Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
19th of May, 2019
The Apostles Creed: Jesus Christ
I have mentioned before that the ecumenical creeds were written to answer particular questions. Last week we looked at some of the questions that the first clause of the Apostles Creed answers: do Christians worship the same God as Jews?; is the Father of Jesus Christ also the Creator of the cosmos? (Just to remind you, the early church answered both those questions with ‘yes’.) Today we look at the longest section of the Apostles Creed, the clause that is answering the question: ‘who is Jesus Christ’? One of the accusations that the early Christians were responding to in their creeds was that they worshipped more than one god, despite claiming to be monotheists. The world in which they lived was a world of many gods. Greeks and Romans were happy to believe that there was one Supreme Being, but they thought that the Supreme Being did not concern itself with daily life. Instead, it delegated the day-to-day running of things to lesser gods, and the Roman Empire only survived because these lesser gods were kept happy. The first Christians were accused of being atheists because they refused to join in traditional cultic celebrations. Other peoples in the Roman Empire had long known of and respected the Jews as monotheists, worshippers of a single God, and Christians claimed to be the same, despite proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. As a pagan, Celsus, wrote of the early Christians:
If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship his servant.
It was partly to answer this accusation, that Christians worship two gods, that the clauses of the creeds to do with Jesus were written.
The clauses that deal with Jesus say that he is both fully human, born of a human mother, dying a human death, and fully God, the only begotten Son of the Father. Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and descended to the dead. These are all things that happen to human beings. Then on the third day Jesus rose again, ascended into heaven, is now seated at the right hand of the Father, and one day he will come again to judge the living and the dead. These things are appropriate to God. And Jesus is both: fully human and fully God. This is who we worship. There is so much in these lines that I’m only going to have time today to hit some high points.
To begin, the Apostles Creed reminds us that Jesus was a human man. There is absolutely no question about his complete humanity. He was born the son of a marginalised human woman, the Virgin Mary. Note that in the Creed as we use it today ‘the Virgin Mary’ is a title, for those Protestants who struggle with the idea that Mary was or remained a literal virgin. But the reference to Mary as Virgin reminds us that at heart of the Incarnation is a miraculous, unusual, even scandalous, pregnancy. The birth of Jesus was like the birth of Isaac to the elderly Sarah; the birth of Samuel to the barren Hannah; the birth of John to the elderly Elizabeth. Whenever something amazing happens in the history of the people of Israel, the Bible tells us, it is inaugurated by an unusual pregnancy. The genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew lists four unusual and scandalous pregnancies, so his readers would be prepared to hear of the fifth.
As a man Jesus was born into a particular moment of history. We are reminded of that by the clause that he ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. Pontius Pilate is a historical governor, the Prefect of Judea under the Emperor Tiberius. His name in the Creed tells us that our faith is not based on myth or theory, but on history. It also reminds us that Jesus was born into a country under occupation, and that he was a Jew. I’ve often mentioned how incredibly wrong Christian antisemitism is; this is another chance for me to say it. Our Saviour was a Jewish man born at a time when being a Jew was no safer than it is today.
As a fully human person, Jesus was not only born; he also died. And his death was no easy or pleasant death. He suffered and then was crucified. He died the worst death his world knew; a death that was meant to humiliate him as he experienced it. As the Apostle Paul later explained to the church in Corinth, talk of a crucified messiah was ‘a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23). And yet this is what Christians proclaim; that the one we call Lord suffered and died a humiliating death; then was buried; then descended to the dead. Through Jesus, nothing that humanity experiences is alien to God; not even the worst and lowest. Not even death. Not even a horrifying death. As a human being Jesus experienced it all: birth, life, suffering, and death.
The Creed reminds us that this human man, the one who experienced all this, is also God. Jesus Christ is God’s only Son, our Lord. He was not just born of the Virgin Mary; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yes, he descended to the dead, but then on the third day he rose again. Death was not the end of the story; in Jesus death has been overcome. And just as God in Jesus experienced a human death, so through Jesus we human beings will experience resurrection. In Jesus, who is both human and God, what separated us from God has been overcome. The division between humanity and deity has been reconciled. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians: ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ The newness of life has overcome death. Jesus shares our human nature and so he experienced our death; Jesus is the Son of God and so through him death was defeated.
This part of the Creed then concludes by saying that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven … is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead’. God’s only Son, our Lord, is no longer limited to a single time and place as he was in the Incarnation. Instead he is now available to the entire creation. It does not matter that the events of his life were 2000 years ago. The ascended Jesus is always with us.
The last part of this section, that Jesus ‘will come to judge the living and the dead’ should be reassuring, rather than frightening. When we are judged, we will be judged by a God who knows intimately what it means to be human. As the Letter to the Hebrews says:
we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
We can look forward to the final judgement because the one who judges knows everything about us, including all the temptations we have faced and the reasons we have fallen short.
This leads me to another point about judgement. Have you heard of the theory of ‘penal substitutionary atonement’? It’s a particular way of understanding that mechanics of salvation. Basically: ‘atonement’ is the understanding that humanity is saved from death and sin through Christ’s death and resurrection; ‘substitution’ refers to the idea that Christ suffered and died in our place; and ‘penal’ refers to the idea that Christ’s death was a punishment. So, ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ is the theory that God’s justice demanded that humanity’s sin be punished, and that Jesus, by his own choice, was punished in humanity’s place, so that God could forgive sinners.
It’s not a very attractive theology, and it’s not a universal one, but because it is held by many people who write popular modern worship songs, it’s a theology that we can accidentally find ourselves singing. In its original form the song ‘In Christ Alone’ by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, which we sang last week, includes the lines: ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’. Many people who otherwise enjoy that song have trouble with those lines, so if you’d looked at the credits in last week’s Pew Sheet you would have seen a note saying that we sing a version amended by Terry Wright which instead reads: ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the God of love was glorified’. We do not have to believe in a wrathful God determined to punish someone for humanity’s sin.
The Apostles Creed doesn’t spell out for us exactly how we are saved. Incidentally, neither does the longer and earlier Nicene Creed. That Creed says that: ‘For us and for our salvation [Jesus Christ] came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human’. But how exactly we have been saved through the incarnation isn’t spelled out. There are many different theologies, and I lean towards that of the fourth-century theologian Athanasius, who argued that the incarnation was an act of re-creation, in which what had gone wrong in the first creation was made right in Jesus and the division between God and humanity was overcome. Athanasius argued that the Son could mediate between the Creator and the creation, because he was both, and that: ‘He became human that we might become divine’. But that is only one theory of how salvation happens and you might prefer others.
There has been so much discussion over this past week about whether or not Israel Folau and Scott Morrison believe that gay people are going to hell that we might have been fooled into thinking that having an opinion on that was integral to our faith. The Apostles Creed reminds us that it’s not. What the Apostles Creed is concerned with is not the mechanics of salvation, or who might or might not go to hell, but the identity of Jesus Christ. This is what is at the heart of Christianity, not a theory or a theology, but a person. As I have said before, the creeds aren’t primarily doctrinal. Instead they are doxological, ways of acknowledging and praising God for what God has done for us in Jesus: come close to us, loved us, saved us. This is what we celebrate as we say the Apostles Creed together. So I invite you to stand and say it:
In unity with the whole Church
throughout time and space
let us stand and affirm the faith
into which we were all baptised.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
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 to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
 Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (1991), p 33,