Letters from Prison, XI: Image of the Invisible God, First-Born of All Creation
Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in him all things were created, things visible and invisible. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. —Colossians 1:15
Every Christmas at my house we have to watch Love Actually—it’s the law—and by common consent, our favorite scene is the one where Collin, underemployed, impoverished, and of average attractiveness and intelligence, can’t find a girlfriend in the UK so he comes to the States and ends up at a bar in Milwaukee chatting up three of the most beautiful women in America, including January Jones.
The three friends want to introduce Collin to a fourth member of their group. “You’ll really like Harriet,” they say, “because she’s ‘The Sexy One.’” And in walks Shannon Elizabeth in a cowboy hat. We laugh, because we wonder how, in this embarrassment of female pulchritude, Harriet gets the label “The Sexy One.”
It makes you wonder how you get your label and then how you keep it. There’s labels in sports: The Great One, Magic, Megatron, Mr. October. In Chicago alone we have The Galloping Ghost and Air Jordan. Sweetness and The Refrigerator shared the same backfield.
There’s labels in politics: Old Hickory, Unconditional Surrender, Silent Cal, Honest Abe, Tricky Dick, Barack O’Bomber (that last is about basketball, not drones).
There’s labels in families: if your family is big enough, you’ll have The Golden Child, The Black Sheep, The Einstein, The Whiner, the Schmoozer, and the Good Shepherd.
I have this smooth, charming niece. Everything is easy for her; the world is her oyster; she gets what she wants, in the nicest possible way, but with minimal effort or interest. Good things just fall into her lap, even good things she doesn’t necessarily want. So we call her “Don’t Try. Don’t Care. Just Win.” Her father gave her that nickname: “Don’t Try. Don’t Care. Just Win.”
It’s easy to see how Doubting Thomas earned his nickname, but how did he keep it—forever, for, like, 2,000 years. It’s not like it’s the only thing he ever did, after all. We don’t talk about the other disciples that way; we don’t talk about Betraying Judas, or Denying Peter, or Tax-Gouging Matthew, or Egotistical John or Narcissistic James, even though these other disciples were infamous too for one epic mistake, just like Thomas: “Unless I touch the nail prints in his hands and put my fist in the spear-hole in his rib cage, I will not believe.”
Perhaps we have let Doubting Thomas live with his equivocal nickname for 2,000 years because it’s not an insult. It’s not nearly as negative as Betraying Judas or Denying Peter or Narcissistic James or Cheating Matthew.
Doubt in and of itself is not a bad thing. We all should doubt some things: fortune tellers, television evangelists, The National Enquirer, The World Wrestling Federation, politicians’ promises, and optimistic hopes from the front office of the Detroit Lions spring instantly to mind.
A little incredulity is necessary to negotiate this often fraudulent world. I wish more people had doubted Bernie Madoff’s absurd financial statements from a few years ago. Did you know that holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel had his foundation resources, not to mention most of his personal savings, invested with Bernie Madoff?
So on the evening of the first Easter, ten of the remaining disciples are locked in an Upper Room wondering what to do next when Jesus instantly teleports through the locked doors like Captain Kirk himself. Thomas is not there. Don’t know why. No explanation. Not important.
Jesus and his friends have a nice little meeting, and Jesus’ friends rush out to tell Thomas what he missed by skipping church, and then Thomas responds with his legendary incredulity.
“Really, guys? Really? Is this a joke? Are you trying to be funny? I was there. I was there at that cross on Golgotha. They ribboned the flesh of his back with a scourge of bone and flint. They nailed his hands and feet to a cross of wood with spikes of iron. He hung there for six hours while his blood spattered the rocks of that skull-shaped hill, and his breath became shallower and shallower till he could not draw another breath and then they thrust a spear under his rib cage and he didn’t flinch because he was already dead, then they threw what was left of him into a borrowed grave and sealed it up with a thick slab of stone that’s taller than I am. And now you’re telling me he’s alive? Unless I touch the wounds of his hands and probe the gash in his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas’s doubt, you see, results from crucifixion. He’s seen too many crucifixions to believe in an obvious, easy God with a glib faith. His doubt is not irrational and it is by no means contemptible; Thomas disbelieves for good reason.
Thomas’s is a muscular, potent, hard-won doubt. Not all doubt is like that. Doubt can be like faith, right? Doubt, like faith, can be glib, easy, and thoughtless. It’s Confirmation Sunday next week. All year long Katie and Silvi have been trying to talk to our kids about “lazy doubt.” You can probably guess what “lazy doubt” is like. “Lazy doubt” is a skepticism which does not care enough to investigate thoroughly the possibility of deity. A Lazy Doubter is somebody who disbelieves because her freshman biology teacher told her that Darwin was right and evolution is true and therefore religion is stupid. Lazy Doubters take the freshman biology teacher at her word without further thought.
Thomas’ doubt, on the other hand, is muscular and tested. It was created by crucifixion; Thomas disbelieves for legitimate reasons, not lazy, facile opinion. “Unless I touch the stigmata on his hands and probe the wound in his side, I will not believe,” he thunders.
But as soon as Jesus lets him do just that, then his muscular doubt instantly morphs into an equally muscular faith. “My Lord and my God,” is what Thomas bursts out with. From “I will not believe” to “My Lord and my God,” just with a little confirming evidence; that’s all he asked for, and Jesus is glad to give it to him.
“My Lord, and my God,” says Thomas to his friend. It is the most extravagant confession of faith anywhere in the Gospel story. No other character in the Jesus story will dare to attach the soaring, preposterous label of divinity to this carpenter from Nazareth.
Perhaps Thomas is a person of vast extremes: inexorable doubt to muscular faith in one instant. You know people of such vast extremes—your two-year-old: blood-curdling screams of existential despair one instant; loud, unbridled glee the next. Or your teenager: absolute, complete, terminal contempt for Mom and Dad one instant; groveling adoration the next when she remembers she needs a ride to the mall.
“My Lord and my God” is what Thomas says with his battle-tested, crucifixion-hardened, evidence-confirmed faith. You could hardly say more about a person, could you?
So this story of Thomas’ newly robust faith will be circulated among the various congregations of the baby Christian Church across the Roman Empire, and various Christians will be inspired by it, and ask questions of it, and wonder about its implications, including a young Pharisee named Paul, and he will think about Thomas’ immoderate nomenclature for Jesus of Nazareth.
And Paul will have his own experiences of this Carpenter from Nazareth, and his life will be altered in revolutionary ways, and he will take Thomas’ extravagant but still rudimentary confession of faith and he will light its fuse as if it were a stick of dynamite, and he will explode it into something even more outlandish.
Near the end of his life, Paul will be writing a letter from a Roman prison cell to a tiny church in an insignificant town called Colossae, which is wondering what God is like, and how one can get to know God.
And Paul will remember Thomas’s extravagant but still rudimentary confession, and he will turn it into this: “Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in him all things were created, things visible and invisible. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
So from his narrow Roman prison cell Paul takes Thomas’s confession “My Lord and my God,’ and he explodes it. Paul says, “Jesus Christ is the definitive, earthly manifestation of the Word of God, the Thought of God, the Mind of God, the Reason of God, the Will of God. The Mind of God was before all things. There was never a time when this Thought of God didn’t exist, because before him space-time did not exist; space-time came into being with him and through him. Without Christ the Word of God, ‘before’ is a meaningless concept. There is no ‘before’ him.
So at the beginning, he is the source of all creation. At the end, he is the destiny of all creation. And all the eons between, he is the glue of creation. “All things hold together in him,” says Prisoner Paul.
That is to say, it is because of HIM that at the Big Bang, the push of the explosion out toward the edge of the universe and the pull of gravity back toward the center are precisely calibrated to create a universe of maximum drama and unending entertainment.
It is because of HIM that matter just barely manages to outwit anti-matter so that there is something and not nothing. It is because of HIM that electrons are strangely chained to protons and neutrons so that the universe is more than a chaos of bombarding particles.
It is because of HIM that there is at least one and perhaps millions of goldilocks planets at just the right distance from a life-giving star to produce liquid water, where certain inert, inanimate, moribund molecules of stardust will learn to self-replicate, and will eventually spin curious, curving double-helixes of DNA, held together by the near-miracle of hydrogen bonds. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
It is a preposterous hypothesis. It is vulnerable to all kinds of doubt. Our Jewish and Muslim friends are shocked by what we are willing to say about Jesus of Nazareth. And I wouldn’t blame you if you threw the whole thing out with the trash.
But have you ever met someone who believes it, believes every word of it? Believes that he is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of creation. “Image of the invisible God”: in other words, if you want to know what God is like, look precisely here, at Nazareth. “First-born of all creation”: in other words, if you want to know what humanity should be like, look precisely here, at Nazareth. Have you ever met someone who believed every word of it?
Here’s a letter from prison: Tywanza Sanders and his great-aunt Suzi Jackson were two of the nine people shot at that Bible Study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last June. Tywanza was 26, dangerously handsome, and trying to figure out what to do with his life. He might try law school, or get an MBA, or become a tattoo artist, or do stand-up comedy. For Tywanza, said one reporter, life was a multiple choice quiz, and his answer was “All of the Above.”
To support his mother Felicia when she got cancer a while back, he had her name tattooed on his chest. His mother was horrified, of course. “What young woman would want to go out with a guy who had his mother’s name on his chest?” He just said, “Their loss.”
Felicia knew, America knows, how dangerous life can be for young black men. She took him to Bible Study because it seemed like the safest place in Charleston, but no place is safe.
Felicia was present at the Bible Study too with her granddaughter. She does not know why the shooter didn’t kill her too, possibly because she was so covered in blood that she looked already dead.
After Dylan Roof killed her son Tywanza and her aunt Suzi, Felicia wanted just one thing from the FBI. She wanted their Bibles. “No, Ma’am, can’t be done. We’re sorry.” They were being nice. They were just trying to protect her feelings. But Felicia insisted, so the FBI agents sent the Bibles to a high-tech lab in Quantico, Virginia, where every page was rinsed and cleaned. Felicia has those Bibles now. The pages are pink with blood that will never wash away. But, says Felicia, “I can still read the words.”
And all America heard what Dylan Roof heard, by way of remote video in prison, when the survivors of the victims he’d shot told him they forgave him his detestable racism and his titanic malice. I wept. Did you? Said one reporter, “It was as if the Bible Study never ended.”
Felicia Sanders believes it, she believes every word of it: He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. Because of him, we know exactly what God looks like. Because of him, we know exactly what we should look like.
The pages are pink, but she can still read the words.
This story of Felicia and Tywanza Sanders is taken from the extraordinary Time Magazine article, “What It Takes to Forgive a Killer,” by David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan, November 23, 2015, pp. 42-68. In some places, I have used the authors’ exact words.
Nikita Stewart & Richard Pérez-Peña, “I Will Never Be Able to Hold Her Again. But I Will Forgive You”, The New York Times, June 20, 2015.