Close your eyes, and tell me: what image do you see, when I say: “Jesus”?
Do you see a picture from a childhood Sunday School page? Do you see one of the actors who took on what has to be the hardest role in the world…. a Jesus who looks like Jeffrey Hunter from “King of Kings,” or perhaps Ted Neeley from “Jesus Christ, Superstar”?
Or maybe the image of Jesus that sticks with you is the famous, traditional one you can find hanging in my office, the one many of us affectionately call “Blonde Jesus.” Or, the multi-racial “Jesus of the Millennium” by artist Janet McKenzie. Or maybe the image released in 2001 by a forensic anthropologist for a BBC documentary. That image was based on 2000-year-old skeletal remains of a Galilean man, with tightly curly dark-brown or black hair, and a dark, middle-Eastern complexion.
We all grow up with our ideas of what Jesus looked like, even if we don’t grow up in church, because images of Jesus are pretty ubiquitous in our American culture. So, when we come to the part of the Apostles’ Creed that is about God the Christ, there’s a good chance each of us has a somewhat specific image in our heads or in our hearts.
We began our exploration of the Apostles’ Creed last week, with the words:
“I believe, I trust, in God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
The second part continues…
…And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary…
As soon as we come to God the Christ we are confronted with the Virgin birth, easily one of the most controversial doctrines in the creed, with the controversy going right back to biblical times. In fact, in the early years of the spread of the gospel, those who were offended or troubled by the young religion offered a counter-narrative, that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman soldier named Pantera. But more to the point, here we come face to face with some points about Jesus’ life that we can find affirmed in two of the four gospels: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” These are features of the gospels of Matthew and Luke—the stories we hear throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. But they are conspicuously absent from the gospels of John and Mark. Instead, John offers us the passage we heard this morning.
In some bibles, the first chapter of John’s gospel is printed in poetic stanzas. This is poetry. And, it does not speak of a young couple having their wedding plans disrupted by an unexpected, divinely initiated pregnancy. Instead, like last week’s passage from Genesis, it goes back to the beginning. Jesus Christ is not described as the son of Mary and stepson of Joseph. Here, he is “the Word,” a Greek term that means both “something that is said,” and, because of the way it is used in this gospel, “a divine utterance,” and “the Christ.” And, just as a reminder, “Christ,” is a Greek word that means the same as the Hebrew word “Messiah,” and those words both mean “anointed.”
The Word = Divine speech = The Christ = The Messiah = The Anointed One.
And John tells us, this being, the Word, was present with God at the very beginning… which is to say, before the beginning, which is the point at which all our brains break, because how can something or someone exist “before the beginning”?
So, let’s go back to poetry.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
We hear this at Christmas, too, but it’s late in our service, after communion, when we are all standing in a circle holding candles in the darkness of the sanctuary. After we have heard about the baby and the shepherds and the angels, we are told this part of the story, which takes us into this deep mystery at the same time it seeks to answer “Why.” Why, exactly, was this baby born?
John gives three reasons. First, for Creation—the Word was present with God at Creation, and everything that exists came into being through the Word.
Second: for Incarnation. The Word is made flesh—i.e., becomes human, mortal, like us—and dwells among us. That word, “dwells,” is one of my favorite words in all of scripture. It means, literally, “tabernacles,” which is a kind of funny, fancy word. But behind it is the very simple and familiar word, “tent.” The Word becomes human, and sets up a tent among us. God comes as a human—not dressed up as one, mind you, but really human—and is so committed to dwelling with us that God becomes supremely portable, walks with us, follows us around, and settles in a tent, which can be moved at a moment’s notice.
And the third reason this baby was born? For Revelation, to reveal something. The Word became flesh to show us what God looks like; to show us what God acts like; to show us what God does.
The creed moves very fast through the life of Jesus—this is my complaint about it. As soon as Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary,” he “suffers under Pontius Pilate,” and is “crucified, dead, and buried.” And this brings us to the other controversial aspect of the creed, what Paul, in our reading from 1 Corinthians, calls “the foolishness of the cross.”
Paul either doesn’t know about or doesn't care about the Virgin birth, since he never mentions it in any of his letters. But his theology is built upon the crucifixion: it is the heart of his proclamation of faith. In fact, Paul seems also never to have heard of Jesus as a teacher, or as a healer. He doesn’t seem to know any of Jesus’ parables. What he knows is Christ, and Christ crucified.
He also knows that people are ready to reject the cross. We have to ask why. Why did the cross so repulse people? Was it simply because they could not imagine God stooping so low as to allow it—a violent death for God the Christ? Scholar Paula Frederickson provides us with one possible reason why:
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.
The cross was considered foolish because the cross was shameful. It was the most shameful death possible. It was what the Roman Empire did to those it considered dangerous to the social order. In this way, crucifixion looks a lot like lynching, as scholar James H. Cone observes. He writes:
People reject the cross because it contradicts historical values and expectations… Suffering and death were not supposed to happen to the Messiah. He was expected to triumph over evil and not be defeated by it. How could God’s revelation be found connected with the “the worst of deaths,” the “vilest death,” “a criminal’s death on the tree of shame”? Like the lynching tree in America, the cross in the time of Jesus was the most “barbaric form of execution of the utmost cruelty,” the absolute opposite of human value systems. It turned reason upside down.
But Paul tells us, what is foolish to us humans is the wisdom of God. And in the symbol of the cross, African Americans found an image of God suffering along with them, both in slavery, and in the ongoing struggle to be seen as human beings whose lives matter. God dwells in a tent with us, and is with us through it all. The image of Jesus on the cross—so foolish, in some eyes, reveals this beautiful truth.
When I was looking for images of Jesus this week I came across one from a stained glass window at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Known in its community as a haven for the African American community, that church was ripped apart one Sunday morning in September 1963 by fifteen sticks of dynamite planted beneath the steps on the East side of the church. Four young girls died as a result of that act of white supremacist terrorism. Their names were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.
The stained glass window shows Jesus as a African American man, who might be on a cross, or who might be the victim of a lynching. With one hand, he is pushing away hatred and injustice, and with the other he is offering forgiveness. The window was created by a Welsh artist, John Petts, who, along with people around the world, was moved by news of the bombing. The people of Wales were asked to donate towards the creation of the window, but no one was allowed to give more than half a crown (around 15 U.S. cents in today’s money), so that the window would truly be given by the people of Wales.
The next words of the Apostles’ Creed drive home the loving kinship of Jesus with the people of the 16th Street Baptist Church, with those families whose lives were torn apart on what was supposed to be a normal Sunday at worship: “he descended into hell.” This is the phrase I told you about last week, the very last phrase to be added to the Apostles’ Creed. It took a long time, because the phrase seemed, to some, to go beyond what scripture tells us. A second century bishop gives us his understanding of it:
By the cross death is destroyed,
and by the cross salvation shines;
By the cross the gates of hell are burst,
and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened.
God the Christ descends to hell to break out the people who are in there. But he also descends with us into the moments of our lives we experience as hell on earth, again and again, pitching a tent with us, being present with all who are suffering in healing love.
In fact, that is what resurrection is. The destruction of death results in the final, loving healing. One hymn describes Jesus’ descent into hell and his rising again this way:
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that rises green.
…the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…
The final words about Jesus Christ in the Apostles’ Creed tell us:
… from thence (that is, from the right hand of God the Father) he shall come to judge the quick (or, “the living”) and the dead.
To understand this phrase, we turn to the Presbyterian Study Catechism:
Question: How do you understand the words that "he will come again to judge the living and the dead"?
Answer: Like everyone else, I too must stand in fear and trembling before the judgment seat of Christ. But the Judge is the one who submitted to judgment for my sake. Nothing will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord. All the sinful failures that cause me shame will perish as through fire, while any good I may have done will be received with gladness by God.
The Creed’s words on judgment turn out to be sweetly encouraging. Our judge is the one who hung on a cross, in solidarity with everyone who was ever unjustly condemned, or who was caught up in systems too corrupt or tarnished by prejudice to treat them fairly. God is love, and nothing can separate us from that love. Nothing. Not ever.
What image do you carry with you, when you think of or hear or read the name, “Jesus”? We all grow up with an image of Jesus in our head or in our heart, in part, because we all want to understand him, to know him better. And people of every culture have seen Jesus in their own image. I used to worry about that. I don’t think we should erase the fact that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. But I have come to believe that the many images of God the Christ remind us powerfully that God is, in the end, beyond our particular categories of appearance, race, color. God the Christ is for all people. All people, in our beautiful and diverse particularity, are loved and embraced by God. Whatever the Jesus of your heart looks like, this statement of faith reminds us of these powerful and beautiful truths: the image of God is love; the actions of God are love; and the heart of God is love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (Sheffield, United Kingdom: 1995), 170, 177.
Paula Frederickson, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York, NY: Vintage, 2000), 31.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 35.
Bishop Melito of Sardis, d. 180 CE.
“Now the Green Blade Rises.” Lyrics: John Macleod Campbell Crum (1872-1958); Tune: Noel Nouvelet (Old French tune).
Image: The Wales Window at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL. Photographer unknown.