I believe in Jesus Christ,
God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
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 again
to judge the living and the dead.
Last week we started a series on the Apostolic creed. We talked about God, the Father, the almighty creator of heaven and earth and explored what that meant against the background of stories about Moses and Jesus.
This week we will be looking at the second part of the creed, the part about Jesus, and again we will do that against the backdrop of stories about Moses and Jesus as well as the testimony of Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
This second part probably presents the most difficulty to people of our day and age: Conceived by the Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary is one of the sentences some will have trouble with. On the third day raised again is another, and the ascension to heaven and the sitting at the right hand of the father from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead yet another proposition that will cause difficulty for some.
And I have to admit that it is this part of the creed I struggle with most. The only way I find meaning in it, for me, is by reading it not as a statement of fact or fixed and unchangeable dogma, but rather as an historic document and a statement of faith given to me by the tradition of the Church to help me to shape and formulate my own faith in the here and now, rather than parroting what the tradition has come up with.
Today I will try to share with you what meaning I have gleaned from it and in what way those ancient words are still of value to my faith. Hopefully giving you some angles to work on for yourself.
Ill do this against the backdrop of two Bible stories.
The story about God saving the Israelites from slavery and the story about Jesus on the cross. Two stories I chose because they are, in my mind, at the extreme ends of what we, over the centuries have learned about the nature of God, but at the same time share some primary insights about God that are important for our story of faith.
In the story of Exodus, we find God intervening on behalf of his people suffering slavery. Once God decides he wants to do something all the stops are pulled out: One natural disaster after another hits the hapless Egyptians, and just for added effect and to show his might God hardens the heart of the Pharaoh so he doesnt comply until 10 plagues later all the first borns in his Kingdom have succumbed.
Not a very nice God if you happen to be an Egyptian!
The other story takes us to a very different place where we find Jesus, suffering on a cross, dying a most gruelling death, unjustly and undeservedly. With God doing absolutely nothing until after the event and even then not visiting any punishment or pain on those who inflicted this terrible death on his son but offering them forgiveness.
The first story is very old, probably some of the oldest stories we have, the other is relatively young, probably one of the most recent stories we have in the biblical tradition. In between those stories there are four thousand years of faith development and changing insights about who God is and how he operates.
We talked about those ever changing images of God last week. From primitive tribal God king to personal friend, from the dispassionate weaver of the tapestry of eternity to the passionate lover longing for love, from a mighty power wielding God to the suffering servant in Isaiah 53.
Culminating in that picture of Jesus on the cross that became the primary insight for Christians as to how to understand God.
A primary insight they tried, later, to put into words in the apostolic creed.
5000 years or more of changing God images, changing ways of looking at and understanding God. A slow evolution that is still going with the apostolic creed, like the stories we find in scripture, just one more step along the way. Challenging us to find our own ways of making sense of God in the light of what scripture and tradition hands on to us from across the ages. Inviting us to reflect on it and decide how it translates into our experiences of God, our understanding, our life.
Now to the content of the second part of the creed, the part on Jesus Christ, which starts with the statement:
"I believe in Jesus Christ."
This, at least, is a statement I can wholeheartedly and unreservedly affirm. Because I believe, like the baptismal form states, that belief in Jesus Christ will help me to turn my life away from the darkness of evil to a life guided by God.
When I say I believe this means that I put my trust in Jesus, and accept his authority over every aspect of my life. Or to put it in other words: That I accept him as Lord.
This in the times of the bible as well as at the time the creed was conceived would have been a statement of defiance. The emperor was Lord and through a system of lords and over lords, had absolute power over his subjects. Saying Jesus Christ is Lord meant putting a higher authority over and above those worldly lords who had the power of life and death over you. It meant standing up for values and insights that may have been in contradiction with what the powers of the day felt was right and being prepared to suffer the consequences for it.
For us, this is totally different of course. But the choice is still the same: Who do we recognise as Lord over our life? Who do we give final authority? Are we prepared to entrust our live and the way we conduct it totally and unreservedly to Christ trusting that he will never use that authority other than to love and bring healing to us and to our world? Or are there other lords we try to serve at the same time?
"I believe in Jesus Christ, Gods only son "
Now there is a line I have trouble with. In scripture all sorts of people are called sons or daughters of God. Usually referring to any people who are part of the community of faith. So why cant Jesus just be one of those? Or more specifically: in what way does he differ from us?
The only way I can understand it is by saying that Jesus was more son of God than any other of us daughters and sons put together. That there was something very special about him, something his disciples identified as of God and that by saying Gods only son they really meant that Jesus was, in their mind, closer to God than any of us or them.
"He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary."
Another line full of trouble. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from a Virgin. With our present knowledge of how conception works that is quite impossible in a literal sense. There are two things who may make it easier on our 21st century minds to understand what has happened here: First of all virgin in a biblical sense does not necessarily mean virgin in the technical sense. The Hebrew word the gospels hark back to when they cite the prophets in connection with Mary is probably more adequately translated as young girl.
So even if we read it literally, it doesnt need to mean virgin in a literal sense.
Secondly: At the time people did not know how conception worked. It was the invention of the microscope which gave us some insight into that. It was thought at the time that the male spirit implanted itself in the womb, possibly by sexual intercourse, but they did not know about semen and eggs. Conception was thought to be a very male thing where the woman was nothing but the receptor of the male essence. This was an object of considerable male pride. By sidelining the male in the story about Jesus birth a far more important statement of faith is made than a statement of fact over a virgin bearing a child or not. For his conception this child is not dependent on male prowess or power. God is at the root of his life, and a young girl who knows how to receive God.
It also, very simply tells us Jesus is human, born like us, from a woman. Not some god in disguise who slips down from heaven, as figured in many of the myths of the ancient world.
"Was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and buried and descended into hell."
This part of the creed compounds that humanness. It tells us that Jesus was a real man, who lived a real life, at a certain time, in a certain place. And that he died and was buried, like any other human. This was important at the time and still is.
Because if Jesus was a god in disguise his whole story doesnt mean anything for us humans, it would only be another adventure of the gods and his death and resurrection nothing more than a bit of divine theatre.
No Jesus was a man who suffered and died a horrible death under Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea between 26 and 36 CE. Ending up in a place where he is cut off from God: hell.
Now dont think of those fantastic paintings of like there is on the front of your order of service. When the Bible talks about hell it is a place much worse than that. It is the place where we are cut of from God and from where no salvation is possible. Thats where Jesus spends his time between death and resurrection. In a place beyond Gods reach, and it is from there he is brought back to life.
And again: Literalists who worry about the factual yes or no of resurrection will miss the point here completely. It is not for us to wonder about the how and what. It is only for us to marvel that from such a place, so remote and totally cut off from light and life, God somehow brings resurrection.
This is the exodus repeated, but to a unimaginably higher degree. Releasing slaves from slavery is one thing, but bringing back life from the deepest pits of death is another.
The disciples probably only able to believe it because they had grown up with that other story about that other time when God had saved his people and brought them back from the dead.
So they tell the story in those terms: in terms of resurrection, of new life, of liberation, of salvation, of a totally different world beginning. A world where death doesnt have the last word any more and where even hell is not out of Gods reach.
And again that is more a statement of faith than of fact. It asks us not the question if someone who was dead can come to life again, but it asks us if we are prepared to believe that God can bring life into the deepest, most desperate darkness of all. To believe hat he didnt let Jesus get lost in death but held on to him, even beyond death in the pits of hell and that he can and will do the same for us.
That demands trust, and involves more than a cerebral belief of factuality.
"Ascended into heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead."
There is a whole sermon in that sentence alone! Suffice it to say that it tells us that Jesus is not here, but there. Jesus is gone from where we are and has left us with the responsibility. Until he returns.
For me that doesnt mean that one day the sky will break open and Jesus will appear sitting on a cloud. We know the earth is round, we know it is hanging in empty space and we know it would mean Jesus would at least have to do a 24 hour tour of judgement before we have all seen his coming.
What it does try to say though, as I understand it, is that with Jesus departure, his story hasnt finished. He is still there, somewhere, near the heart of God, as his right hand and that past, present and future are under the judgement of his living presence. Justice will be done. But by someone who knows the messiness and complexity of life, and has suffered deeply because of it.
After Christ the choice is ours. Either to believe or not to believe, to put our trust in him and to commit ourselves to his way or trust and commit to something else, to either accept him as Lord of our life or not.
A choice that brings obligations and asks for commitment. The choices we make matter, if not immediately and directly in the here and now, they do in the overall scheme of things, in the scheme of the Kingdom coming. The times are in Gods hand, the hand that held Jesus in death, and one day, some time, Gods hand will conquer all the forces of death and hell. That is what we say when we say we believe that Christ will come back to judge the living and the death. That we believe that there will be a point in history where judgement will take place, that it is taking place here and now where we make our choices and conduct our lives.
A compassionate, forgiving judgement from a God who descended into hell to save us, but a judgement nevertheless, putting the world to rights and banning all that bears the mark of the powers of darkness from it.