Continuing the lectio continua of Paul’s letter to Colossians (this is the second of four consecutive readings), we could roughly mark out two sections to this text: The “you” section (verses 21-23) and the “I” section (verses 24-29). For those who want to dig deeper, Pauline scholar Jeff Kloha provides an excellent exegetical study of this text in Concordia Seminary’s Lectionary at Lunch podcast.

To summarize, Paul articulates how Christ “has now reconciled [you] in His fleshly body through death” (verse 22) in the first section. The immediate “you” of this passage is, of course, the believers in Colossae. But the fact that they were “estranged and hostile” (verse 21) emphasizes how these were Gentile believers, which is what makes this a word addressed to us as well, two thousand some-odd-years later. But how Christ reconciles us echoes back to the omitted Christ hymn in Colossians 1:15-20. As I wrote last week, Colossians 1:15-20 is the bridge text between the two readings, and it may do well for this week’s preaching to at least hint back to it.

The second section (“I”) might seem to come off as just one more Pauline boast. Let us be honest, the man could trash-talk as well as any apostle, and he was not afraid to throw down when provoked. As to what Paul is “completing” in “what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” in verse 24 is a difficulty I would leave to the exegetes. But suffice it to say, Paul is emphatic that Christ’s work of reconciliation of “all things” (1:20) needs no completing from him or anyone else. Then, beginning in verse 26, the passage becomes much more than a boast. Here Paul introduces the “mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to the saints.” It is this mysterion which will become a pivotal theme in Paul’s letter and how it proclaims Christ. This is not a mystery meant to be solved, nor can it be. It is a secret that will always await its disclosure, time and again. It will revel in its own interpretations, in its own, to use Paul Ricoeur’s generative phrase “surplus of meaning.” It can never be exhausted. This mystery of something hidden now revealed is how we can preach on the same text every three years (or every year, it does not matter) and, somehow, each sermon finds something new.

Paul is emphatic that Christ’s work of reconciliation of “all things” needs no completing from him or anyone else.

But for Paul, this mystery is not simply in the words. The mystery “now” disclosed is to be found in the Gentiles themselves, in their own flesh and blood: “This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (verse 27, emphasis mine). There is so much to unearth in those eleven words. The secret hidden by God from the beginning of time but now revealed in the One in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19) is not just that God was fully present in this particular Palestinian Jewish peasant from Nazareth (incarnation), and is not just that God made “peace” with all things “through the blood of the cross” (1:20) (justification), but that all of it, and all of Him, is now present “in you” and in me and in all of us together. It is present in our flesh and blood, body and soul, in all which makes you you, and me me.

This makes the mystery a uniquely baptismal reality. But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves (next week’s text goes there). This mysterion is what makes the Christ hymn of 1:15-20 so powerful in its language. We do not explain it as much as we unfold it, or let it unfold itself.

Thus, what might be a unique challenge of this text is how our preaching of it might itself resonate with its mystery. It goes to a broader question: How can we retain a sense of the “mysterious” in our preaching of mysterious texts? This does not necessarily mean we make our language overly mystical or otherworldly. Rather, here is where I am drawn to some of my favorite quotations from Martin Luther himself, which, when he is at his best, often plays with paradoxes. To wit:

"Nothing is so small, but God is still smaller. Nothing so large but God is still larger. Nothing is so short, but God is still shorter. Nothing is so long but God is still longer. Nothing is so broad, but God is still broader. Nothing is so narrow, but God is still narrower, and so on. He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined." (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528)

Or:

"If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder."

This second commonplace of Luther echoes one of Jesus’ own great images of paradox, the grain of wheat in John 12:24. Today’s Gospel reading takes us to another: “There is only one thing needful...” (Luke 10:42). As it turns out, if we would but understand just one morsel of how Christ is at work within us, in the grain of our own bodies, we would rise to life forevermore.

To preach the paradox, which could be as simple as quoting Luther or another saint who knows how to turn a phrase, is often to let the paradoxical word sit in the hearts and minds of our hearers. It is to not say too much or over-explain it, until the Word begins to bear its fruit, of its own accord. At that point, the only word left to give in response is praise. This is the “energy that [Christ] powerfully inspires within” (verse 29), and this same energy powerfully inspires us too.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Colossians 1:21-29.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Colossians 1:21-29.