Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Colossians 1: 11-20)
Stanford University is home to what is known in the scientific world as the Large Hadron Collider. Which, if you don’t know what that is, is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Which, if you still don’t know what that is, is an underground two-mile long atom smasher. It is a tool scientists use to try and pry the lid off the secrets of matter and discover what exactly is in the miniature world of the atom, the neutron, and the proton. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC as it is more commonly (and easily) referred to, initially opened back in 2008, but was closed ten years later for major upgrades. It reopened this past summer.
Now, with the assistance of the LHC, particle accelerator scientists have discovered complexities in the universe that they never dreamed of and particles they cannot even invent enough names for. And in the midst of so much they don’t understand, the one thing they’re certain about is the existence of some strange force that literally holds everything together. They do not know what to call it, they do not know how to identify it. The best they can come up with is “cosmic glue” – and even that seems to fall short.
Something holding everything together. In some ways it sounds a lot like what the apostle Paul has in mind in our passage today; albeit in a different context and without the assistance of a multi-million dollar atom smasher. No, for Paul it is matters of faith and the faithful at the forefront of his mind, writing to the church in the city of Colossae. Colossae, which was located in what is now modern-day Turkey, was a city at the intersection of many different peoples and cultures and perspectives; all of which played out in the life of the congregation there. And so in that sense, the Colossian church was constantly searching for what it was that held them together – what was, spiritually speaking, their cosmic glue.
Paul knows the answer, of course. He always knows the answer, and he is more than happy to tell you (whether you want to hear it or not!) And so at the very beginning of his letter to the Colossian church, after the standard introductory pleasantries, Paul dives into the heart of the matter. And we get what amounts to a hymn, an affirmation of faith, a statement of belief, lifting up Jesus Christ above all others. For Paul, it is as plain as day: it is Jesus who is that “something holding everything together;” it is Jesus who is that “cosmic glue,” For Paul, Jesus is and should always be the center of life in the church and life for the faithful. It is beautiful verbiage Paul has created here, dynamic and eloquent; it is obvious the message he wants to leave with the good people of Colossae – that Jesus, and Jesus alone, should be at the center of who they are.
Or, as Paul puts it, Jesus should be, for them, “first place in everything.”
First place in everything. It’s an odd phrase when compared to all the others: image of the invisible God, head of the body, firstborn of all creation. Those kind of soar rhetorically. But “first place in everything?” Kind of underwhelming, if you ask me.
And yet, perhaps for that very reason, I rather like it. It’s worth diving into a bit, especially on this Christ the King Sunday, which falls every year in mid-to-late November, the Sunday right before Advent. Christ the King Sunday might seem a strange sort of day – not a bad day, just strange. Strange to come at this time of the year, when technically Jesus hasn’t even been born yet.
But see, when we look at this day through the lens of our liturgical church calendar, as opposed to the January through December calendar, things start to make a little more sense. That’s because Christ the King Sunday marks the end of our liturgical year – a year that begins with Advent and the birth of Jesus, then moves into the life of Jesus and his death and resurrection, which we of course celebrate with Easter. Following Easter, we recount the post-resurrection followers of Jesus and ultimately the birth of the church at Pentecost. From there, the liturgical year takes us on a journey of what it means to be a follower of Jesus ourselves – all of which brings us to this Christ the King Sunday. Think of Christ the King Sunday as New Years Eve for the church – looking back on the journey we’ve taken with Jesus over the past liturgical year as we also anticipate the new journey with Jesus that begins again next week with Advent.
In other words, Jesus at the beginning, Jesus at the end, and Jesus everywhere in between. Like Paul said, first place in everything.
Of course, he’s talking about something more than simply observing Jesus in a liturgical year. And he’s also talking about more than simply shouting Jesus’ name, flying his banners, forcing Jesus, or rather an idea of Jesus, onto any and all aspects of our wider culture. Now we’ve been watching Christian nationalism play out in real time in our country right now, but the truth is that it is nothing new – it’s been around as long as Jesus has; and many have tried, and some have succeeded, in creating a sort of overarching cultural Christian identity that permeates large swaths of society and has little to do with Jesus and everything to do with power and control.
So, just to be clear, that is not what it means to make Jesus first place in everything. That is not what it means to celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Which begs the question: what does it mean?
Listen to this: a woman is busy one spring afternoon cleaning out the attic in her house. As she opens one box she happens upon a forgotten artifact – a dark brown wooden cross with an image of Jesus on the front. She can almost remember how she came upon it so many years ago and is not entirely sure how it wound up in this box in her attic. Probably during a previous move when a handful of boxes never got opened….
Anyway, she’s reminded how much she enjoyed the cross, so she takes it down from her attic and places it on the desk in her home office. It stays there for several days. Until one day when the woman sits down at her desk to do a little work and has to use the desk space, so she lays the cross off to the side on top of her checkbook and her bills. She doesn’t think anything about it at first, but eventually she looks down at that cross on top of her checkbook and bills and wonders: how should my faith in Jesus impact my finances? If Jesus really is first place in my money, what should I buy? What should I not buy? How much should I give away, and how much should I keep?
Some days later, more papers accumulate on her desk – they are essays from the high school English classes that she teachers. She places the cross on top of them, mostly to keep the wind from the cracked window next to the desk from blowing them away. But again it makes her think: how should my faith impact my job?” If Jesus really is first place in my work, how should I treat her students? How should I treat her colleagues? How should I prepare for my classes?
A few weeks pass by and the cross now winds up on top of some recent photographs of her family and friends. And so now she wonders: if Jesus really is first place in my relationships, what kind of wife should I be? What kind of mother, grandmother? What kind of neighbor, friend?
That, I think, is getting at what it means to make Jesus first place in everything. It’s not about banners or slogans, it’s not about winning and aligning with the powers that be, it’s not about forcing our faith on anyone. It is about pondering and praying about the ways in which we live our lives differently because we choose to call Jesus king. Because we make him first place in everything.
Beloved, do you think we get that? Do you think we really understand what we mean to call Jesus our king? Do we really know what it is we are proclaiming when we celebrate “Christ The King Sunday?” Do we have an inkling of how powerful and provocative and dangerous that really is?
Because, see, to proclaim Christ as “king” is to consequently proclaim that no one else is. Right? You cannot have two kings. You can only have one. To proclaim Christ as King is to proclaim that no one else is deserving of that allegiance and devotion. No government, no spiritual or political leader. But also – no ideology, no power, no wealth or privilege or influence. All of that is second at best to Jesus.
To proclaim Christ as “king” is to have faith that the brokenness of our world can and is being healed – even a world where hate seems to reign, even a world that is increasingly polarized and divided, even a world where shootings on college campuses and in houses of worship and, just last night, an LGBT club in Colorado Springs have become numbingly frequent – even that world is capable of being healed.
To proclaim Christ as “king” is to refuse to succumb to fear – fear of the future or fear of “the other” or fear of any kind – because we dare to hold fast to something more powerful, and that is hope. To proclaim Christ as king is to defy those who seek to undermine that hope – and defy them not with brute force, but with compassion and love. To proclaim Christ as “king” is to look straight into the eyes of the world and say, “I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, but the one thing I know is that fear and hate will never win, because the love of Jesus is stronger than all of that.”
That is what it means to make Jesus first place in everything. And it may be, perhaps, that the reason Christ the King Sunday falls on the last day of our liturgical year is because it takes us all that year to comprehend what making Jesus first place in everything truly means. Advent and arrival, Christmas and Epiphany and the life of Jesus. Lent and reflection, Holy Week; the horror of Good Friday followed by an empty Saturday and then glorious Resurrection morning. The Easter season and Pentecost and the Spirit, and the chunk of time we call “Ordinary Time” even though there’s very little that’s ordinary about it. All of that leads to this day, Christ the King Sunday, our liturgical New Year’s Eve…
We need all that time to begin to understand what it means to make Jesus first place in everything. Because you and I live in a world that has a nasty habit of fashioning Jesus to our own liking, to our own purposes and end. We have used and are using Jesus’ very words to support discrimination and segregation, to wage violence and war, to sow bigotry and fear and hate. We use Jesus to justify things that run absolutely counter to the very gospel Jesus came to proclaim in the first place.
So may we be reminded once again, beloved, of this Jesus we call king:
Jesus is exactly like God, who cannot be seen.
He is the first-born Son, superior to all creation.
Everything was created by him –
everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers,
and all rulers and authorities.
All were created by Jesus.
Jesus was before all else, and by him everything is held together.
He is the head of his body, which is the church.
He is the very beginning, the first to be raised from death.
God was pleased to live fully in Jesus.
so that all beings in heaven and on earth
would be brought back to God.
Let’s make that Jesus first place in everything, shall we?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Vol. 1, pg. 252.
 Colossians 1: 15-20, adapted from the CEV version.