“Rehearse the Articles of thy Belief”, says the catechism and those being taught would say the Apostles’ Creed, declaring their belief in “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” and then declaring their belief in Jesus:
“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”.
What was always striking about those lines was how simple faith in Jesus seems. Jesus comes to us through virgin birth, he suffers, died and is buried. He goes down to be with the dead before rising again and then ascending into heaven from where he will come on the day of judgement. How can that become complicated?
Don’t we come to church on a Sunday because we believe in this Jesus? Isn’t that what it’s about? Wouldn’t you would wonder how something so simple became so complicated?
In Saint Matthew Chapter 1 Verse 21, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”. The name “Jesus”, the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua” meaning “the Lord saves”. Jesus’ mission is expressed in his name; to save his people.
Given the name “Jesus” by Mary and Joseph, Jesus is called the “Christ” or the “Messiah”, the anointed one, by his disciples. In Saint Matthew Chapter 16 Verse 16, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.
“Our Lord”, says the Creed, and the words are passed over, often without a second thought. When we talk of Jesus as “our Lord”, what do we mean by it? Do we really mean “the Lord”, someone who is lord of something else? It is easier to think about Jesus as “the Lord” rather than think of him as “our Lord”, someone who is lord over ourselves, our lives, what we think, what we do, what we have. Pausing to think about those words in the Creed should challenge us; it’s much easier to keep Jesus out there somewhere than think about what it might mean if he really was “our Lord”.
“Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary”, says the Creed and there are some church members would hesitate to say they really believed in the virgin birth. But if we do not believe in the virgin birth, if we do no believe that the divine takes on human flesh, what does it say to us about God, that he doesn’t understand what it is to live a life among us? What does it say to us about Jesus, that he was a delusional preacher who claimed things that we believe to be untrue? What does it say to us about our belief in the power of God to do miraculous things? If we don’t believe such a miracle is possible, then what about all the other miracles?
The Apostles’ Creed continues, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate”. There are three people named in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pilate. Mention of Pilate roots the story of Jesus in human history, gives a date for when these things took place, and holds Pilate responsible for this monstrous deed. Saint Matthew Chapter 27 Verse 19 says, “While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him'” Dorothy L. Sayers play, “The Man Born to be King” suggests that in the dream Claudia Procula heard countless voices through the centuries speaking of Jesus suffering under Pontius Pilate – it would be an unimaginable burden.
Jesus “Was crucified, dead, and buried” says the Creed. Crucifixion was a death which came through slow suffocation – hanging with your two arms stretched out so that you are unable to breathe and you die from gradual asphyxiation. Crucifixion was hideously cruel. The victims hands would have been lashed to the cross beam with ropes around his wrists; simply using nails would have not worked, the flesh would have torn and the victim would have fallen from the cross. The nails were just an additional torture, a way of further weakening the victim and hastening death. If a person took a long time to die it would have been the practice to break their legs, this would have caused extra weight to be borne by their arms, making it harder for them to breathe and causing them to suffocate more quickly. Sometimes, as in Jesus’ case, a spear would have been used to ensure the person was quite dead. The Creed speaks of Jesus being “crucified, dead and buried” to emphasise that he was truly dead, that there could be no mistake.
“He descended into hell”, says the Creed; not “hell” as in the sense of the place of everlasting damnation but hell in the sense of “hades”, the place of the dead, where Jesus had a mission. Many Christians believe that the time between three o’clock on that Friday afternoon and the Sunday morning was a time when a battle was taking place, a cosmic battle. Sometimes referred to as the harrowing of hell, it was a battle to free the spirits of the departed from the powers of darkness. The First Letter of Peter Chapter 3 Verse 18-20 say, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”. The dead are given a chance of repentance.
“The third day he rose again from the dead,” these must be the most important words in the whole Creed, that the power of death has been defeated and that eternal life is possible. If the resurrection story is not true, then the church is a lie and I know that I, personally, have wasted my entire life. If Jesus does not rise from the dead, then what is the point of it all? A noble and inspiring story? There are many such tales, but one hardly devotes one’s life to a tale; one hardly finds eternal life in a story. Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith.
Saint Luke Chapter 24 Verse 51 says, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven”. The words, “He ascended into heaven,” tell us something important about our humanity. Jesus takes on our human flesh and he returns bodily to heaven. The Ascension tells us that God who created matter regards matter as important. Sometimes, as Christians we have emphasised the “spiritual” dimension of ourselves and have neglected the material side of our lives, as if God was creator of one part and not the other. Such an attitude has sometimes led Christians to neglect not only matter in the form of our human bodies, but to treat badly matter in the form of the world around us. The ascension reminds us that matter matters!
The final declaration about Jesus is that he, “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead”. The idea that Jesus will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead sounds strange to 21st Century ears, even though we say this each week in the Creed. The idea of God coming into our world as a judge does not fit into our contemporary thinking. If you asked people if they believed that God would come in judgement, I have no doubt most would say “no”.
But faced with evil, on the day of judgement, what does God say? “Ah, well, it is all in the past, come in everybody?” Would that be justice? Could we believe in a righteous God if he simply ignored evil deeds? To say that everyone will be welcomed in heaven is to make a mockery of God. It is to say that God has no moral standards, that he is blind to suffering. It is to say that God is unjust. A God who was unjust, who did not believe in right and wrong, would not be worthy of worship. Justice demands judgement. If he is God, then he must be the God who comes as the judge of the living and the dead— a judgement that can only be avoided through his grace. When we speak of Jesus coming as judge of the quick and the dead, it should challenge us whether we accept his grace, whether we accept the way to avoid condemnation.
“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord”: really believing those words is really to be changed.