Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fractals of God

Last week I asked the question, “What is the church supposed to look like?” Using Ephesians 4, I noted the importance of community, a place where we can find safety and work out who we are, centred on the presence and work of God in Christ. The church then is centred on God in Christ—we are the temple in which God dwells, as well as being the body of Christ. This truth raises a further question: What does God look like? What are the characteristics or qualities of God, who is the centre of the church?

We could examine this question through a survey of systematic theology and the attributes of God. Although such a survey has real benefit and power, I prefer to approach the question through Colossians 1. (This sermon series should really have three parts—the church, which we looked at last week; Jesus in Colossians 1, which we look at today; and Jesus in the Gospels as part three.) Jesus is, Paul writes, the image of the invisible God. That is, if we wish to see God, we look at Jesus. Jesus shows us God. With this in mind, we begin by reading from Colossians 1.


The Supremacy of the Son of God

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Paul’s Labor for the Church

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Some Thoughts from the Text
Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written precisely to lift up the person of Jesus. The church in Colossae was probably about six years old when Paul wrote this letter. The Colossian church was an outgrowth of Paul’s ministry in the sense that his co-workers probably went there from Ephesus (about 100 miles west of Colossae) and started the church. Commentators suggest that Paul wrote from prison in Rome about 60 ad, to this church which had been established about six years before, and which disappeared a year later following an earthquake that destroyed Colossae.

The churches of that region faced a challenge that was common throughout the valley in which they lay. The basic challenge was this. The rise of mystical ideas, growing out of a form of Jewish mysticism, was enticing people in the region to leave Christian faith and start emphasizing a form of religion in which angels and powers and various other spiritual entities played a big part. Paul wrote this letter to the churches of the region as a whole, not just to the Colossians, to make the point that all they needed was Jesus. Jesus was all they needed to know God and receive God’s salvation.

1. This is the reason that the passage begins with these words: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Paul’s point is simple. If you want to know God, you look at Jesus. You don’t need thrones or dominions or angels or powers; all you need is Jesus.

Here is an image from mathematics to express what Paul is saying. (I tread lightly here, given my lack of mathematical understanding, and ask the real mathematicians out there to treat me kindly!) I learned the term that I am using from my son, who is a real mathematician: That is, “fractal.” Here is the Wikipedia definition of fractal: “A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger Sponge.” The definitionfrom the Fractal Foundation web page says, “A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” (I encourage the reader to look up the MengerSponge and see how this process works.)

Using this image, then, I suggest that we think of Jesus as a fractal of God. God is the source of all natural phenomena, and the “self-similar pattern” captures what I am saying. On a micro-scale we have Jesus, accessible to our limited minds. On a macro-scale (beyond all other scales), we have God, so far beyond the finitude of our minds for us to comprehend anything. But when we look at Jesus, we see the pattern of God.

What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see what God looks like. Jesus expresses this same idea in words like, “I and my Father are one”, and “Those who have seen me have seen the Father.” Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.

2. Verses 16 and 17 tell us that Christ permeates every area of life.For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

To pursue the fractal image, the repeating pattern of God’s nature appears not only preeminently in Jesus, but also prospectively in all of creation. A hymn in the Mennonite hymnal puts it this way:
O love of God, how strong and true! Eternal, and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought, Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O wide-embracing, wondrous love! We read thee in the sky above,
We read thee in the earth below, In seas that swell, and streams that flow.

We read thee best in Him who came To bear for us the cross of shame;
Sent by the Father from on high, Our life to live, our death to die.

We see God all around us, in the beauty of creation, in the way that people relate to each other (at our best), and above all else in the person of Jesus. This aspect of God’s self-revelation comes to us as judgment and hope. So much of human life is clearly in rebellion against God—which assures its destruction. Thus during the apartheid era, Black South African theologians told us that apartheid is against the nature of God, therefore they could be sure it would die.

This judgment also contains great hope—God is creating and re-creating in God’s image all the time, so that we can act in the ways that God calls us to. We may have failed often, but God is at work in us and in all of creation to repeat the divine pattern.

3. Verses 17 to 20 add that this re-creative process integrates life, helping to make sense of life. God does not answer all our questions about life. How often have we asked, “Why did so-and-so have to go through this experience?” Answering such questions could require understanding the mystery of evil. Why did Lucifer first rebel against God? Such questions are beyond human comprehension.

Although God does not answer all of our questions, God does help us to integrate all of our experiences into a coherent whole. Jesus did this by healing people in his earthly ministry and by identifying with “publicans and sinners”. We do not make life whole by avoiding trouble—against the contrast the modern notion: “We must change the system so that this event never happens to anyone again.” Certainly we try to make things better.  Prudence tells us that we should live wisely, not making problems by acting foolishly, but bad things will happen. It is in the nature of God to help us integrate such things into a coherent healthy whole. God is a healing integrating God.

4. Verses 20 to 23 give the reason that Jesus represents God to us: God’s purpose is to reconcile all of creation with himself. God is a reconciling God. God brings reconciliation through the cross of Jesus. Jesus died to bring peace—between God and human beings, and between people, so that we live at peace with those around us and with the whole of creation. What does God look like? God looks like peace and wholeness, brought to us in the person of Jesus.

5. The final verses (24-27) tell us that we join in the sufferings of Christ so as to experience the life of Christ. I think that Paul’s comment here (“I make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”) is a way of echoing Jesus’ words in Mark 8: “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me”, and his own words in Galatians 2: “I am crucified with Christ … so that Christ lives within me.”

This idea reaffirms the comment above about fractals. Not only does Jesus show us the shape of God in his own life, but Jesus lives in us so that we can reproduce that shape in our lives as well.

But What Does Jesus Look Like?
If we want to replicate the shape of Jesus’ life in our own lives, we still may wonder what that looks like. Jesus is “the firstborn from among the dead” (v.18), so that we know we can follow his path. Jesus lives in us, he becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v.27). But what does he look like?

As I said, this should be another sermon to conclude this series, but here are a few comments briefly for the moment.

·         Jesus looks like God. This is what we have said above. In Jesus we see the very shape and structure of God.
·         Jesus looks like us. The Bible normally tells us when someone looked quite distinctive. So King Saul (for example) was a head taller than anyone else in his kingdom (1 Samuel 9). We read nothing of this sort about Jesus. Evidently he looked like an ordinary first century Palestinian Jewish peasant. This ordinariness is part of the promise that Jesus can live in us, giving us his life.
·         Jesus accepted people that no one else accepts. He accepted marginalized and rejected people—sometimes call “am ha’aretz”, the people of the land.
·         Jesus required repentance and a re-orientation of life to God. Jesus accepted the marginalized, but he also called them to follow him. Sometimes we think of Jesus as loving and gentle. Indeed he was, but he also had little time for those who wanted to hold on to their own way of life. Think of the way he called the Pharisees blind guides, leading the blind into a pit (Matthew 15).
·         Jesus created community. Reading the book of Acts again, one sees how remarkable the first church was. They took care of each other to a degree greater than any similar movement in history, and they provided care for people around them. Stephen Neill wrote a history of the missionary nature of the church in which he observes that the church in the first three centuries church grew faster than at any other time in history. One primary reason was the quality of their lives. Here is how he describes them:
In those days to be a Christian meant something. Doubtless among the pagans there were many who lived upright and even noble lives. Yet all our evidence goes to show that in that decaying world sexual laxity had gone almost to the limits of the possible, and that slavery had brought with it the inevitable accompaniments of cruelty and the cheapening of the value of human life. Christians were taught to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The Church did not attempt to forbid or abolish slavery; it drew the sting of it by reminding masters and slaves alike that they had a common Master...and that they were brothers in the faith.

We could have surveyed the attributes of God far more comprehensively than this brief account this morning, but this is what we have Colossians 1:
·         God looks like Jesus.
·         Jesus looks like us. (This is a frightening and humbling reality!)
·         In Christ God is restoring all of creation—including you and me to its original goodness.
·         This recreation takes shape first of all in community and embraces everyone around us—not just people we think are good, but everyone who turns to Christ and receives his inner life.

To put it again in the image of fractals: Jesus is the fractal of God. Remember the definition? “Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” God shows us the very nature of God in Jesus, and then seeks to repeat the process in each one of us. What does God look like? I know we fall short, desperately short of this ideal; but God looks like you and me. Or more precisely, God is reshaping us to show God’s self to the world.

5 June 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship
Text: Colossians 1: 15-27

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