people who had gone overboard searching for the spiritual. The people of that time were dealing with a problem that every single one of us has dealt with at some point, which is that most of the time down here on earth, things don’t seem all that holy. Going to the bank does not feel like a spiritual experience. More often than not we feel betrayed by our bodies rather than conveyed by them into a deeper. Feeding someone soup doesn’t seem like it will get you any closer to God, just messy and covered in soup.
In fact messy seems like the word that just about sums up our existence. Things never turn out like they are supposed to. Right and wrong are never clear and easy choices, and when it comes to the major moral issues of our day, chances are we didn’t realize we made a choice at all. Bodies don’t work the way they are supposed to. In the words of a famous children’s book, “Everybody poops.” Have you ever changed a dirty diaper and thought to yourself, “Man, is God working through me today.”
And when we compare our reality to the words that we read in Scripture about God, we can’t help but see that there is a huge difference between the language that is used to describe God and our own reality. We hear: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” And we can’t see how that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering us for two months could ever really have anything to do with that.
The people of the Book of Colossians had run into this same problem, and they tried to solve it by denying their bodies to give themselves “spiritual experiences” They knew that God was pure and good, and so they tried to purify themselves with strict restrictions about what they ate and touched. And they knew that God was so great and so perfect and so far from them that they could never hope to know God’s presence, so they looked for intermediaries and worshipped angels to approach God through the proper channels.
And the author of Colossians writes to set the record straight. Christ, he says, “is the image of the invisible God.” Though God may be difficult for us to see, beyond our understanding, we have an image through which God can be seen. And that image is Jesus Christ. And Jesus is not set apart from Creation, but the firstborn of all creation, wholly and fundamentally earthly. He had a body like ours and ingrown toenails like us and that children’s book was also about him. He even made poop jokes. And the fullness of God dwelled within him.
The Colossians were right that the distance between perfect God and imperfect Creation is too big for us to cross. But the solution is not for us to disengage from the world, and separate ourselves from creation. The solution is that God has engaged himself in the world, in the person of Jesus Christ. We don’t have to deny our messy, vulnerable bodies to get to God, God has taken on a body to come to us.
When Buzz Aldrin was planning for the moon landing, he and his pastor, Dean Woodruff, talked about what would be the right way to communicate the significance of that moment. Buzz remembered how Dean used to talk about the many ways we understand communion. “One of the principal symbols,” he said, “is that God reveals himself in the common elements of everyday life.”
In the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of communion, we partake in something we call a holy mystery, which is God made flesh. The author of the book of Colossians speaks of another mystery that has been revealed to us, which is Christ in us. Just as God reveals Godself in the everyday items of water and bread and wine, God reveals Godself in every day people like you and me, who lead messy lives and make bad decisions and have ingrown toenails.
The people of Colossians saw how different their world was from the kingdom of God, and they tried to bridge the gap by avoiding the world, purifying themselves and building an imagined order to climb up to the heavens and get out of their messy, broken world. But I say to you don’t be ashamed of life’s messiness, for the cosmic is present in the everyday. And not just present in the everyday, it is redeeming and reconciling it to God. It is making the everyday holy. The way to spiritual growth and deep connection to God isn’t to run away from it but to dive right in.
For truly I tell you, the kingdom of God will be built by people with scarred hands and ingrown toenails, and it will be built out of casseroles and sponge baths and hand shakes and bread broken and wine poured. And whenever we do this in remembrance of him, through us and through Christ who dwells in us, the invisible God is made visible.
 Aldrin, Buzz. “Communion in Space; An Astronaut Tells of a Little-Known but Significant Event on the Moon” Guideposts, October 1970