Proper 29, Year C, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

“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” (Col. 1:15-16).

We live in an age of images. Nothing original here: just plug that phrase into your search engine and you will see what I mean. The rise of visual culture is a well-established meme in our day. It seems we’re awash in a sea of images. The camera phones that we carry in our pockets, and the tools of social media, have guaranteed that a picture must be worth a thousand words. If you go into a museum these days, you will see portraits, pictures, and human artifacts of all kinds. Wander over to the Frist and see. Not only that, but what is even more remarkable: people taking pictures of those same things, images of images, as it were; images that can and will be re-imaged and shared in succession.

There’s nothing particularly new here. Human beings, of course, have been creating and sharing images for a long time. If anything, it’s only the scope and scale of the thing that has changed. The cave paintings of Chauvet show us for just how long human beings have been making images, pictures drawn from the visible world. Written language itself, often contrasted with the rise of images, actually seems to have its own origin in images, in pictographs, which eventually evolved into letters capable of conveying ideas and making connections between things, which is at the heart of language.

Our reading from the Letter to the Colossians today puts “image” at the center of St. Paul’s understanding of the identity of Jesus. Image here is eikon; and in picking up the notion of image St. Paul is re-purposing a familiar idea. The making of images, representations of God, was forbidden under the Old Covenant: “graven images” (Deut. 4:13) created by human beings. Here, however, Paul is not speaking of “graven images” but of the icon that reflects God, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) not made by human hands. Image here is not a copy, a physical representation of a greater invisible reality; what we might call a cheap knock off of something much more profound and hidden. Instead, Paul’s emphasis is on the image’s faithful representation of its original, an image perfectly corresponding to it. No cheap knock off here.

Not only that, but this image (who is Christ himself), the image of God, is the One by whom all things themselves were created. All of us are bound up in Jesus, and reflect him. Each part of our world, whether visible or invisible, is stitched together in him. He is the template for our world and our reality; the Original, if you will. “All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

If we’re awash in a sea of images, in the graven images of human devising, then we should not lose sight of the image by which we were made. Image conjures up for us our own power to fashion, to reproduce and pass on to others, the “graven image”: whether by the hand of the artist or by the finger of the photographer, the digit that makes the digital sequence. Yet St. Paul is conjuring with something else when he comes to image. For him, the energy is moving the other way, as our world is fashioned by the finger of God, according to the image who is Jesus himself, the one who perfectly reflects the Father.

This image in us is reproduced and passed on, not by our own power but by the power of God. “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” (Col. 1:18). A world made according to the template of Christ is wounded by sin, and so must be claimed by grace, by the gift of God. We ourselves must be re-imaged to reflect the glory of God. All of our prayers and sacraments, all of our liturgies and works of love in the church, are nothing less than the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, at work in us through the power of God, uncovering the image by which we were made, the one who is the first born from the dead.

I hope you all at Christ Church have heard about the Jesus movement. I wish I could deliver that line like Michael Curry can. I’m so grateful to our Presiding Bishop for talking about Jesus and suggesting that we in the church are walking his walk. Being part of the Jesus movement, of course, means coming to grips with Jesus himself. What does he mean to us? Who is he for us? St. Paul suggests today that we must have a high view of who he is, for he stands closer to us than we do to ourselves. He’s the Original by whom all things were made. He’s the template by which the world and we were fashioned, so that we can be re-fashioned, re-imaged in him. He is the image, the ikon, who perfectly reflects the Father. He shares his glory with us, as Hebrews says, so that we may live in him.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee