Encountering the Image of God

Colossians 1:15-29


A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit with Henk and Hanna Dunnewold before Hanna went home to be with the Lord. During my visit, Hanna was very quiet and disconnected from reality, both in her mind and because of her difficulty hearing. In fact, the only time Hanna responded at all was when Henk leaned over her and sang in her ear a song from her childhood: “Gott is die Liebe” (God is Love). It was a beautiful moment of love between them.

Here in Colossians 1, Paul shares the words of a beloved hymn with the Christians in Colossae. Like Henk to his wife, so beautifully and lovingly, the apostle Paul wants to stir their hearts to respond. Of course, we don’t know the tune and our translations lose the rhythm and rhyme, but Paul quotes the words of a song to God’s people as our text begins today:

[READ Colossians 1:15-23]

Last week I shared with a gathered group that “Who we are dramatically influences how we see God, ourselves, and others.” Reformed Theology has led many of us in the major ethnic group to see ourselves first with guilt and to see others cynically. We have been shaped by the doctrine of “total depravity” (in the Canons of Dort, 1618-19 in the Netherlands). We think of people first as sinners. Our guilty feelings about ourselves are reinforced every time we see something good that we are too busy or too tired for. Our cynicism about others is reinforced every time we watch the news or see people do wrong to one another. If we’re honest, this happens a lot of the time! We are stuck in a cycle of guilt and cynicism. Other ethnic groups may not understand these feelings; but their theological approaches may hold the answer for all of us to be united—by beginning somewhere new! What if, instead of beginning by looking at other people; we began focused on Christ, the way that the apostle Paul does as he begins this letter. I would hazard a guess that all of you have spent minutes, maybe even hours this week reflecting on and obsessing about the rottenness of people. And not just the rottenness of people in general, but the very specific ways that specific people have been rotten to you—brought difficulty and shame to you—even when you didn’t deserve it!

Now pause for a moment. When is the last time you took that same amount of time—those minutes, those hours—and simple adored Christ the way that Paul does here? Imagine what would happen in your heart if you meditated on Christ and on his supremacy (1:15-17); if you rejoiced in wonder that this glorious Christ has made the church—the “called out ones” you and me—a part of his body (1:18); if you focused on his glory and mercy (1:19); if you praised him for his reconciling work (1:20-22)—and not just in general, but specifically to you and those you love—even when you didn’t deserve it!

Last week I said that it would be hard for the church to be divided (untied) if we busied ourselves with God’s mission. This week, I argue that it will be impossible for us to become untied if we are obsessed with Christ’s glory and if we are always looking to see and to celebrate the image of God in us and in one another.

Humanity Apart from Christ

When we think about our human view of people, it has not changed much over the years and even across cultures. White people, Asian people, African people, Hispanic people—every culture divides people into different groups and evaluates our relationships accordingly. Education. Performance or Ability. Appearance. Gender. Family Lineage (Ancestry). Financial Wealth. Metrics vary between cultures, but this human way of being is so ingrained in us that we often make these value judgements without even thinking about them! We may forget that even Christ was discriminated against by his own neighbours! In Luke 4, Jesus returns to his hometown and his neighbours won’t believe it. They ask, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?!?” And then they try to stone him—to kick him out of their community. They think Jesus’ new job has gone to his head. “He doesn’t know his place!” Not much has changed… such discrimination continues today in every land.

Christ in Us

But Christ designed the church is to be different from every land in our world. In his book Until Unity (p.60-61), Francis Chan reminds us,

“Being a Christian means that Christ has entered you, filled you with His love, and is pouring His life through you to the people around you. If you have experienced the life-changing love of Jesus, you will be overflowing with love for God and others. It’s that simple. If you are prone to division and disunity, if you’re having a hard time loving your brothers and sisters, then you have to ask the question: Has His Spirit really entered me?”

Simply put, God’s view of people is revolutionary! Did you know that when you walked into the Temple in the Old Testament you leaving earth and entering heaven? The temple was designed after the throne room of God. The Ark of the Covenant was God’s throne! Only Old Testament priests could enter the Temple because they were not just walking into another room; they were entering heaven itself! They had to be washed, cleansed, purified. They had to put on special clean clothes. Then they could enter the kingdom of heaven and the presence of God the King! Now that you know this, listen again to Paul’s words to the Galatians (Gal. 3:27-29):

for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

The church—God’s people “called out from the world”—has been washed. The special clothes we put on is Christ himself. When God looks at us, he does not see us the way that the world sees us, he sees that we are part of Christ’s body. We no longer bear the shame of our past. We are not the guilt we put on ourselves. We are washed, we are clean; we are brought new clothes and made to be a part of God’s family and to share with him in his glory! 

This is the new community that our vision reflects! When we reach out, draw in, and create mosaic community; we are operating from God’s view of people and God’s view of community. No longer do we evaluate or value people based on the metrics of our world. We are all one in Christ Jesus. We are united as equal partners in the inheritance of God’s kingdom and members of his family. As an aside, do you want to know why we have focused so much on the “Creating Mosaic Community” part of our vision? Because when we Reach Out and Draw In, the first question people will ask is, “What are you inviting me to?”

We are inviting people to a community where we do not lose our ethnicity, our socio-economic status, our gender, or our generation group. Instead, these things that used to divide us, now remind us of the many facets of the image of God. So we do not begin with guilt, but with Christ! We do not approach each other with cynicism or with suspicion. We see in one another the opportunity to meet the image of God in a beautiful and new way! This is why we give special attention to those with special needs—the body works to ensure that we can all share equally in the joy and love of the family of God on earth because we have been assured that we will all share equally in the joy and love of the family of God in heaven. In short, we have been transformed by the image of God.

Again in the book Until Unity (p.67), Francis Chan tells the story of Jesus meeting the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus, back to back in Luke’s gospel. The rich young ruler shows that he is lukewarm, that he is not interested in having his life changed. He doesn’t see the worth of Jesus. On the other hand, Zacchaeus receives Jesus with joy. He is so overcome by his encounter with Jesus that he spontaneously announces that he will give half of his wealth away to the poor and repaying back four times to everyone he cheated. Zacchaeus is welcomed into the family of God, while the rich young ruler goes away ashamed and disgraced because his self-righteousness was rejected.

Now, Francis Chan invites us to imagine that these two men join the same small group:

The rich young ruler explains his encounter with Jesus and his frustration that Jesus is not satisfied with the amount he has already sacrificed. Doesn’t Jesus appreciate the years he has spent faithfully adhering to the law? The other people begin to comfort him. “Of course Jesus appreciates those things. He didn’t literally mean all your possessions; that wouldn’t be good stewardship.” When Zacchaeus tries to interject, sharing some of his experience and why he believes Jesus is worth everything, he is labelled a radical and maybe even considered self-righteous. Eventually, Zacchaeus becomes discouraged and leaves. In his spirit, he desires oneness with the Body of believers. But there can be no fellowship while he is in the light and they are still stuck in darkness. If they are not following the same lord, they cannot walk together. (p.68-69)

There is nothing wrong with being rich or with being young; but here is the crux of the matter: The rich young ruler approached the community with the values and measures of our world. As long as some of us approach the Christian community this way, divisions are inevitable. If we attend Christian gatherings but are not transformed by the love of Christ—we will resist such unity because we will not give ourselves as members of the family of God. But when we become “servants of the gospel” and give up our worldly values and ways to Jesus, then we will have no problem finding unity with others who call Jesus Saviour and Lord.

Seeing and Celebrating the Image of God in Ourselves and Others

If we truly want to be a church united in our adoration of Christ, if we want to see and celebrate the image of God ourselves and others; then we must begin by carefully examine our own hearts and lives to see what areas in my mind, my attitude, my finances, my schedule, my priorities—what have I given to Christ? What have I kept back in control for myself? Paul’s joy, Zacchaeus’ joy, and your joy and mine consists in giving up all of ourselves in favour of Christ’s way. What does it mean to give up all of ourselves? 

In our human way, when a developer follows Jesus it looks like things being built. When a rich man follows Jesus it looks like big money flying around. When a sports fan follows Jesus it looks like a big events and crowds cheering, arms waving. When a politically-minded person follows Jesus it might even look like the platform of a political party! All of those actions can be corrosive because we seem busy for the kingdom: busy with the service we perform for him, the things we build for him, the good things we are seen to be doing and saying and giving away, the laws we are trying to change. All the above personalities connect with God in a way. Their way. 

But Paul shows us a better way. Unity comes when Christians fall in love with Christ. When that happens, we eagerly examine ourselves to see what we are holding back from God and then joyfully to submit it to him—like Zacchaeus. This obedience frees us from personal guilt! And Paul reminds us that this is especially important for the church’s leaders if we are to steward the church and its unity. So if you consider yourself a leader at River Park Church, listen to just a few more words from Paul; stick with me just a few more comments before we close. [READ Colossians 1:24-29]

The ESV translates Paul’s final words this way: 

“For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Col 1:29)

Leaders, will you join Paul in surrendering everything to the control of Jesus Christ? Will you toil alongside the apostle, long enough to be transformed? Our human natures are strong, they don’t normally burn out in a flash. We do not become gold overnight. But when we are captivated by Christ and when we are eager to see and to celebrate the image of God in us and in others, we find Christ’s energy powerfully at work within us! We are stronger than we ever knew because it his strength, not our own!

Leaders, will you look for Christ to meet you when you bow your heads in prayer (as we will in just a moment). Will you look for Christ to meet you when you serve the children in your home and in your neighbourhood? Will you look for Christ to meet you when you interact with your coworkers, when you build your budgets, when you face that part of you that no one else knows about? Is Jesus in charge of that part of your life too? Will you look up and see Christ in the face of the person you despise and the person you look down on? 

A New Community

Imagine for a moment if this was your approach to community: Imagine if you had woken up this morning and said, “I wonder in what new way I will see the image of God in my family today?” or, “I’m excited to explore the wonders of the image of God in my fellow Christians as I worship today!” Or, “I wonder how I can point out the image of God to my coworkers and classmates tomorrow, so that they can see Christ at work in themselves?” Yesterday was our Leadership Council Retreat, and before we began it I prayed that prayer: “Lord, help me to see your diverse image in the leaders of River Park Church!” And let me tell you what a beautiful and powerful experience it was! The Holy Spirit was at work in our midst like you wouldn’t believe! It would be impossible for us to consider division if we approached each and every situation as yet another opportunity to see and to celebrate a new aspect of the image of God in ourselves and in the diverse people in our church community, in our neighbourhoods, and in our city!

This is why we are creating a new community that lifts up the lowly, seeks justice for the oppressed, and makes space for all to celebrate the fullness of their humanity! Why? Because we see and celebrate the image of God in others and we want them to see and celebrate the image of God in themselves and in others too! We have to work harder to see the image of God in those who are different from us not because it’s harder to see, but because the values of our world work to obscure it. But we do not labour in our own strength. We toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within us! 

Leaders, when Christ takes charge of your whole life—especially that part you hold most dear—then you are free to see and celebrate his image everywhere: in yourself and in every person you meet. And a church that sees and celebrates God’s image in every person in our midst and in every person in our world—even our enemies—that is a united church! A community that weeps with those who weep and rejoices with those who rejoice; one that gives our tithes and offerings even when it doesn’t benefit us; one that works without personal reward for years on end; one that longs to see the name of Jesus lifted high—that is a united church! 

Let’s pray.

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