A sermon preached today in a continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was born of the virgin Mary, and who suffered under Pontius Pilate.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate.
The narrative of Mark’s gospel recounts how Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowds, set Barrabas free, but had Jesus flogged – after which he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
He was flogged – whips dug into the flesh on his back.
He was shamed – hung on a cross, the ultimate symbol of dishonour in the Roman Empire.
He was abandoned by his followers – in his last days he was in many ways alone.
He was violently abused – nails pierced his hands and feet, a spear his side.
He thirsted – he was dehydrated as he hung there, before the eyes of the crowd.
Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.
When we think about these words of the Creed today, there are two questions that seem at play:
The first question is – Did he suffer?
The second question is – Why did he suffer?
Now the Apostles’ Creed actually leaves the second question, the why question, hanging – it leaves it unanswered. But in reply to the first question – did he suffer – the creed offers a solid, a sincere, and a gut-wrenching ‘yes’.
For the most part we who are part of the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of Christianity have grown up with this affirmation – we have heard it repeated over the years – that Jesus suffered. And yet we should realize that there were in the early church some who found it difficult to accept that Jesus, who was divine, could have suffered. They couldn’t get their heads around the idea that God would suffer. Their understanding of the divine did not allow that God could suffer.
For example, in the first centuries of the church there were some who followed a teaching called docetism. The docetists argued that Jesus was fully divine but was not human – he only seemed to be human. The name of this teaching, docetism, in fact comes from the Greek word dokeo which means ‘to seem’. So:
It was argued that Jesus wasn’t really human – he only seemed to be a human.
It was argued that Jesus didn’t really suffer – he only seemed to suffer.
It was argued that Jesus didn’t really die – he only seemed to die.
In some respect, the Apostles’ Creed takes on these ideas, and refuses these ideas, when it declares that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, was conceived by the Holy Ghost, was born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate. He suffered. This one who was God, and who was human, suffered.
Some biblical scholars have suggested that the Gospels and the letters of Paul, with their emphasis on the suffering and death of Jesus, are also resisting the idea that the god-man didn’t suffer, didn’t die. When you look at the gospel of Mark, for example, you discover that fully a third of the gospel is dedicated to the passion narrative – a whole third of the story is taken up with the narrative of Jesus as he faces his accusers, as he anticipates his death, as he suffers and dies. From the moment of Peter’s confession in Mark chapter 8, the suffering and death of Jesus are depicted as inevitable. At the end of Chapter 8, Jesus says: “It is necessary that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,…and be killed.” The Passion really unfolds from that moment.
The gospel narratives and the writings of the Apostle Paul and the Apostles’ Creed all point to a refusal of the idea that God’s Son only seemed to suffer and die. Jesus suffering and death is central to his story. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.
The use of that name, Pontius Pilate, we should note, is not insignificant. That name points to a specific historical moment – a moment in time – a moment in the history of the Roman Empire. It points to a specific person, under whose authority Jesus is flogged and executed. This is not just a figurative event, not a fictional tale – but an event in history. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.
So all of this gives us an answer to that first question: “Did Jesus suffer?” The Creed answers with a solid, a sincere, and a gut-wrenching ‘Yes’.
But that brings us to our second question. Why did Jesus suffer and die? To what end? For what purpose?
To give a final and full answer to the question ‘Why’ is, of course, next to impossible. With this question we can only give possible answers, and we know that the scriptures offer a number of possible answers to the question why Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate.
As we acknowledge the impossibility of coming to a full or final answer to the question why Jesus suffered however, there is a particular direction in which we can move our reflections. Perhaps the most important thing we can say is that Jesus Christ suffered because he entered fully into the human experience. Last week we talked about the Creed’s insistence that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary – and we said that these words highlight the humanity of Jesus – his solidarity with the human.
Staying with that theme we can see that Jesus’ suffering is part and parcel of his solidarity with the human. The fact of Jesus’ suffering points to his solidarity with humans not only in the joys of life, not only the successes of life, not only in the fullness of community, not only in the goodness and beauty of the human – but also in the darkness and difficulty that is so often the lot of the human.
Dorothy Sayers offers some words that are worth repeating here. In The Whimsical Christian she writes:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – God had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
He has gone through it all – from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the words horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. As the Creed puts, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.
As we acknowledge Jesus’ identification with us in suffering, we should perhaps think about another question that arises here. It is a question that often comes up when casual conversations turn toward the idea of God. Inevitably the question will be asked: Where is God when it hurts? Where is God when we are suffering? Where is God when the men and women and children of our world are in pain? Often these kinds of questions are summed up with this question: Why doesn’t God make it stop? Why doesn’t God put an end to our suffering?
This is an incredibly difficult question – both personally, as well theologically and philosophically. It is a difficult question. And once again it is a question toward which we can offer only partial and inadequate answers. In fact there are some helpful theological and philosophical answers to the question why God doesn’t stop the suffering – but most of them are abstract and theoretical.
And the truth is that when we are in the midst of suffering – when we are in pain and grief – most of these abstract and theoretical answers to the question of why God doesn’t prevent suffering fall like a lead balloon at our feet. Again, some of these answers to the question of why God doesn’t intervene are helpful to set our thinking about God right. They help us wade through complex issues. But what can these kinds of abstract and theoretical answers mean
when you are suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks,
What can an abstract or theoretical answer to the question why God allows suffering mean
when your spouse has walked out the door and out of your life,
when your child is suffering from a serious illness,
when you are depressed and alone,
when you have been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
As we think about these difficult realities, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to come back again to the fact of Jesus suffering. To that first question we asked: “Did Jesus suffer?” and to the Creeds insistence that yes he did suffer. Coming back to the fact of Jesus’ suffering brings us back to the reality of Jesus full solidarity with humans in their every circumstance. Which means that we can say:
When you are suffering from severe anxiety, Jesus is there with you in your suffering. He knows what it is to suffer.
When you are left alone, and the pain of loneliness is so real, Jesus is there with you,. He has experienced the loneliness and pain.
When your child is suffering from a serious illness, Jesus is with her.
When you have been diagnosed with a significant disease, Jesus is with you.
When you are dying, Jesus is there.
The God we worship is not a distant, unfeeling, uninterested, God. The God we worship is not a God unfamiliar with our experience of grief and anxiety and sickness and loneliness. Rather, our God has tasted this reality. In Jesus Christ, suffering touches the very heart of God. In Jesus Christ, human suffering – your suffering, my suffering – is taken into the very experience of God.
Let us clarify that our suffering is not the end of the story. Nor is God’s solidarity with us in suffering the end of the story. As we also said last week, the gospel narratives remind us that in some profound sense Jesus resurrection is and will be our resurrection. The good news is that Jesus is somehow the representative human – he has born our suffering and has raised us to resurrection life. Therefore, we await a future day when from the perspective of resurrection we will look back upon suffering and grief and pain of our lives as located decisively in the past. Perhaps it will not be forgotten – that is another difficult theological question – but suffering will no longer be a reality for us.
We conclude this morning by saying just a few words about prayer – particularly about prayer when we are in the midst of grief, prayer when we are experiencing pain, prayer when we are suffering.
It is perhaps true to say that it is often only when we are in such circumstance that we pray seriously. But it is also true that when we are suffering, when we are feeling so alone, when we are deeply fearful, when we are in pain, that God often seems so far away, so removed from our experienced – so untouched by or our suffering. But in those moments, perhaps it will be to us an encouragement to be reminded “Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
The writer of the book of Hebrews paints a picture of Jesus as one who knows our human weakness, one who has one who offered up prayers to God with loud cries and tears. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as one who is able to sympathize with us in every way – including in our suffering. And the writer to the Hebrews also reminds us that this Jesus has become our great High Priest – he speaks to God on our behalf. In chapter 4, verse 16 of Hebrews we read: “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.”
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.
When in our sadness, in our anxious worry, in our anguish we feel like God is so far away – when we find ourselves unable to pray to this distant God – we are reminded that Jesus has been where we are. Jesus has suffered as we suffer. Jesus is our high priest who understands us and prays with us and prays for us. He is seated at the right hand of God – and he speaks to God on our behalf with a full understanding of our need – and in the same moment he is in some powerful sense right beside us in our suffering.
Suddenly God is not so far away, not so removed from our grief. Suddenly God is within earshot and within range of our cries. Suddenly God’s mercy and grace are also closer to hand. So speak your heart and speak your mind – reach out in prayer. Mercy and grace are close at hand. 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.
So much is said in those few: He suffered under Pontius Pilate.