Exploring the Apostles Creed
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Part 5: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried ...’

by Rev. Robert Griffith
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Pontius Pilate. Where did he come from? Just cast your mind back on the parts of this Creed that we've already explored together. A good God creates a good world. That God has an only Son from eternity Who comes into this world and that Son comes into this world not hovering off the ground as a ghostly being but He is born of a woman, the Virgin Mary, a woman who gives a total unqualified ‘yes’ to God - a woman who truly trusts in God. So the eternal Son of God is born into this creation.
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Up until now in the Creed, it sounds as though this is a perfect world. Up until now it's all sunlight, lollipops and bunny rabbits; it's all wonderful. You would think the Creed is describing Utopia, a world made by God, and then God comes and is united to that world. But then all of a sudden, like a filthy dog entering a nice clean room, we see the name Pontius Pilate. All of a sudden, for the first time, the Creed reminds us, as if we needed any reminding, that all is not well in this world.
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In actual fact, it's often a struggle to believe that this is God's good creation, because there's such an ugly scar running across the creation that God made. While the Virgin Mary is a picture of perfect trust and obedience, perfect responsiveness to God's will, Pontius Pilate reminds us that there is something in this world that twists into a sinister sneer when confronted with God, the Creator. Pontius Pilate rejects the Lord Jesus. His rejection of God is as absolute as Mary's acceptance. These are the two polar opposites and possibilities of human response to God and although the Creed never mentions the fall, or original sin, or the problem of evil, in these simple words “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” we are suddenly taken right to the heart of the crisis in creation, the crisis in our world, that we who have been brought into being by the love of God, have cast God aside. We whom God has made for communion with Himself, reject God and make God suffer. We, over whom God stands as Judge, place ourselves in the judgment seat as we reject and crucify God incarnate. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
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It's very striking that the Creed doesn't really include any biography of Jesus. Some people complain about this that there is no summary of the Gospel story. In fact, the whole biography of Jesus, the whole life story of Jesus is summed up in this phrase, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This comes out of the New Testament where some of the writers quite happily sum up the whole of Jesus’ existence with one word like suffered or humiliated, or even the phrase: Jesus Christ who died. It’s as if that's all we need to say in order to understand what happens when God comes to our world. God is cast out. God is rejected. God suffers at the hands of humans. God becomes available for our acceptance or rejection, and then God is rejected, despised and executed. Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
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In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he summarizes the whole life story of Jesus by saying that although Jesus was equal with God, He didn't hold on to that but laid it aside and humbled Himself. To say that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’is to speak of His humility. Jesus humbled Himself, He lowered Himself. He was in the highest place - equal with God from eternity -  but He stoops down, face to face with us and then lowers Himself even more by taking on the form of a slave. Then, just because that wasn't quite as low as you can go, He takes upon Himself a slave’s death, death by crucifixion. In the ancient Roman world that's as low as you can go. The lowest you can go in the social hierarchy is to have a slave’s death, to be executed on a cross. Paul sums up Jesus' whole life by saying He humbled Himself in this way, His whole life was a descent, a downward movement to make sure that no human being would be beneath Him; to make sure He had gone to the lowest place before gathering all things up to Himself and to God.
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Now, the amazing thing about Philippians 2 is that Paul begins this little account of Jesus' humility by saying we should have the same mind that Jesus had; the same attitude; whatever your reputation, your power, your glory, your prestige, make sure you give it away; make sure you use it in order to serve others; make sure you humble yourself. Now of course, this has always been characteristic of Christian morality, that we believe in humility, in servanthood, in taking, not the head of the table, but the lowest place and trying to make sure there's always room for someone else to be in the position of honour.
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I don't know if you've thought about this before, but the early followers of Jesus were the very first people in the history of the world to ever talk about humility as if it was a good thing. In the ancient Roman Empire, humility was almost like a swear word. Humility meant that you were crushed. Humility meant that you were debased. Humility meant that you were despicable. Ancient Roman morality was all about honour and the way you have a good life in ancient Roman society, is by deliberately gathering more and more honour to yourself; doing things that will increase your own glory, your own reputation. The aim of life was to have a great reputation, so it was quite normal to go around parading your achievements and reminding others of your status. To be humbled, to have humility was a really bad thing. That was the worst thing that could happen to you. So you would avoid humanity like the plague. Anything that lowers your status among others is a very bad thing in the ancient Roman Empire. So the early followers of Jesus are the first people ever who view the whole world upside down when they dared to suggest that the best thing you can do with your life is to become a servant; the best thing you can do with your life is to give away your glory and your reputation in order to serve others.
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That’s why the Apostle Paul, with a strange pride in his voice, likes to call himself a slave of Christ. He says it not spinelessly and miserably but like this is a great honour. ‘I am a slave of Jesus Christ.’ Now if you went outside today and just asked people on the street, do you think it's better to spend your life expanding your own reputation or giving away some of your power in order to serve others? I reckon most of the people you asked regardless of whether they had been to Church or ever read the Bible, would say it's better to serve others. Well, guess what? That is one of the gifts of the Christian faith to the world - the fact that we live in a world where humility is now seen by many people as a good thing. Jesus and His followers brought that change into our world. In the ancient world, it was exactly the reverse. The message of the cross of Jesus has overturned the world's values, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. So that's a great benefit of the Christian faith that we were able to live in societies where it's assumed that there's something inherently good about serving others, about lowering yourself to help others. This was by no means assumed in the ancient world. But . . . there is a darker side to this too.
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It's all very well and good if you're rich; it's all very well and good to be told to give away your things to help the poor if you're powerful and honourable and have a lot of prestige; it's all very well and good for you to be told you should lower yourself and become a servant when you have so much. What about people who don't have any power? What about people who are systematically crushed by society? What does it mean for them to be told to be servants and to become a slave? What if someone is already a slave? Surely this is the most disempowering thing they could ever hear. In fact, a lot of Christians today feel very uncomfortable about humility, very uncomfortable about the language of servanthood. Because isn't this a way of subjugating people who need power
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Shouldn't people who are already at the bottom of society be told that they should be raising themselves up; have pride in yourself, have some self esteem, don't give away anything, try and build yourself up; try and get some power? Well, I need to make a comment here. I do think that there's a valid point here, I think there's something about the message of the cross that can be abused. It is possible to use that message as a way of keeping someone in their place. For example if you are in a Christian bookshop and you go to the kids section, most of what you read is about keeping kids subservient to their parents by teaching them Bible stories. And amazingly, you can read through some children's Bibles and almost every Bible story turns out to be some kind of secret message about obeying your authorities. That’s a simple example of turning the Christian message into an instrument of control. The kids never get all the stories about children killing their parents and stuff. Strangely, they edit those bits out of that Bible.
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Here's an historical example. There are records which were kept on the slave plantations in America. There are records of slave owners reading the New Testament to their slaves and reminding them that even God wants them to submit; that even God wants them to be able to suffer patiently; that God will reward them one day if they continue to be subject to human authority. It’s a very disturbing picture of someone abusing and twisting the message of the cross in order to keep people under control. So that can happen and there's no excuse for that. But here's the other side of this. Those slaves rather liked this idea about God on the cross. They started to take it to heart. They started to write and sing songs about it – we used to call them Negro Spirituals and I am sure you know some. They started to teach their children about the cross. They started learning to read primarily so they could read the Bible for themselves because they weren't sure if these white slave owners were quite giving them the full picture. So over time, people who were still outwardly slaves began to stand up straight on the inside. On the outside, they were bound, but inside they had been set free. Because they thought that if God was with Jesus, and Jesus was oppressed, rejected and condemned; if God was with Him, then God must be with us because we are in the same place. If God was with Jesus and vindicated Him, then maybe God is going to vindicate us too. So the message of the cross became a liberating message, a message that turned you into a free person on the inside.
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In the fourth century, there was a great Egyptian theologian by the name of Athanasius and he wrote a wonderful book on the incarnation. It’s a great book about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Athanasius describes the cross of Christ as Christ's ‘trophy over death.’ The cross was the symbol of shame in the ancient world. Just think about this. If you were going to start a movement, you may think, well Scientology has really taken off; the healthy eating movement has really taken off; I'm going to start a new movement and get a lot of people involved and become really powerful. I know what we're going to do, we'll gather together in little buildings, maybe just start in our houses and we will worship shame. We'll sing hymns about shame. We'll pray prayers about how wonderful shame is, then we'll work really hard at turning ourselves into slaves. Now this will be a big hit. They're going to love it in California, you know, this is what life’s all about! You don't do that. Do you? If you want to get people involved in something, you find out what they want, and tell them that you're the one who's going to give it to them. I've got secret knowledge and if you embrace my knowledge, I'll help you get what you want. No one gets together to worship shame. No one wants servitude.
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But you see, Christianity takes this ancient symbol of shame and disgrace, the cross; the most despicable thing that can happen to a human; and Jesus turns it into a trophy. He turns it into a symbol of life. Athanasius says, not only is the cross Christ's trophy, but the bodies of the martyrs, all those thousands of Christians in the early Church who went to their deaths, singing hymns; who went to their deaths, confessing Christ, he says those bodies have also become Christ's trophies. Death, which everybody used to be afraid of, now there's a whole community of people who don't fear it; who, faced with death, don't run and hide, they sing, they recite Scripture and they worship God.
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Athanasius has a lovely illustration. He says, imagine seeing from a distance some children playing with a lion. The lion is lying down on the ground and maybe some of them are tugging its tail and some are pulling its ears, and some of them are climbing up on its back. What would you think? Well, he said, of course you'd conclude it must be a dead lion. It's the only reason they would play with it. And Athanasius says, why is it that Christians treat death like some kind of toy? Death is the worst thing that can happen to you and yet Christians play with it. They go to their deaths, singing, he said. Some of them even run to meet their deaths, because they're so glad for the opportunity to be public witnesses to Christ. What does that mean? He says, it must mean that death itself has died.
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So the cross, a symbol of shame, has become a trophy, and death, the thing that we fear most has become a kind of toy. Athanasius says, well, it's not that Christians don't die. They still die, but death which used to be defeat and something to be dreaded, now itself becomes a kind of victory. Just go to the local cemetery and look at the way we place a cross over the bodies of the dead. It's not because we're saying they've died a shameful death. That cross is now a sign of victory. It's a sign that death won't have the last word. Those who sleep will rise.
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Well, if it's true that the message of Christ's humiliation on the cross, a suffering Christ, a Christ who suffers under Pontius Pilate, if it's true that this message can be twisted and distorted by the powerful, I think it's also true that there is no message in history more inherently subversive and liberating. You could start out telling that message to slaves in order to keep them in their place, but just you wait one day, they'll be standing up straight looking at you as if they were a king. Think of Mary’s song in Luke chapter one. God is casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Think of Paul, in his letter to the Philippians. He is in prison, in chains. If there's a member of your family in prison, you feel ashamed. It's a shameful thing to be in prison and yet Paul writes as if he's a king. He writes like a liberated, happy man. He is telling them to rejoice. He's giving people orders and telling them what to do. He's like the Lord of the earth, yet He’s in prison. You can do what you like to him on the outside, but on the inside, he's standing up straight, in Christ.
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Let me finish with this. In his letter to the Romans, Paul spends several chapters describing the meaning of Christ's death and then he reaches this great crescendo at the end of chapter eight. Listen to what the message of the cross, the message of the suffering, humiliated Christ will do to you.

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ( Romans 8:31-39 )

The message of a crucified God will completely liberate you on the inside, you’ll be standing up straight, and once death has lost its hold; once death itself is no longer a thing of terror, then there is nothing left in all creation, of which you ever need to be afraid. Thanks be to God.

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FEEDBACK: robert@gunnedahbaptist.org.au
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