Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.
When he came to his hometown, he taught the people in their synagogue. They were surprised and said, “Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.
But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns and in their own households.” He was unable to do many miracles there because of their disbelief.
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
There’s an old joke that riffs off the question in Matthew 16:15. In the gospel, Jesus asks Peter, “who do you say that I am?” In the joke, Jesus asks the same question of a group of theologians. They go away for a bit, scratching their heads and comparing notes. There’s arguing but eventually one of them comes back, clears his throat, and intones:
“You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.”
And Jesus, sitting on a dusty hill in Galilee among the smelly sheep, says, “huh?”
There are millions of books about Jesus. Millions of pieces of art. Movies, podcasts, TV shows. Millions upon millions of ideas, interpretations, and opinions about who this Jesus is that so many of us have committed our lives to.
To preach a sermon on the topic of Jesus is like trying to pour an ocean into a single cup: it just isn’t possible. So today we’re going to look specifically at the phrases about Jesus found in the Apostle’s Creed—why we say what we do about Jesus when we recite these ancient words.
Before I begin, I want to note that I am indebted to the work of Justo Gonzalez and his book The Apostles’ Creed for Today in preparing this sermon. Hang with me, folks—we’re drinking from a fire hose today.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that creeds are not disinterested, academic summaries of scripture or doctrine: creeds are created specifically to mark the boundaries between what we believe and what we don’t. There’s plenty that we as Christians believe that’s not in the creed, but that’s because it wasn’t under attack at the time. Jesus, however, was.
The Jesus of the gospels—that carpenter’s son from Nazareth who so repulsed his neighbors in his hometown by his divine claims, that man who hung out with shepherds and fishermen and tax collectors, who rubbed mud and spit on a blind man’s eyes and bled out and died on a cross—he made a poor God for the sophisticates of the Roman empire. And so as Christianity gained steam, some folks started to remake Jesus in a more “enlightened” image. Last week we talked about Marcion, who believed that creation was the evil product of an evil god, while Jesus was the loving spirit who had come to free us from the earth. Marcion was joined by Gnostics, who had a similar dualism between spirit and matter, and Docetists, who argued that Jesus wasn’t human, but only “seemed” to be—that he was never really a part of the mess and muck that is human life. Never really one of us.
And so the Christians of Rome who developed the first drafts of this creed proclaimed, in a series of taut phrases, that they believed in the messy, mysterious Jesus of scripture, and were unashamed of him.
In the actual gospel parodied by the joke I told a few minutes ago, when Jesus asks Peter, “who do you say that I am?,” Peter responds with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” So I think it is no coincidence that that is where the Apostle’s Creed begins as well:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord.
Let’s start with the basics. Jesus—or Yeshua, as he would have been called—was a common first name in the first century Jewish community, meaning “God saves.” Jesus was far from the only Jesus running around Palestine. His peers may have called him Yeshua bar Yosef—Jesus son of Joseph. But he identified himself as Christos—the Greek version of Messiah, both words meaning anointed, anointed like prophets and kings. Jesus is his name, and Messiah his role—marking a continuation of Jewish hopes and beliefs in the coming Messiah. Remember Marcion, and how he loathed the Jewish faith? In the very way the creed names Jesus, it proclaims that Christianity stands squarely upon the shoulders of Jewish faith.
The creed refers to Jesus as God’s only son. Now, there were a number of religious groups in Jesus’ day that referred to themselves as sons of God, the same way we might call each other children of God. It is a metaphorical way of claiming to be part of God’s loved and loving family. But the creed makes a unique claim: that Jesus is God’s only son, not in metaphor but in reality. It is an extraordinary relationship, one unreplicated anywhere else in human history. Moreover, where Marcion claimed that Jesus was the good God here to save humanity from the evil creator God of the Jewish scriptures, the Apostles’ Creed declares that they are of the same lineage, working in tandem like a Father & Son company in the business of loving the world.
Finally, this first phrase ends with the proclamation that Jesus is our Lord. “Jesus is Lord” is the oldest creed, found within scripture itself. Lord, Kyrios, was a political title, claimed by emperors and local statesmen alike. Gonzales notes, “when Christians dared call Jesus “our Lord,” they were uttering subversive and perhaps even seditious statements. They were claiming that there was another Lord besides-and even above-the emperor.” Even further, by proclaiming that Jesus was our Lord, these early Christians announced that he was not one among several forces that had their allegiance, but their highest and only authority in life and in death.
From this first summation of who Jesus is, the creed launches into a brief biography of Jesus—again, lifting up the points that were under controversy in the second century. “[He] was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” the creed says. I know people who struggle with this part of the creed—the Virgin birth in particular. It seems too otherworldly, too impossible. Yet when these statements were first written into the creed, they were there to point out just how physical Christ’s entrance into this world was. Marcion claimed that Christ had not been born; other Christians claimed he simply appeared in a burst of light, or poured from Mary’s body like water through a glass, never actually touching her. Yet the Roman Christians insisted that Jesus had undergone human birth—miraculous, but real—that messy, painful, bodily process. Jesus came from a body, in a body. Jesus was one of us.
If there is one complaint I hear most about the creed—and in fact, one that I share—is that it reduces Jesus’ whole life, ministry, teachings, healings, all of it—to a comma between his birth and death. It’s true. But again, these things were not contested, and so we bounce from Jesus birth to his death.
The creed says Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” The Romans did not say that something happened in 33AD. They dated their history either from the founding of Rome or from the tenures of various rulers. To say Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate is to ground his death in a very particular moment in time, to say it really happened. Other religions had myths where gods underwent recurring deaths and resurrections, usually metaphors to explain the change in the seasons. The creed insists that Jesus’ death is not a metaphor. It happened, on a specific day, once; but with eternal consequences.
If you’ll pardon the pun, I always thought this section of the creed was a bit… well, overkill. Crucified, dead, and buried? But again, the creed is pushing back against a very specific array of heresies. Early Christians who denied Jesus’ humanity had a variety of explanations for what really happened around the cross, but what they had in common was a belief that Jesus could not have had a human body like ours, and therefore could not have suffered, and could not have died. Not really.
And so the creed hammers it home: Jesus. Really. Died.
And not just died, but was crucified. The method is important. Gonzalez notes, “For those early Christians to affirm that their Lord was crucified would be as scandalous as for someone today to affirm faith in a person who died in the electric chair. What the Creed actually affirms is that the Lord-the Kyrios whom Christians follow even in preference to the emperor-died like a common criminal under Roman law.”
The next phrase in the creed is perhaps the trickiest, scripturally and historically—he descended into hell. It is not in our earliest versions of the creed. We can spot in one version in the fourth century, but it doesn’t appear widely until the sixth, and isn’t included in the official version until the ninth. Even today, there are churches—Methodists, notably—who decline to include this creedal latecomer. The idea that Jesus spent his three days between death and resurrection in hell is suggested only sideways in the Bible, but it became a beloved story in the medieval church, sometimes called the Harrowing of Hell. It’s the idea that Christ marched into the very stronghold of sin and evil, broke down the doors, and set the prisoners free. It’s the idea that there’s nowhere we can go and nothing we can experience where Jesus hasn’t already been. Songwriter Andy Gullahorn puts it this way: “Even hell is not a God-forsaken place.”
Gonzales imagines Jesus as a sort of time bomb or Trojan horse. “In the incarnation,” he writes, “God entered a world and a humanity where evil held sway, that at the cross the devil seemed to have conquered, took home a neatly wrapped package that seemed his greatest prize, and smugly locked it in his safe. But the package was a time bomb. […] And on the third day…”
Well, on the third day he rose again from the dead.
The resurrection is the defining moment of Christianity. Without it, Christianity is a series of interesting moral questions and adages, “one helpful philosophy among others.” It is what makes Jesus worth our devotion, our praise, and our very lives.
The very day of resurrection, that third day, became itself a symbol for Christ’s resurrection. The earliest Christians spent Friday in penitence, and Saturday in Sabbath, but began to meet every week on that third day, our Sunday, to celebrate, to feast and joyfully relive Christ’s victory over sin and death, the day we were ushered into a new creation, and a new world.
From the resurrection, the creed continues its soaring climb heavenward.
He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Gonzalez writes that the “ascension of Jesus means that his incarnation is not over. The Jesus who rose from the dead is still as human as he ever was. He did not leave his humanity behind.” And so it is that a fully human God sits in heaven, paving a path for us to join him.
The creed declares that Jesus sits at God’s right hand. That does not mean that God is a rightie. “To sit “at” the right hand of another is to have the place of highest honor. This goes hack to the time when warriors carried a shield in their left hand and an offensive weapon -a sword, lance, or mace-in their right. This made them particularly vulnerable to attack from the right, and therefore every chieftain or king placed his most trusted warrior at his right. As a result, the custom evolved of having the most honored adviser of a king sit at the right of the throne.” Jesus’ work was not done when he left earth. He is forever co-ruling with God, forever present and available to us.
The last phrase of the Jesus part of the creed gives many people pause. For one, what does it mean to say “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead?” Quick simply means alive—Jesus shall return to judge all of us, whether it happens in our lifetime or not.
We do not often stress the image of Jesus as our judge, and it can sit uncomfortably in modern ears. Yet one last time, we are drawing the line between Marcionism and our view of Christ. For Marcion, only Yahweh—the god of the Old Testament—was interested in judging, which he saw as retribution and punishment. In contrast, Christ was all-forgiving and merciful.
Yet justice and love are not so easily divisible. Sometimes demanding justice—that behaviors be adjusted until things are made right—is the only way to show love. Love tempers justice, but justice gives love power. Throughout both the old and new testaments, God the creator and God the son show the divine interweaving of loving judgment, calling people back to the right treatment of one another. As Gonzales puts it, “Ours is a God of such love that it is perfect justice, and of such justice that it is perfect love.”
And for those of us who still hear the word “judge” and feel fear or anxiety coiling in our gut, the creed reassures us that the judge we are coming before is not a cold, distant stranger, but a friend we have known all our lives; a friend who was born, suffered, and died for us; a friend who has walked in our shoes. This is who we will meet, and this is who will set us right.
This is probably clocking in as one of my longest sermons, and there’s still much I’ve left unsaid. Jesus is a magnetic mystery that I have dedicated my life to exploring, a mystery that has drawn in billions upon billions of people over the years. He has a thousand names and wears a thousand faces, and all the theologians of the world cannot fully explain him.
Yet when Karl Barth, a German theologian known for long sentences and complicated philosophies, was asked to sum up what he knew about Jesus in a single sentence, he smiled and said:
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
 González, Justo L. The Apostles’ Creed for Today. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Kindle edition.
 Andy Gullahorn, “Godforsaken Place.” Fault Lines. 2016.
 González, Justo L. The Apostles’ Creed for Today. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Kindle edition.