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Image of the Invisible

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on “Christ the King” [the Last Sunday of the Liturgical Year (C)]: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-4. IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE

He is the image 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. [Colossians 1:15-16]

Question: What is the first image of Jesus that comes to your mind? What does the Son of God look like for you?

When I was a boy, living with my parents and three younger brothers, my mother had a sizeable, framed portrait of Jesus hanging in the hallway that connected the three bedrooms of our house. It’s not that I paid a great deal of attention to the picture. Yet, I can still see it clearly. And chances are that this very same image is one you also have. I say this because Warner Sallman’s “The Head of Christ”, created in 1940, has sold over half a billion copies and is considered to be an extraordinary example of popular devotion in American Christianity. As such, it is the best-known image of Jesus from the twentieth century. My Mom being among those multitudes.

For those of you who don’t know the piece or can’t quite recall its details, the form of the work is that of a portrait, with the head of Jesus turned at about a 45-degree angle to the left. Jesus is pictured with a most serenely natural look on his face, with a high forehead, a manly straight nose, blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard surrounding a gentle and closed mouth. His hair is shoulder length, medium brown. His skin appears tanned and smooth. While the Lord’s hair is controversially too long for the 1950’s (when I knew the painting), in every other respect Jesus represents the All-American Young man, someone you’d love your daughter to marry and your sons to strive to be like.

Of course, with any sober reflection, we all know that Jesus was a Middle Eastern, Jewish man who in fact looked a lot more like Ringo Starr or Yasser Arafat than a young Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio. But still, the artistic renderings of our Lord seem to overlook accurate details. There is good news about this, and there is bad news about this. The good news is that as more and more people claim their unique heritage as people of God and celebrate with honor and pride what they look like, we also find that depictions of Jesus reflecting those same qualities. In terms of adopting Jesus as the Incarnate One, I think that this is a good thing. I view this adoption of “look-alike-Jesuses” as a coming to grips with our Lord’s humanity: that scripture’s tradition emphasizes that we are all made in God’s image and likeness; that in the wonder of created human diversity there is unavoidably present the image of God in us all.

Yet, the bad news of this adoption of “Jesus as us” is that we fall into the fundamental sin of making God in our own image. In this we not only lose the crucial, redeeming link the Son provides us with the Father; we also risk fatally distorting the image and likeness to which God calls all of us, ending up using God for our own purposes. Christian Nationalism (particularly in this country and in Europe) is the latest prostitution of the image of God, but it won’t be the last.

So, what do you think the writer to the church members in Colossae meant when he penned that stunning phrase: [that Jesus] is “the image of the invisible”?

To the quick and dismissive eye, the phrase seems to be another example of biblical “gobble-dee-gook”, -- or at best, a contradiction in terms. How can that which is essentially beyond all our seeing be seen? And even if this “the image of the invisible” phrase is recognized for what it truly is – namely, a paradox; (that is, a statement that seemingly is a contradiction but ultimately reveals a deep truth), the question remains: What does Jesus look like? What is “the image of the invisible”, the image that Jesus makes of the transcendent God?

The most poignant and revealing answer to these questions comes rather surprisingly from this, the Last Sunday of the worshipping year. What image of God does Jesus provide that speaks as deeply as humanity and history can see? The answer is the cross, the penultimate paradox of what life is like on God’s terms.

It always strikes many of us as strange to hear the account of Christ’s crucifixion at a time when commercial establishments have had their Christmas wears available for over a month. Yet, on this last Sunday in the church’s worshipping year, on this “Christ the King” Sunday, the gospel lesson rests of the crucifixion of Christ, saying in dramatic words that this is the true and eternal “image of the invisible “ because the cross of Jesus is thee sign of surprising and unexpected “good news”, of unextinguishable hope, and the enduring reality of God’s life-giving love.

In the dreadful crucifixion of Jesus, the invisibility of God’s love is made clear in the flesh. Eucharistic Prayer B (the Communion prayer you and I will use throughout Advent and Christmas) expresses the significance of Jesus’ images on the cross. Listen.

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, [and here is the entire point] out of death into life.[1]

St. Paul puts it more succinctly: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2] – not even death.

And this proclamation, always made on this last worshipping Sunday in the Christian community, is what God and God’s life look like in our human terms. The cross demonstrates for all time how far the Holy One goes to be with us, to honor us, to remind us, to love us – no matter what. Again, as the Apostle writes [and a contemporary interprets]:

If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?[3]

Consequently, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible…”

With rare exception, our lives are filled with fear of the reality of death. in reaction , the one we want to follow, the one we want to conjure up for ourselves as our “king” would (like some cosmic superhero) keep away from us all that we don’t like or want. But this is life lived in a bubble. What happens when the bubble pops?

He is “the image of the invisible…” And what Jesus makes plain with his own life, a life that reflects what life’s reality is like with God at the center – is that not only is there more to our God-life than fear and death; there is also life beyond what the grave can hold and what our eyes can readily see. The cross represents the worst we can do to one another. The resurrection reveals that with God there is always more to life than the worst we can do.

And for this, we say: “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

[1]Book of Common Prayer, page 368. [2] Romans 8:39b. [3]The Message. Romans 8:31-39 [section].

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