Jesus Is Lord; Caesar Is Not

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Colossians 1:15-28


saint pauls chains
The chains of Saint Paul, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn, through whom all things were made and by whom all things are renewed. Amen.

We’re reading the words of a man about to die.

The lectionary is taking us through Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians. This short series began last week and will continue through the next two Sundays, taking only a few verses out of this short book (it’s only four chapters) and scattering them over the course of (roughly) a month. Reading the letter this way, it’s difficultto pick up the flow of the argument.

So, let’s start with the context: it’s important to remember we are reading the words of an imprisoned saint facing death. Recalling the stories told in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own writings, we know that he was accustomed to hardship and repeated arrest, but after traveling the Roman world and proclaiming the Gospel, he was eventually arrested one final time in Jerusalem and shuffled between different Judaean cities as he was tried by various officials. As a Roman citizen, he exercised his right to appeal his arrest to the Emperor. The trip from Judaea to Rome was long and arduous, including shipwrecks, hunger, and months in detention between legs of the journey. He spent years imprisoned in Rome before ultimately being taken outside the city walls and beheaded by order of Emperor Nero. Today’s Epistle lection is among the final surviving words of someone on death row.

And what do we read? A glorious hymn of praise giving all honor to Christ.Saint Paul writes:

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.
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.

I can assure you that were I facing death row, my first thought would not be a poetic ode to Christ’s glory but rather a long lament. After a rather difficult past nine days, my thoughts has been closer to the Psalmist’sEloi, eloi, lema sebacthani” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – not Saint Paul’s poetic acclamation. We’ve all been through those days, weeks, and years that knock the wind out of you, and grief is a perfectly normal reaction. Often, in the midst of suffering, it seems as though nothing will ever be ok again.

But Paul is able to rejoice in his suffering, even in the most dire of circumstances. Imprisoned by the Emperor, Paul not only sings Christ’s praises but directly challenges his captors, proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. Caesar’s image may be stamped on coins and venerated among statues of the pagan gods, but Jesus the Christ is the image of the invisible God. The Emperor may claim to be the princeps, the first and foremost, but it is Christ who is truly the firstborn of all creation, and through him all things were made, who is before all things. The Empire may claim to bring the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome ensured through the brutality of the cross, but it is Christ who truly brings peace through his cross. The empire may have earthly authority to strike Paul’s head from his shoulders and take his life, but all authority on heaven and earth ultimately rests in Christ, the firstborn from among the dead, who can raise up those who Caesar has ordered killed. The emperors may claim to be “the unconquered god” and the imperial Senate may award the honor of a triumphus, a military victory parade, to Caesar, but as Paul write two chapters later, Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities … [and] triumphed over them….”

Why was Paul, on death row, so confident? How could he rejoice in his sufferings? What hope do we have in our own trials and tribulations? We can sing hymns of joy — not because suffering is inherently good but because Christ has conquered. And because Christ has risen from the grave victorious over sin, death, and all powers and principalities, we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, shall join in his victory. As we’ll read next week, Paul writes: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

We can rejoice in our sufferings, as Paul did, because we know that they endure only for a time. We know death is not the end, but rather our end is life with Christ. We know that Caesars and Presidents last but for a time, but Christ will reign forevermore. Sin and death may rule as tyrants for a time, but they have been defeated, and a time is coming when they will be no more. We can rejoice, even through our tears, because the tomb is empty, and this means the graves shall be empty when Christ returns in glory on the last day. We can boldly proclaim the Kingdom of God and let it pour into this world through us, knowing that it may cost us, because whatever we lose is nothing compared to the coming joy of Christ!

Let us stop living, then, as though Caesar is Lord! Let us live in such a way that the powers and principalities see that Christ is our King! Saint Paul asks, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” Instead, he urges, we should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” and to “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Dear ones, in these baptismal waters, we died the only death that truly matters and were promised the most precious prize we could ever be offered: life eternal with Christ. Therefore, we should “Put to death, therefore, whatever in [us] that is earthly” – our pursuit of power and wealth at the expense of others, our fear that turns us against our enemies, our ravenous appetite that devours our neighbor, our avarice and greed that destroy the very world God has made. Instead, we who have been raised with Christ and been clothed with him in these Baptismal waters, should put on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

Here, in these waters, we are joined with Christ and set free by him – free to serve our neighbors, to feed the hungry, to liberate the oppressed, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and the imprisoned. To do these things free from fear because our King is coming to topple the powers and the principalities that stand in our way. Here, we are clothed in the royal garb of a new Kingdom – not flashy robes or bespoke suits or couture dresses but rather the clothe of self-giving love and service to God and our fellow humans.

In Christ, all things are being made new. This glorious renewal is wiping away the former things, all other states and borders and identities. The powers and principalities will fall away, and “in this renewal there is no longer Greek and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” United into Christ’s resurrection, we are ushered into the Kingdom of God. We are no longer Romans or Greeks or Americans first but Christians – guided first and foremost by Christ’s commandment that we love God, love our neighbor, love one another, and love even our enemies.

Amen.

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