Almost two years ago, in my last semester of seminary, I preached my senior sermon for our capstone preaching class. It was a beautiful and flawed piece that dealt with the also beautiful and challenging description of Christ in Colossians 1:15-23. The passage challenges our imaginations by telling us that Christ is the “image of the invisible God” and “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” These are things we seem to grasp in an emotional way, but are difficult to wrap our heads around. Then follows the more personal and painful truth of the passage, the message of hope and redemption in verses 20-22:
“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. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…”
As I wrote my sermon news from my hometown of Seattle kept begging for my attention. We were waiting for the sentencing of two teenage boys in relation to a beating that had led to the death of Seattle’s beloved “Tuba Man” a couple months before. The act shocked and horrified people in Seattle who had seen the Tuba Man outside sports events for years, sitting and playing his tuba as people milled into stadiums, stopped to listen, make requests and even do a little dancing. After his death no one who had ever heard him play was surprised to learn that the Tuba Man, Ed McMichael, had a classical musical education. However we were stunned that anyone as gentle and friendly as Mr. McMichael had been could possibly be the victim of such a random and violent act.
Though the sentencing of the two teenage boys was not scheduled until after I would actually preach my sermon, the text and circumstances screamed to be included in my message. I asked the question of what hope we could find for these two young men. In some ways they were lucky. There were mitigating circumstances that prevented them from being tried as adults and for the full extent of their crimes, so though the sentencing had not yet been handed down, we knew they could only receive a maximum of 18 months in a juvenile facility. People, including some of my own friends, were upset at the outcome and screaming for justice. I took all this in with a heavy heart. On the one hand the sheer destruction and evil of the act left me heartbroken for the Tuba Man and for our community. On the other hand, the people calling for justice didn’t really believe in the justice of the system. They wanted these two youths to be given a harsher sentence because they didn’t believe in the possibility of transformation that the juvenile system is supposed to offer. Yet, what hope of transformation would a harsher sentence offer, either?
I spoke of the circumstances of Paul’s writing this letter to the Colossians. It is believed that he himself was in prison as he wrote, with no idea when he might find freedom, yet he writes the Christological hymn that forms this passage. In a situation with little to no hope, Paul finds hope and redemption in Christ. As we read this and other Christological hymns in Paul’s letters we are reminded of Paul and Silas singing in their prison cell in Philippi. And who was going to sing a song of hope and redemption for these young men and their terrible act?
The bitter irony of this tragedy was that they had caused the death of someone who might have played a song for them. Ed McMichael had played for everyone else in Seattle, and in playing for us, he was playing for them, too. I prayed that even in their little time away, they might be able to receive some seed of a different life. But it seems that we tossed those boys away, forgetting about them for the 18 months they had to serve and forgoing any possibility of transformation. We forgot about them, at least, until a couple weeks ago when one of them was arrested again. It was something minor, but as he was arrested he was heard to brag about the beating of Mr. McMichael and that he had gotten away with a slap on the wrist. It was sad and frustrating and, unfortunately, unsurprising.
No one really believed the punishment the two youths received would transform them, and the broken record of our broken justice system played again. Over and over we speak of how ineffective the justice system is, and yet we keep pouring money into jails over schools even as we strip away money from the courts to even attempt to do their job. Cases pile up, prisons fill up and we are worse off than we ever have been. And no one in this vicious cycle believes in the least possibility of redemption, only in punishment.
I say all this not merely as an indictment of the justice system, which has indeed failed, but also as a symptom of the general lack of belief in redemption. We go around saying that Jesus Christ died for our sins, but we don’t really think he died for anyone else’s sins. We don’t really believe that “in him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself.” Think of the power of that statement. Not only is God working to make everything right and righteous, to mend what has been broken, but to draw us into God’s own life, to not merely mend but to once again receive the breath of life that changed clay to human. And Paul says that God has done this through Jesus Christ, a human being, and a human being within whom God was “pleased to dwell” who “holds all things together”. As humans who are held together in Christ, we are participants in the reconciliation plan. And we are not simply participants in receiving redemption, but as those who are part of Christ, that reconciliation is supposed to happen through us, through the very sinners who need saving.
Then comes the even tougher part. Though Paul has already stated that God is bringing together all things into wholeness, we are reminded that included in ‘all things’ are those who have been estranged from and against God, those who have done “evil deeds”. So this plan for salvation that we are not merely receiving, but also supposed to be giving away includes even two young men who beat up innocent bystanders for fun and then brag about it. It includes people who hate homosexuals and people who hate NRA members. It includes older people who want the church to stay the same and the young people who want to burn the church down. It includes the Pharisees and Saducees and betrayers and deniers and persecutors of Christians.
We have to believe that it is possible for all of these people to be transformed by sharing our hope in Christ. I, too, get frustrated with old people who don’t want to change and young people who don’t want to learn. I get frustrated with people who carry guns or don’t recycle or who think the King James Version is the only correct version of the Bible. But if I give up on them without listening, challenging and loving fiercely, I abandon the hope of the Gospel. I am saying that Jesus really didn’t die on the cross for all of our sins, just some of ours. I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is come near.
We can’t simply sit at home and hope that our broken systems and our broken homes and our broken selves will suddenly be able to mend themselves. We have to actually go out there and say that we believe it can be different. We have to do ministries no one believes in or understands. We have to be willing to step into dangerous situations to prevent abuse and persecution and oppression, instead of walking by. We have to believe that two punk kids who beat up harmless street musicians can not only change their ways, but become lights to the world themselves. And then we have to help them see that for themselves.