Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 18, 2018
Colossians 1: 9-20 (CEB)
Because of this, since the day we heard about you, we haven’t stopped praying for you and asking for you to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, with all wisdom and spiritual understanding. 10We’re praying this so that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God; 11by being strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; 12and by giving thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.
15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, 16Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. 17He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. 18He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. 19Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, 20and he reconciled all things to himself through him—whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.
You know, it’s really interesting to me. I think one of the most consistent messages of the New Testament is that we are to be like Christ. Yet, in all reality, we are pretty bad at it most, if not all, of the time. Jesus instructs us and teaches us over and over again and in all sorts of different ways—to heal as he heals, to give as he gives, to love as he loves, to serve as he serves, even to sacrifice as he sacrifices. He lived his whole life so as to be an example to us of how we should live ours. But we’re so bad at it. We give when it’s convenient. We love only the people we like. We sacrifice as long as we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. It’s pretty ironic, really. As Christians, we’ve come to spend an awful lot of time and energy thinking about heaven and the “life to come,” when really most of what Jesus taught us was how we are to live our lives now. So this gulf opens up, a chasm, between who God intends us to be, and who we actually are. The problem with that, though, is that each of us is made in the image of God, and when we fail to follow the example of Christ, to live the life God intends of us, then the image of God within us is distorted, or even hidden.
Listen again to the words of the proclamation we heard earlier in the service. From the account of creation, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them….” This is the beginning of the Bible, the story of creation. We are created in God’s own divine image. But that doesn’t mean we look like God in some physical way. Instead, the image of God within us has to do with the ways in which we were created to reflect the character of God. The problem, though, as I mentioned, is that divine image often gets hidden in our lives. Do you remember what happened right after the creation story? Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit and paradise was lost. Cain became jealous of his brother Abel and murdered him. Lamech wasn’t satisfied with one wife; he needed two, so he sought retribution and killed a man who had wounded him. And friends, that’s just the first five chapters of the Bible!
We continue this morning our series on forgiveness. As we have gone through this series, we’ve spent some time talking about sin, and anger, and brokenness; these are the sorts of things that require us to ask for and offer forgiveness. They are also the things that distort God’s image. So it is important to know and understand that when we are able to give and receive forgiveness, part of what we are doing is living into the image of God within us, and at the same time unveiling it for others to see. This is one of the things that makes forgiveness not only powerful, but beautiful. We’ve talked about how forgiveness is important because it frees us of burdens, and heals our relationships with God and with one another. But what I want us to understand today is that forgiveness is also important because it unveils the divine image within each of us and offers the world a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
Several years ago, New Yorker Victoria Ruvolo was selected by an online faith community called Beliefnet, as that year’s “Most Inspiring Person.” Back in 2004, a group of teenagers had used a stolen credit card to go shopping and had bought, among other things, a frozen turkey. As they were driving, one of the teenagers, a young man named Ryan, decided to throw the turkey out the car window into oncoming traffic. The turkey smashed through Vicky’s windshield and crushed her face. She survived the accident, but required ten hours of reconstructive surgery and a tracheotomy tube. That fall, Vicky attended Ryan’s sentencing. To everyone’s surprise, she asked the judge to be lenient toward the young man. She said, “Each day I thank God simply because I’m alive. I sincerely hope you have also learned from this awful experience, Ryan. There is no room in my life for vengeance.” Ryan wept and expressed remorse for his action. Though he could have been sentenced up to 25 years, Ryan received only a six month sentence. That day Vicky went on to tell Ryan, “I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life. If my generosity will help you mature into a responsible, honest man whose graciousness is a source of pride to your loved ones and your community, then I will be truly gratified, and my suffering will not have been in vain…Ryan, prove me right.”
Somehow, I would say because of the image of God within her, Victoria Ruvolo was able to demonstrate redemption, mercy, and grace. This resonates with us at a deep level because she does reflect through her life God’s own image and character. By her actions, by her willingness to follow Christ’s example, she made real for Ryan the redemption, the mercy, the forgiveness, the grace of God’s kingdom.
Nelson Mandela did much the same. After being imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid government for 27 years, Mandela called upon black South Africans to demonstrate love instead of hate, and modeled this mercy in his own life in powerful ways. His calls for mercy helped prevent the blood violence many had anticipated with the fall of apartheid. What could have turned into a violent war instead became a picture of the justice and mercy at the heart of God’s kingdom. The world saw the image of God, not only in Mandela but in the lives of many black South Africans.
In the Scripture reading we heard a few moments ago from the letter to the Colossians, Paul describes Jesus as “the image of God.” Jesus came to restore humanity—to recover and to heal the image of God within us. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus not only offers forgiveness and redemption, but by doing so, he also shows us the divine image that we are meant to exhibit by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
Forgiveness matters because it has everything to do with revealing God’s own forgiveness to the world. Forgiveness is important because it helps people see and even experience the power of forgiveness that Christ made possible through his crucifixion. The practice of forgiveness is crucial because it makes it possible for people to experience the kingdom of God here and now.
Paul says to the Colossians, “We’re praying this so that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God; by being strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; and by giving thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins… and he reconciled all things to himself through him—whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.”
Christ has gone all the way to the cross so that we can be forgiven of our sins. By his death and resurrection, our Lord has reconciled all things to himself and bought peace. Indeed, this is important because it makes possible for us salvation and eternal life. But friends, it matters even more for how we live our lives now, in the present. Because this is our time, this is our opportunity to offer glimpses of the divine image, to help people experience the true love and forgiveness that Christ has for them, and to make real God’s kingdom in the world! Just as we have been forgiven, so must we forgive; so must God’s image be unveiled in our lives.
I want to share with you just one more story, a reminder of the urgency of forgiveness. A few years ago, a member of one of my congregations up in northern Hamilton County died pretty suddenly. In the days immediately following her death, as family and friends came to pay their respects, it became obvious to me that a number of them longed for reconciliation. Some wanted to forgive the woman who had died; others wanted her forgiveness. All of them had assumed there would be time to reconcile, and they were wrong. During those days and in the months and even years after, they struggled with feelings of regret. Some of them still may be struggling.
If there’s someone in your life you long to forgive, or whose forgiveness you seek, don’t wait. Go to that person. Begin the conversation. You may not get everything you seek, but you will know you tried, and the rest you can leave in God’s hands. We need mercy and forgiveness, and in order to be fully human, as God created us to be, we must also freely extend it. When we choose to forgive, the image of God is seen in us. Our willingness to forgive has the power not only to change us, to free us from bitterness and resentment, but also to change those who receive forgiveness from us. We have been already been transformed by the vast and wonderful mercy of God. In turn we must share God’s grace, unveil God’s image, and make real God’s kingdom. If we can do that, then we will begin to see first one person, and then another, and then another changed; until ultimately the whole world is transformed by the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus!