Sunday, July 22, 2007

Maps Don’t Lie, . . . But You Have to Know How to Read Them

Colossians 1: 15-28

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's.

. . . provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised the gospel that you heard. . . (v. 22-23, NRSV)

So, I am driving around on Friday, taking Joe to camp. After I drop him off at Harvey’s Lake, I look on the map and decide to take a back road to 8th Ave to get to the District office in Pittston; I need to get the projector screen for this week’s Vacation Bible School. I’m right there on 309, but of course I want to see if it is shorter taking the back way.

I still don’t know.

Maps are great, but not so easy to read when you are trying to drive, too. And what makes it worse is that the scales of these maps are different. In Texas, I was used to having a few miles between turns, but here, things are just closer together. I have yet to find Wyoming St. off of Hildebrandt Road. I eventually found my way by going around Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Maps can be like that. They are handy, but they are also limited in their information. They don’t tell you where the hills are. A line on a piece of paper doesn’t tell you that the road you are looking for is the one surrounded by brush. Topographical maps tell you what the land looks like, but they are REALLY hard to read while driving windy roads.

So, as often happens, sometimes maps are better used at helping you find your way once you have gotten lost, rather than preventing you from being lost. I probably pulled over three times just to look at the map without trying to drive, too. It would have been a lot faster to just go down through Dallas to the Cross Valley, get off at Plains, and drive north.

But I wouldn’t have learned anything.

I think our lives in Christ are like that. We can hold to the roads we’ve been told are the best, and never explore other roads. We’re safe, but bored. Or we can deviate from the path, learn about ourselves and God, and develop. We can learn to love God more deeply because we have experienced his love and his guidance in real, tangible ways. We hear that God is “the head of the body, the church”, but until we have absorbed that into our own lives, we are thinking in theoretical terms. We are operating under assumptions, not under proven essentials.

When we read this part of Colossians, we have this understanding that Paul is describing something that is a proven essential—Christ is many things, but in this case, Christ is seen cosmically. Perhaps this is because he is responding to a certain sense of star worshipping in the Colossian church.
As is so often the case, we don’t have the letters from the churches to Paul, we only have the letters back to the churches from Paul. But Paul is seeking here to project Christ as a cosmic Christ—not just among the stars, but the creator of them. It is that sense that we also got in the beginning of John, the sense that Jesus is more than am an on the earth, but he is also God, somehow—present and working with God in the creation of the universe. If he created the stars, Paul seems to say, then we can do a lot worse than to acknowledge his power and follow him.

Paul would perhaps be shocked that the Christian church took so many of his letters and made them Holy. He himself, it seems clear from all of the letters we have, considered Jesus to be his leader, and all he was doing was to point to what was God and what wasn’t. In a sense, he was pointing to, teaching his readers how to read the map. I am rather sure that he did not intend for his own writings to become part of the map we call the Bible. His writings, I expect, were not meant to be put onto the same pedestal as the Gospels.

When you look at a modern map, there are the lines on the map, there are the names on the roads, there are the features like forests and rivers and oceans. Then there are the pencil marks showing detours, the doodles in the large empty areas, and the drawings marked “Aunt Millie’s place”. If the words of Jesus and the Gospels are the map, the letters of Paul are the helpful, but personal, markings. The life and work of Jesus is the point of the map, the pencil marks are the markings that help us read the map.

If I had had the pencil mark “three arrow signs, turn right” or some such description written in, I think I would have been able to make that turn to get to Wyoming St.

Similarly, if we understood that Paul is trying to give good directions from one place to another within the understanding of Christ, his words would take the proper place in the Bible as important, but not definitive over and against the work of Matthew Mark, Luke and John. It’s almost as if we can hear Paul saying “let me try to describe how god can be Jesus and Jesus God”. and the result is verses 15-20 of Colossians.

I guess what I am trying to say is this—Christ is the primary reason why we read the Bible. Understanding his words, his life, his actions is why we read. Paul is there to help us understand Jesus, but his directions sometimes have ideas that don’t apply to us. If I need to get from Harvey’s Lake to Pittston, I don’t need directions that start in Tunkhannock. So if I have directions that do start in Tunkhannock, they aren’t useless, but they aren’t what I should follow, word for word.

A while back, you used to be able to buy Bibles that had Jesus’ words printed in red. They are less available now, but I think they are making a comeback. When you type in “red Letter Christians” into an internet search engine, you get a large amount of returns. This idea represents, I think, a return to prioritizing a Christian faith based on what Jesus taught, and a de-emphasis on what Jesus didn’t speak on. Jesus said, Love thy neighbor. Jesus said, when you fed the least of these, you fed me. Jesus said a lot of things, and just paying attention to those things is enough for a pretty strong lifetime of ministry for any Christian. Paul in his letters helps us pay attention properly.

So when Paul says that . . . provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised the gospel that you heard. . .

He isn’t saying that they follow the gospel that he wrote, but rather that they follow the gospel 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 to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul says at the end of the passage, And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

He himself is not the Gospel. He is a servant just like you, just like me. He is trying to read the road map just like us, and his markings are helpful to us.

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