Basics: Confessing a Hero
January 27, 2019 Pastor: Series: Basics
Topic: The Triune God
This past week several Americans participated in what I consider to be a very rare occurrence. With the recognition and celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we, as a society, we had a chance to witness countless individuals from all walks of life proclaim solidarity with the values, and expressions of justice that King advocated for - all those years ago. It is a rare thing to see so many people from so many different places rally behind and echo the voice of a single person. We love to hear stories about heroes, whether they possess incredible abilities or remarkable personal character. We immerse ourselves in the accounts and adventures of heroes, both fictional and factual. But enjoying a story is different than what we witnessed on Monday. As people rallied in honor of Rev. Dr. King’s life, we realize that this is more than merely enjoying a hero, it truly is Confessing a Hero. Confession is more than simple recognition.
Recognition requires our notice and momentary attention. It could be accompanied by a momentary flash of awe and wonder, but in the end, that recognition leaves us merely with memory, if that. Confession is different, it’s deeper. Confession is more than admiration. It is internalization and personalization. It occurs when we resonate so strongly with the truth and the passion of an individual that we desire and seek to dedicate our own stories as a declaration of that truth. In the case Martin Luther King, Jr., that is the cause of justice for all. It is a powerful and uncompromising pursuit of equality, compassion, and humility.
The Confessing of a Hero can happen in all sorts of ways. With fictional heroes, merchandising is usually the name of the game. T-shirts with superhero emblems across the chest or bumper stickers placed on the backs of our cars. With the everyday heroes such as our military personnel, first responders, and medical professionals, we see this confession embodied through what can almost be described as reverence or veneration. It is displayed in the sharing or wearing of a symbol, or, an act of kindness and gratitude. But with heroes like Dr. King, the confession is commonly expressed through resonance and echo. The truths of these heroes impact our hearts in such a way that those truths become our own and we seek to echo and share them with all those we encounter.
Martin Luther King, Jr. day is actually one day where I am very thankful for social media. Countless people post images and verses depicting the ministry and conviction of a remarkable advocate, depicting the life and work of a hero. That is a a confession.
This week we are continuing in our series on the Apostles’ Creed called Basics. I shared a bit about this last week, but I want to be clear about something. When we look to the Apostles’ Creed, it is critical for us to remember that we are not holding this creed, or any other like it, up as if it were a divine creation or akin to God. Instead, the creeds give us language that we can use to confess what is true about the person and heart of God. The Apostles’ Creed provides us the opportunity to reflect upon and claim a few of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. The triune nature of God, the work of Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the identity and mission of God’s church.
This morning we’re going to look more closely at the middle section of the Apostles’ Creed that focuses on the life and work of Christ, and that helps us in Confessing a Hero. A hero that came to where we were, that became like us, that suffered and died for us, and who then offered us new and lasting life. Let me read this section of the creed before we move forward.
“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
These words have become a framework for the way Christians seek to understand who Jesus is. We may have heard things like this before, but they were accepted by the ancient Christian church amidst a time where there were many people who doubted the humanity of Jesus, who claimed it only appeared that Jesus was human but that there was no way Christ could actually be fully God and fully man. And so, they denied the account of Christ’s birth, and in so doing, denied the connection Jesus has with this world and with all of humanity. In short, they sought to strip Jesus of everything that made him the hero we confess.
When we claim the Apostles’ Creed and declare it as truth, we are Confessing a Hero who is both divine and mortal. A hero who possessed all the supernatural strength and wisdom of the Almighty and yet also all of the frailty, weakness, and commonality of each of us. This is why the Apostles’ Creed is so determined to affirm and celebrate the humanity (the conception, birth, the suffering, the death) of Jesus Christ. Because without absolute and complete humanity, Jesus would not have been capable of performing or becoming a sacrifice for this lost and broken world. Frankly, without his vulnerable and genuine humanity, Jesus could not be the hero and Savior we see portrayed within Scripture. And so, this, one of the earliest creeds of Christianity, confesses Christ’s full humanity and His heroic work on the cross.
We then come across what is arguably the most interesting line of the creed: “He descended into hell.” This has been the single most controversial aspect of our ancient confession. I remember when I first started serving at my previous church, the interim senior pastor, a faithful man named Bill Jackson, would always cover his mouth and cough during this line when we confessed it together in worship. He said his “heart was still unsettled on that part of his faith.” Hearing this from a man in his mid-70’s who had served as a Presbyterian pastor for well over 40 years showed me, a then 22-year old rookie to the church, that discerning our faith, especially the difficult parts, was a life-long process.
I find John Calvin’s reflections on this line of the creed to be helpful. Calvin, a committed pastor, said that, without these words, “much of the benefit of Christ’s death would be lost.” For Calvin, his focus was not on the location of Christ’s descent but rather the spiritual suffering our Savior went through. We hear Christ, on the cross, cry out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” This is where Calvin found the painful foundation for this part of the Creed.
Jesus took upon Himself all of the sins of humanity, was cut off completely and entirely from God. Jesus willing severed Himself from the relationship He had with Father and Spirit for the sake of each of us. That separation, according to Calvin, would have been hell. He says, “surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God, and when you call upon him, not to be heard.” Christ’s descent into hell was a descent into a complete void and a total absence from God, from, in a way, Himself.
These words of the creed reflect a truth we can often forget but so desperately need. We have all faced or witnessed hellish things in our lives. Experiences that leave us wondering if anyone can even begin to relate to what we are going through. Those moments we feel achingly alone, victimized by an unfair system or paralyzed by fear of what is to come. Many of us know that it isn’t a cartoon place of fire and pitchforks that scares us. Sometimes hell is a season, an injustice, an accident, or a conversation we never expected to have.
This line of the creed reminds us that our Savior has been in that same dark, lonely, horrible place. We confess a hero who knows the pain that we are feeling, who can relate to us and the breaking of our heart. We find, in Jesus, the one person we can sit with and know that someone finally understands. We find that person we can be silent with, that we can scream with, that we can weep with. We find that our Savior and our hero is more like us than we could have ever thought. We’re reminded that the heroic work of Jesus Christ went far beyond the physical torture he endured. Like many of us, Christ suffered his own personal hell.
But we know this was not the final word on Jesus Christ. Declared within Scripture, confessed in our creed, and hopefully proclaimed in the life of every redeemed man and woman in this world-changing truth: Christ rose from the grave. In the most heroic display of light’s victory over darkness, Jesus conquered death itself and returned. Not only to this place but to His rightful place beside God Almighty. The resurrection is the fulcrum and foundation of our faith. Without it, Christianity does not exist.
And it is from this place of intimacy and equality with God the Father that Christ serves as our advocate, as our hero, and friend. And, as we read in the final line of this section of the Apostles’ Creed, as our judge. We tend to bristle when we hear judgment mentioned. It makes us uncomfortable. But we don’t have to here. This line of the creed affirms what we see echoed throughout Scripture: Jesus Christ will be the one to judge us. So that means that our fate is in the hands of the person who loved us enough to come to where we live, become like us, and eventually suffer and die for us. This is not some unfeeling, staunch judge with a gavel. It is the friend who has been beside us in the darkest moments and who reminded us that we are loved. Our judge is the very God who formed us, shaped our stories, and then offered us life and redemption. Judgment, according to the Apostles’ Creed, is a reason for celebration and joy.
When we stop and reflect upon this description of Jesus given to us in the Apostles’ Creed, we are shown something remarkable and utterly unique. The creed only holds up and affirms that which is declared within Scripture, that Christ is a hero. Possessing selflessness, compassion, mercy, strength, wisdom, purpose, and a willingness to defend that which, that whom, He loves. With this creed, we join the voices of Christians from ancient times and spaces, from places of persecution, and from experiences of faithfulness different from our own. And we join them in affirming who our Savior is and what He has done. We join them in Confessing a Hero.