Suffered, Dead, and Buried (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 5)

The Pieta, by Michelangelo

TEXT: Matthew 27:27-31; Isaiah 53:1-9

So far in our look at the Apostle's Creed, we have hit a lot of controversial lines. We have waded into the debates about God as "Father," about the divinity of Jesus, and the Virgin Birth. This week, however, the phrase we are dealing with: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried" is simply a statement about what is almost universally considered to be historical fact. Part of the reason Pontius Pilate makes it into the Creed is to emphasize that we are talking about a historical event that can be located in time and place. These events didn't just happen long ago in a galaxy far, far away. They happened in Palestine in the first century during the time when the Roman procurator, Pilate, was in office.

Under normal circumstances, the historical record would not need to be part of a creedal statement. You don't have to have much faith for this just have to look it up. But the line is included both because of a controversy at the time the Creed was written, and because of what follows.

We have already discussed the early Christian movement called Gnosticism. The Church later declared it to be a heresy, but in the early years of the Church, it was simply another branch of Christian faith. The Creed was written to give some definition to what it meant to be "Christian," allowing the Church later to say this teaching is in or that teaching is out on the basis of the Creed that had been established. Whether that was helpful or not is another sermon, but for now it is important simply to realize that the Apostles' Creed was written in response to need and controversy.

As I mentioned in the other sermon, the place where Gnosticism most ran afoul of Christian teaching was in its insistence that God could not really have become a human being in Jesus. They taught that the Holy Spirit filled Jesus at the time of his baptism and left before his shameful death. They believed that matter was essentially bad, so a God who is complete goodness could not possibly have, in any significant way, become human. Certainly God could not go through a birth canal or suffer the indignity of torture and physical death.

The phrase about Jesus' conception and birth through a human woman is followed directly by this affirmation that the rest of the Christians did not agree with the Gnostics. Jesus was, as God, conceived and born and then he suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried...all of the things the Gnostics said were not possible.

In modern American culture, our problem with this line is a little different. Comfortable Americans are decidedly uncomfortable in the face of a suffering Christ. The account of what happened to Jesus in the last 18 hours or so of his life are not pleasant in the least. Much is being made about the graphic brutality with which those events are shown in Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion." It will be released in theaters this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. That brutality is an accurate reflection of the events. It was a brutal time and crucifixion was so cruel and sadistic that it was forbidden for a Roman citizen to die that way. It was reserved for the barbarians and criminals who were not part of the empire.

We turn our heads from such things. As much as I would like to see the movie to be able to answer the charges against it first-hand, I don't think I can handle watching the brutality. Such things still happen in places today, but I don't want to know about it. I don't want to have human suffering invade my space and haunt my dreams, and I don't think I am alone.

In the church, we discover our aversion every Holy Week. Everybody wants to come shout Hosanna and wave Palm Branches on Palm Sunday. A lot of people like remembering the Last Supper, and a ton of people want to express their hope that death is not the end by celebrating the Resurrection on Easter. But there are precious few who want to look squarely at Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday. Protestants, especially, want to have only the empty Cross, the promise fulfilled, while calling the attention to a crucifix morbid or unhealthy.

Oddly enough, in those cultures where human suffering is obvious on every street and brutality visits every home sooner or later, it is not Easter Sunday that draws the crowds. You would think that there, of all places, they would be hungry for the hope of new life, for the promise that violence and death do not have the last word...and they do appreciate that message. But still, when Good Friday comes around and Christ on the Cross appears in the streets, the people flock to him.

In the crucified the tortured, beaten, and abandoned one...they find a God who knows them. A God who will not turn away from their suffering like the rest of the world...a God who will come right down and live it with them...down to the dregs...down to humiliating, agonizing, brutal death. The suffering Christ, Jesus on the Cross, is a sign of God's solidarity with the victim, with the brutalized, with the oppressed, with those who do not have the benefits of empire.

We remain puzzled at the passion narrative. We tend to think that God is somehow nasty for having faith associated with such violence and we often do all we can to clean it up and turn attention away from the ugliness of an instrument of execution on a hill called "The Skull" toward the glory of the empty tomb in the pleasant garden. And that is also what we do when we meet the suffering Christ in what Mother Teresa described as "the distressing guise of the poor." Most of us are not comfortable facing the truly difficult side of life. Many will not enter a hospital or funeral home and take care to drive around rather than through the poor sections of town. We avoid the gaze of the homeless and cross the other side of the street and if we get involved in the work of eliminating violence and oppression, it is often from the safety of our own homes where we can simply write a check or make a phone call.

But Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He went through it all as one of us...or rather as one of "them," the people we would rather not see or touch, the people that we lump as "them," "other-than-us." If you have taken the name of Jesus...if you call yourself "Christian," you must at some point grapple with the starkness of this line of the creed. You must get off the high of Easter and get mired in the blood and guts of a Good Friday execution, the scandal of a rigged trial, and the cruelty of beating a man with a number of lashes specifically calculated to be one lash shy of when men usually died.

I think if there's a modern way to understand what the passion of Jesus is all about, it is to be found in the story of Father Damien. I have shared parts of this story before, but I share it again in the context of one who has known our griefs and borne our iniquities...the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. I'm not going to say more than that about Father Damien and Jesus. You can draw your own conclusions.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

(The text of the story was taken from the longer version at )

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