Lent 2009: The Apostle’s Creed
I believe in Jesus part 2
I want to begin tonight’s thoughts by restating a couple of things which I perhaps didn’t make completely clear last week. I have spent some time thinking about the nature of these evenings and some of the discussions that have come both as part of the sessions and around after the event too!
At the beginning of these talks on the Creed I said that I wasn’t going engage in a purely academic exercise, nor was I going to take apart all the bits of the Creed and dismiss them – on the contrary I think I would restate that I wholeheartedly believe in all of the articles which make up our Creed and hope that these talks would assist you in feeling more confident in proclaiming these truths also. In particular, I want to say that when last week I said I wasn’t going to discuss the ‘Virgin Birth’ as I thought it was a red herring, I didn’t mean that I didn’t believe in it and didn’t want to talk about it, I wholeheartedly affirm it. My concern is that (like discussions over a six day creation) discussions about the mechanics of how this or that might have happened are often a distraction. My belief in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, which is founded in Jesus taking flesh from the Virgin Mary and by the power of the Spirit is at the heart of my own understanding of the Incarnation.
What I am hoping to do is highlight both how some of these articles of faith ended up in the Creed, and to ask ourselves exactly what we mean, and what those who put together the Creed meant, when these things are and were recited over many hundreds of years. The Creed is not the end of faith, nor is it meant to be recited parrot fashion without addressing the serious, foundational beliefs of which it is comprised. It is easy to drift, or ‘freewheel’ through faith, accepting what might be the accepted interpretation of a particular minister, writer, or tradition within the Church, without grappling with the truths both behind our Creeds and within our Scriptures.
Some of the ideas and concepts which make up our Creeds are, frankly, immense – including this Evening’s theme – and we risk missing out on some of the riches of our tradition, of the depths of Scripture, and of a very personal faith, if we skirt over the issues and teachings contained in them. In the three weeks we have already spent on these Creeds I have only just scratched the surface of our Christian faith, tradition and interpretation, and I know that some of the things I have said have been surprising – but this is the faith of the Church, and together we claim to hold this faith, so lets get to grips with what we profess and proclaim.
This evening’s thoughts are based around this profound, disturbing and challenging part of the Apostle’s Creed – talking of Jesus we affirm that we believe he:
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
There are some phrases in this section I will tackle at greater, some at lesser, length. Much of this overlaps with what I said last week, and much of it overlaps with itself, it is difficult to disentangle much of the Creed from itself – to be honest – and I hope that what I say won’t be so much as telling you what you have to believe, though there are some essentials that I think are core to calling ourselves Christians, but offering you different interpretations of what Christian thinkers and teachers have said over many years with regards to these core understandings of Christian faith.
But I must take a moment to say something very personal here. If last week was the reason I was inspired to lead this series of talk, this week is probably the hardest of all the sections for me to talk on, mainly because I can’t claim to have all of this sorted out for myself, and I am very much in the midst of my own journey of faith, my own struggles with Scripture and Reason and Tradition and Experience in my own life in Christ. It would be easier perhaps if I could say ‘this is what the Bible teaches’ or even ‘this is what the Church says’ but our Creeds bind us with the essentials of faith – the interpretation is something we all must struggle with for ourselves.
The first part of the Creed considered today is easy in theological terms, but hard in personal terms! We talk of Christ who ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried’. This suffering is real – and I think it is important to say this. The agony that Jesus went through in the lead up and over his crucifixion cannot be underestimated – nor can we explain it away by saying ‘It’s OK, he was God’ or that he knew he would be resurrected. As I said last week, and as has been very much the point of Christian scholarship for two thousand years, Jesus was human, not God in a human suit. When it came to the scourging, the agony of his passion, and to being nailed to the cross and dying this was real, all too real, and painful beyond endurance. The sense of desolation and agony was enough for him to cry out ‘My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?’
And without going over all the ground we covered last week, its worth reminding ourselves that at heart the death that Jesus suffered isn’t a theory, or a theology, or a statement of belief – it is God’s ultimate identification with us. If God in trinity feels through eternity what Jesus felt on the cross, God knows what suffering is, and knows what it is to die. In Christ, God truly is one of us and the Creed writers wanted to make that clear by saying that he suffered, not that he seemed to suffer or appeared to suffer, but suffered. At the same time they wanted to locate that in a real, physical, tangible time and place in order that it didn’t become just a theory or doctrine but that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ – it was real, it happened.
Then we have what for many is the key issue in this part of the Creed.
Was crucified, died and was buried.
Again, a desire to keep the reality of these events at the heart of faith. Jesus actually died, and because of that he was buried. No tricks, no body snatching, but the everyday reality of death. And behind it the pain and the loss that his friends, family and disciples suffered – as we will hear in the passion stories in the coming weeks.
Interestingly there is no mention of ‘what happened’ on the cross. In this key document of the Church it doesn’t say he died for our sins, or that his death took our sins away, or that he was a sacrifice for our sin. These are interpretations of the death of Christ that come from Scripture and from the theologians of the Church over the past twenty centuries. The Creed just wants to make it clear that he died, and leaves us to – with the help of our Bibles and the tradition and teaching of the Church – make sense of this.
And this is where I have been struggling over this past week, or indeed over the past few decades of my Christian life. It’s also something that I think many of us don’t think about perhaps as much as we should – what happened on the cross and why did Jesus have to die.
I think that this is a good spot to stop for a breather and to talk to one another. I am aware that this week is very much more about me talking – but there is a lot to get through – but I realise you need a break from that! So I want you to talk to each other about what your own response to that question ‘why did Jesus have to die?’ might be – and I don’t want you to feel concerned that I am going to correct your belief, I am going to lay out some of what the Church has said, and hopefully reflect that through Scripture – but it would be presumptuous of me to claim I have sorted this out and have all the answers for you. It would also be wrong. So share what you feel, please.
It is easy, or perhaps more accurately ‘an oversimplification’ just to say that Jesus ‘died for our sins’. Though I believe that to be true, and many of us would describe his death in that way, there are many ways in which that simple statement could be construed. I think it is important to open this out a bit, though I can’t really do justice to it in the time we have here or perhaps even in a lifetime, because what we believe happened on the Cross also affects our view of God and of the salvation we as Christians believe Jesus somehow won through his death.
The word that we use to sum up this teaching is ‘Atonement’ – commonly taken to mean ‘making up for something’ – that Jesus somehow made up for the sins of the world in dying for us. I prefer to consider ‘Atonement’ by dividing up the word ‘At-one-ment’. Somehow through his death Jesus broke down the barriers or bridged the Gap between God and human beings. A barrier or a divide caused by sin, which brings death into the world. But how might this have happened, what did Jesus dying actually achieve?
I looked up a number of sources to try and offer some definition of the various theologies which surround the death of Jesus – and must acknowledge that I used a particular website – not one I was completely impressed by but one which had a broad approach to these issues – called ‘religioustolerance.org’ to get hold of some definitions, they say that, on the whole the current accepted theories can be grouped into certain definitions:
First, Ransom Theory, mainly held by Eastern Orthodox Churches and what is known as the Protestant Word-faith Movement. This is perhaps the oldest theory of the Atonement, and if arguments about theology and belief were settled just by how old they are this would be the winner!
Ransom theory says that sin brought a debt into the world, which was payable by death. This debt was a result of Adam & Eve’s disobedience and meant that Satan aquired formal dominion over, and ownership of , all of humanity and the rest of the world. So that all might be freed from this ownership God offers his only Son Jesus as a ransom to ‘buy back’ humanity and Satan agrees believing that he would then ‘own’ the Son of God, Jesus. God pulls a fast one, though, and having thought he had won, Satan is defeated as Jesus is brought back from death and raised to eternal life with the Father. Therefore, says Origen, one of the early Church theologians, if humans trust Jesus as their saviour, they too share in this new life.
Next is a theory which is broadly held by the Roman Catholic Church (though not officially accepted as 'dogma') and is called Satisfaction Theory. This finds its roots in ancient and mediaeval thinking about serfdom. A serf or slave owned by a master is the cause of dishonour to that master if s/he disobeys them. In this way sin dishonours God and a price must be paid to satisfy honour. In this atonement theory Jesus, through his offering of himself, his torture and his death satisfies the requirement and, effectively, through a human sacrifice he appeases God’s sense of honour which has been offended by sin. It is similar to the ransom theory, only that the price is paid to God rather than Satan.
As it says on ReligiousTolerance.org
The theory suggests that God's honour would only be satisfied by a ritual sacrifice of a god-man -- his own son. Michael Martin writes: "Only the God-Man is able, by his divinity, to offer something that is worthy of God and, by his humanity, to represent mankind."
Now we move onto a theory that many of us will recognise, and perhaps adhere to, as it is the theology often held by those who would refer to themselves as ‘Reformed’, and by fundamentalist groups, and some main stream protestant denominations it is known as Penal Substitution Theory and is a variation on Satisfaction Theory
Again I will quote the religious tolerance website
In the Penal Theory, the effect of human sin is not seen as dishonouring God. Rather it is perceived as incurring a debt to God which requires repayment. "...a debt is incurred and punishment is deserved." God is viewed as holy and perfect. He established an impossibly high standard of holiness and perfection for humanity. When we fail to live up to that standard, a sin debt to God is created. Such sin inevitably happens; all have fallen short.
The punishment for sin must involve the shedding of blood. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this was the ritual sacrifice of animals; in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) it involves the ritual sacrifice of a human -- Jesus. God is apparently unwilling or incapable of forgiving sin in any other way.
Anselm of Canterbury, a great Christian Scholar from the 11th and early 12th Century wrote:
"...without satisfaction, that is, without voluntary payment of the debt, God can neither pass by the sin unpunished, nor can the sinner attain that happiness”
Another theory, held by many more Liberal Christians is known as Moral Theory. This theory suggests that Jesus Christ's life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. It can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.
Rejecting any sense of ‘payment’ to Satan or God – either because of a need to punish sin, buy back humanity or satisfy honour, the moral theory teaches that atonement is achieved by Jesus example of self-giving love and sacrifice. This provides for us an example and inspiration to seek wholeness and to leave our sin behind. The focus of the Atonement is not Satan or God instead it is the individual Christian believer seeking wholeness.
Finally, there is what is often called the Christus Victor Theory or a recent variation which I found recently called the ‘narrative Christus Victor theory’. The Essay which I recently read on this subject is very good and can be found online at http://www.crosscurrents.org/weaver0701.htm – discussing all of the theories of Atonement I have just looked through and answering them with an alternative. In this understanding Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed not to satisfy a God who demanded it or to fool the devil, but because his death defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. The death of Jesus is the result of evil forces, as epitomised by the religious leaders and occupying forces of Jesus day, and shows the response of evil to the purity of purpose and action which Christ had. In this understanding Jesus actively defeats evil by his non resistance when confronted by evil men (and women perhaps) and by offering his own life. God rewards this offering by raising Jesus to new life, and Jesus becomes the one through which all can share in this new way of being – the Kingdom, or more accurately, the reign of God.
Second discussion – do any of these help you? Are there any that you particularly react to – either positively or negatively?
Having thrown these various theological theories at you, all of which have currency within the Church today and departure from which can cause someone to be cast out of some Church circles! For instance, just a few years back the Baptist minister and broadcaster Steve Chalke mentioned in a very good book he wrote called ‘The Lost Message of Jesus’ that penal substitution might not be the only way we could look at the death of Jesus and was vilified within many of the groups he used to represent and relate to. It was as if Scripture had put the one way of understanding Jesus death nice and clearly and Chalke was completely heretical to even consider there might be an alternative.
But the Bible doesn’t give us any simple answers to this. It presents a variety of views all mixed up together and makes us come to terms with them ourselves.
I know that some of you will want to have an idea of my own take on this issue, which I why I began by saying that I don’t have it all sewn up. I do have my own personal understanding, but it is not set in stone – as my own reading of Scripture, my growth in knowledge and experience and use of reason lead me to new understandings I may well say something different in a few years, or even days!
I do believe that sin has an effect on God’s creation – a vast, cosmic effect. And that it damages men and women - Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.". The result of sin is, ultimately, death.
I believe that Jesus took upon himself that death which is the result of sin. In this sense he ‘paid the price’ – I don’t, though, subscribe to the idea that God punished Jesus on our behalf. For me the defining statement about God is found in the first letter of John 4.16 ‘Those who do not love do not know God, for God is love.’
It’s not ‘God is loving’ but God is Love. If that is the ultimate statement about the nature of God, which I believe it to be then I find this inconsistent with a punitive or vengeful God. Therefore I believe that Jesus took the consequence of Sin, and indeed the consenquence of a Godly life live in the face of evil, and his death on the cross removed from us the ultimate consequence of sin.
But this idea, like me generally, is a work in progress.
Now I am conscious of the fact that we have gone back to the idea of talking about one or two words in our Creed and there is much more to take in and to consider in the few lines we have this week. And I would like to attempt to look at these too. I spent so long on the doctrine of Atonement because I think it informs for each of us the way that we perceive God – if we take one view or another then we are likely to see God as forgiving, or wrathful, or pure, or angry or whatever. In common with much of our faith I think the healthy belief is the one which can encompass more than one idea and hold it together, sometimes in tension and is willing to continue to wrestle with the issues involved in a ‘true and lively faith’.
And I will acknowledge that my wrestling hasn’t really come to terms with this phrase ‘he descended to the dead’ – for some it is just a fanciful way to say he died, but I think it is there for a reason and some talk of the harrowing of hell – that Jesus preached salvation to those who were imprisoned in hell because they had not heard of him and offered them his new life. I am not sure about that, but it is important to acknowledge that even back in the fourth century, indeed at the beginning of the Church’s life, Christians were struggling with the question ‘if faith comes from hearing, what about those who have never heard?’ I leave that one with you for now….
So we continue through these lines with this amazing and rather mind-blowing concept of resurrection. Of Christ being brought from the dead, of Christ being alive even today! Present with us through his Spirit and ascended to the right hand of God where he lives and reigns for eternity.
One of the things I find rather difficult about the Alpha course is that (like me this evening) it tends to focus very much on the death of Jesus and what he did on the cross. It wants the hearer to have a conviction of sin and to recognise the price paid – though it may have something more of a penal substitution theology than I would hold to!
We do need to remember, though, that in essence it is not the cross that defines us as Christians but the empty cross! It is the empty tomb that brings about our shout of alleluia! (not that I am meant to say that in Lent). I can’t remember where it comes from but I love the quote that defines Christians thus
“We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song”
In the new life God gives to Christ we see the acceptance of Christ’s offering of himself, and the triumph of love over judgement, of grace and mercy over death and hell.
The resurrection tells us that death is not the end. It shows God’s embrace of the work of Jesus and his blessing on all people.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have a hope of new life, of life forever in the presence of God – not just a life beyond death, Jesus’ new life can bring about a fullness of life that he mentions in John 10v10 – it show’s that God has accepted the life Jesus led as well as the death Jesus died.
The resurrection is the moment that defines a new order in the cosmos – of the defeat of our ultimate enemy, sin and the death it brings. This has changed the very being and nature of creation and we now live in a time which contains all the promise and potential that Christ’s fullness of life offers.
I haven’t gone into details about how the resurrection happened, or at least theological debates about the resurrection, in the same way that I didn’t want to venture into the discussions about the Virgin Birth or a six day creation – we can quickly become bogged down in the mechanics of it. I do think it is important, though, and the Biblical record is clear that Jesus came back in some way bodily, not as a ghost, he was able to eat with his friends, to touch them – yet at the same time was seen to appear and disappear in a way no one could comprehend. I believe Jesus rose bodily, but that he had a resurrection body, St Paul seems to say that Jesus is the prototype resurrection body that one day we will all share. How God might do that is beyond me, and beyond most comprehension, but I believe that he will.
And at the end of forty days, says the account in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus ascended, taken into heaven to be with the Father, to take his place in the trinity. I will be preaching on this in about fifty five days at our Communion Service for Ascension day at Shute on May 14th – so I won’t say too much now, but I do believe it is important not to take this too literally in a sense, as those who related this story and wrote it down would have had a view of God up there in heaven, of earth here and of sheol below. We know the earth is a sphere, that above is an atmosphereless void filled with stars, planets and more than we can ever imagine. We no longer believe God lives above the clouds but that he lives over and beyond this world in which we live, beyond time and space. What is important, though, is that Jesus goes to be with God, taking his place as ruler of all and within the dynamic of the Holy Trinity (about which there will be more next week).
This leads on to the issue of Jesus’ return, which again I don’t think I can do justice to in the few moments we have left. I will say that this anticipation of perfection, of Jesus coming back one day, should not divert us from fulfilling our calling to be a part of God’s kingdom coming here on earth. We are called to make real the life of Christ in this world and not to be distracted by being ‘so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use’. Our Christian faith is in a living active Christ who is with us now, who by his Spirit changes and transforms us that we may share his life and light in the world. One day he will come, we don’t know when, but until then we work for the transformation of the world through our words, prayers and deeds.
And on a final note I want to mention judgement.
There is a common idea that the judgement of God will involve us all being lined up and the book of our life will be opened and we will get a ticking off for all the bad things we have done before we get into heaven.
This is tied up, I think, with a very Roman and Western way of considering judgement, just as Pilate took his place at the judgement seat to condemn Jesus. In the Old Testament a judge proclaimed God’s will, and the values of God’s way of doing things. A judge wasn’t someone who weighed up the evidence and pronounced for or against, but who spoke up for, who was an advocate, who sought truth, restoration, a new state of being. It was a model of judgement that was concerned with reconciliation and restitution rather than punishment.
I believe Christ is our judge, who judges for us, who seeks to bring out the best in us, restores wholeness from our brokenness, and opens up the possibility for reconciliation with God for all eternity.
And on that note I will leave it. may God continue to find us eager to serve and open to the touch of his love that we may be more like Christ, day by day. Amen.