Rev Ron Ham
Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is a good time for us to look at a sentence in the Apostles’ Creed about the resurrection of Jesus. In our Baptist churches we do not recite this Creed; from our beginnings we have refused to be bound by the Creeds of the Church. This is not to say that we don’t see any value in them; they are important statements about what the Church believes. But we have chosen to let the Scriptures be our starting point and to be open to how the Scriptures, and also the teachings of the Church, enable us to express the Faith afresh in every age.
What does the Creed say about Jesus following his death? It says,
“He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven.”
These three words – descended, rose, ascended – make up a picture, and an old picture at that. In biblical times the world was not described as we describe it. So that we can understand what the Creed is saying about the resurrection of Jesus, it may help if I give a brief explanation of the way these people described the world.
These ancients knew how to write beautifully of what they saw around them; and they saw what we see: the glittering sky on a moonlit night, threatening storms, the surging oceans, the distant horizon, and the rising and setting sun. But they had no telescope or satellite to help them know about the vast reaches of space, nor any way of measuring the depth of oceans, nor navigational experience to suggest the earth is a globe moving in space. So they wrote intelligently, but limitedly about what they saw: the earth was flat, resting on some kind of foundation, and the sky was somehow suspended above the earth.
This way of imagining the world affected the way they spoke and wrote about God, and about life and death. God is above all in the heavens above the earth; all that opposes God is far beneath the earth, as is the place of the dead, and in between is the world we live in. They wrote more beautifully than that, but for our purposes today we need only be aware of their three-storied view of the world; .
In addition to this way of viewing the world, Judaism also tried to explain what happened to people after they died and left the world. Judaism was generally uncertain about the after-life and explained it as a place below the earth called Sheol where all people went after death. They thought the dead continued “to exist in the underworld, a region of shadows, misery and futility; they lived on as unreal, half-material shades in a land of silence and forgetting.” (A Theological Word Book of the Bible, article on Hell). It was only in the few centuries before Jesus that a fuller understanding of life after death began to develop.
With this as background, let us consider the first of the three words about Jesus’ death and resurrection, that “he descended into hell.” This may not mean “hell” as in a place of punishment, but “hell” in the sense of Sheol where all the dead were thought to be. Perhaps this was emphasising that this Jesus Christ who was crucified went like all others to the place of the dead – he really died!
But this statement suggests much more than Jesus dying as all human beings die. Paul in his letter to the Colossians does not dismiss the importance of Jesus’ death for the individual, but he does claim much more than that; he claims that God, in the death of Jesus on the cross, “disarmed the principalities and powers, and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15). ‘Principalities and powers’ probably means at least every human power, whether a company of people or their institutions, that opposes God. The religious establishment of chief priests, scribes and Pharisees which called for the death of Jesus and the Roman rulers who did the execution represented some of the ‘principalities and powers’ which opposed Jesus. They went away satisfied that they were rid of this heretic.
But Paul says that, although Jesus was humiliated when he gave that terrifying cry of dereliction on the cross as he experienced the absence of God and seemed to be the victim of the principalities and powers, Jesus’ death was actually the humiliation of the principalities and powers themselves! Jesus was dying a shameful death but dying unjustly, and without calling for divine intervention, and with forgiveness on his lips for those who had put him there. That kind of death is something which principalities and powers cannot understand. That kind of death was so powerful that within three days God raised Jesus from the dead.
“He descended into hell’ says the Creed. But the Creed says also that after his resurrection, Jesus ‘ascended into heaven.” We are here still in this ‘spatial’ way of looking at things – descended into hell,ascended into heaven. Here is a term completing the scope of Christ’s influence. Having accomplished his role on earth, and in his descent into hell, Jesus Christ was taken up to his place of authority ‘at God’s right hand’, another powerful ancient image. The Church worships him as ruler of all. I will leave thisascended part of the statement there, perhaps for another time.
I come now to the central act of this description of Jesus: “The third day (Jesus) rose again from the dead.” This is not the same as the raising of Lazarus who apparently was really dead but was raised again by Jesus only to die sometime in the future. The accounts in the New Testament of the resurrection of Jesus – his coming to his disciples, his appearing on the Damascus Road to Paul, the astonishing effect he had on the early Christians as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s own reflections in 1 Corinthians 15 on the resurrection – all these suggest that this resurrection was a new thing and has changed forever the balance of power in human life from despair to hope.
We are here talking about the beginning of a new era in human history and human destiny. God took note of Jesus whom God sent into a world as threatening as the one which pressures you. God took note of the hatred mounted against Jesus and watched Jesus being engulfed gradually by injustice, torture and death. God heard Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and God’s heart broke for him. This was not a piece of theatre in which Jesus, like an actor on stage who is not really dead but is back to normal after the curtain falls, and will be back to do it all again the next night.
To take the old image from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian’s death is described like this: he was crossing the river into the Celestial City – “and his feet lost the bottom of the river and he was born across to the other side.” Jesus lost his hold on life too; he really died; he was ‘crucified, dead and buried.”
But after that, this new thing happened. When they could not find the body of Jesus in the tomb, they discovered that he was among them. Yet they could not ‘capture’ that presence, tie him down, as it were. He came to them in various ways. He had all the characteristics of Paul’s 1 Corinthians, ‘imperishable’, ‘powerful’, glorious ‘spiritual body’. The resurrection of Jesus was not a temporary escape from death like Lazarus who had one more funeral to go! God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead was as great an act of power as was God’s creation of the world. The Jesus they knew was among them again in the new creation of God.
I invite you today to open your life to this reality. Your life is open to other realities: the pressures you are under at work, in your family, in your relationships: they occupy your thoughts, emotions and energies almost every waking minute; the pressures you are under from life in this city, state and nation: the suffering of the unemployed; the horrific consequences of drugs upon the our young; the shame of sexual exploitation of children; and the lies and injustices which are condoned by some people in authority; the pressures you feel from world tragedies of war, poverty, and natural disasters. But open as you are to these realities, I invite you to open your life to this reality of the resurrection of Jesus.
No individual, no principality or power, nothing! is stronger than God. I invite you to let this risen Lord Jesus live in you, and through you; to live also in and through this community of faith of which we are a part. That is what it means for us to be the church!