Sunday March 6, 2011
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was Crucified, Dead, and Buried
Apostles' Creed Series, Sermon 6
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is the sixth sermon in our series on the Apostles’ Creed, as we take it phrase by phrase. The Apostles’ Creed, which is the creed of Holy Baptism in Western Christianity, is used at Morning and Evening Prayer (Mattins and Evensong) in The Book of Common Prayer. You may notice that the creed is organized around the Three Persons of the Trinity, gathered into three paragraphs, one for the Father, the second and longest for the Son, and the third for the Holy Ghost.
The length and detail of the second paragraph, the paragraph on God the Son, is especially noteworthy. It is meant to rehearse believers in the essential facts of the Son’s incarnation, his life on earth in our human flesh – a pilgrimage of self-emptying love which the Lord undertook for us and for our salvation. Each fact is a milestone along the way of Christ’s life-saving mission.
Last week, Father Austin, speaking about the Son’s conception by the Holy Spirit and his birth of the Virgin Mary, made clear Christ’s Personal identity. The Son, the Word of the Father, begotten from all eternity, very God of very God, took our nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance, so that two whole and perfect Natures, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is the one Lord Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect Man; like us in every respect except for sin.
But it was because of sin and its consequences, especially death, that God undertook his mission in Christ. So last week we took note of the Person of Christ. This week we take note of Christ’s Work. After his Baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness by the devil, Jesus went about teaching and doing the works of the Kingdom of God. It seems inevitable that this teaching and work would bring Jesus into a lethal collision with this sinful and broken world.
That the creed mentions the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is not so much an indictment of his person as it is an historical dating of the Lord’s trial, judgment, and execution – crucifixion – which was the prescribed Roman punishment for all condemned as disturbers of the Roman peace. After attempting to nail Jesus on charges of blasphemy (making himself to be equal to God), Sabbath-breaking, and making threats to destroy (and rebuild in three days) the Jerusalem Temple, the majority in the Jewish council made Pilate fear that a riot over Jesus would ensue. Failing in efforts to release Jesus, Pilate finally handed him over to crucifixion to keep the peace.
It is important to understand who the guilty party is. While it is true that the Jewish Council, led by the high priests, voted to condemn Jesus, members of that same council dissented, and more than a few appear to have become disciples and were later baptized. At the same time, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him, and their leader Peter denied him, while most of the rest fled from his arrest and trial. The Jewish people were not then or ever collectively guilty of the blood of Christ, who is, let us not forget, as Jewish as anyone can be. He came not to destroy, but to fulfill the ancient faith. The anti-Jewish libel is in fact one of the great sins of Christendom. Over against this libel, turning the tables, it has always been the fact that Jesus’ death was foreseen by God as a result of the sins of the whole world, past, present and future; and that sinners of every time and place, including the first disciples and us here and now, are implicated in Jesus’ death. It is false and cowardly to seek to blame anyone but yours truly, the person we see in the mirror, for the suffering and death of our Lord. [For the face that we see in the mirror is one of the faces around the cross, involved, one way or another, in his crucifixion.]
But we need to understand that the indictment of guilt leads to the Good News. “His blood be upon us, and upon our children,” said the crowd to Pilate. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus as he was crucified. And now, in the light of his Resurrection, we all ask for Christ’s blood to be upon us and our children, that we might be cleansed from all our sins, dying with Christ, in order to live anew in him. Yes indeed, let the Lord’s blood be upon us all, that we all might be saved; his blood is shed for the remission of sins.
So Jesus Christ, having suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified. And he died. And he was buried. From the vantage point of his resurrection, the Church sees that Jesus’ violent death was not the result of evil chance, not some horrible mistake. In the words of Saint Peter, it was the definite plan and foreknowledge of God – the plan and foreknowledge of his love. Jesus foresaw it and took it on. It is why the day Christ died is named Good Friday. It is the hour of Jesus’ victory. Saint John calls it his glorification.
God did not die when Jesus expired. The Son in his perfect human nature was killed. The Son’s death is something that could not have happened except by violence. However, although sinners are not able to kill God, nevertheless in killing Christ, sinners are as culpable as if we had killed God himself. We need to understand the immensity of what happened on the cross. For Christ did not count his equality and union with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking our nature and going even to death on the cross. The Personal Union of the divine, eternal Son, God the Son, with his sinless human nature was even unto and in death. [So there is a true sense in which God, God the Son, underwent death; just as he underwent conception in the Virgin’s womb and birth.] This is why, as we shall see, that Christ was our Savior as his body lay in the tomb and his spirit descended into hell. It is also why it was impossible for death and the grave to hold him in its corrupting grasp.
What did Christ accomplish in his death? Two things: 1) a sacrifice for sin, and 2) an example of godly life. The sacrifice for sin is a great mystery. It is the Atonement, the At-one-ment, the Reconciliation of God in bringing us back from captivity in sin to freedom in grace. It is the gift that is the Good News of the Gospel, signed and sealed by God in raising Jesus from the dead. The example of godly life is that love, self-giving love, is truly the way of life and peace, of joy and happiness, of genuine meaning and purpose. Love conquers all; and again, it has been signed, sealed and delivered as Christ’s last will and testament from his tomb, the tomb that on the third day was found empty and attended by angels. In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
 The Book of Common Prayer, Articles of Religion, II.