Ups and Downs (Apostles' Creed, Pt. 6)


TEXT: Luke 24:44-52; 1 Peter 3:18-22

We're approaching the close of the first part of the Apostles' Creed...the section that mostly deals with the nature of Jesus' life and death. As I mentioned in the introductory sermon, there are several very old versions of the Creed, and they have some differences between them. Most of those differences remain in the backlog of history, but one of them remains current so that in different churches today you will hear an added line that the United Methodist Church today does not use: "He descended into hell." Some of you have asked me about it specifically, so I wanted to briefly address that issue before going to the rest of the phrase: "On the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty."

So what's with Jesus going to hell? The oldest versions of the Creed do not have that line, and it got inserted somewhere along the way in response to the Scripture reading from 1 Peter which talks about Jesus, after his death, preaching to the spirits in prison. Sometimes you may hear it read "He descended to the dead."

There are basically three ways that the line has been interpreted. The simplest is that it is saying about Jesus' spirit what has just been said about his body: His body was dead and buried, and his spirit, likewise, followed the path of the spirits of the deceased...going to the realm of the dead. The second interpretation is more directly linked to the first Peter passage. Those interpreters believe the line was meant to support that Scripture and answer the issue of fairness for those good people who died without ever seeing the promise of the Messiah be fulfilled. In this version, Jesus...between his death and resurrection...pays a visit to the likes of Abraham, Noah, Moses and the rest of those who had gone before, preaches the Gospel to them and brings them with him into the Kingdom of God.

Still others, supported by John Calvin, say that because Jesus died taking all the sins of the world as his own, his spirit endured the same fate as any other sinful spirit and that Jesus actually went to hell and suffered there. Probably because the Church could not agree on an interpretation and because that phrase was not in the earliest versions, the United Methodist Church decided to leave it out.

The interesting thing to me about the rest of this phrase is that Easter is just one of many things on a list. "On the third day he arose from the dead." The Creed doesn't end there, it is just one more statement among the others. If you have seen the Passion, you have some idea of the nasty shape Jesus was in by the time he got to the "dead and buried" part. Who could fathom resurrection after that?

It is one of the things that sinks in when you really focus on the brutality of what Jesus endured. Some of those who doubt the resurrection say that Jesus didn't really die. That he took some sort of drug that made him seem dead...that slowed his metabolism way down...and that the drug wore off in the tomb and he got up. I don't believe that, but even if that were the case, nobody is going to take a beating like Jesus did on Friday, and on Sunday morning be out and about looking like a gardener doing his day's work, whether he had actually died or not.

The Creed asserts that Jesus was actually dead and buried and that he actually arose from the dead. If you add in the line about Jesus descending to the dead, these sentences move Jesus all over the map...he is lifted up on the Cross, he is down in the grave, he descends to the dead, he rises from the dead, he ascends into heaven, where finally he gets to sit down. Up and down, down and up...Jesus is on the move.

Of course the Creed was written to set out the doctrine of the Church. From that point of view, these sentences are merely telling us what the Church believes happened to Jesus. But, as I want to ask of all of these doctrines, so what? What practical difference does believing about all these ups and downs make? How does believing in Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension make my life any different than someone who doesn't?

One of the critical moves that St. Paul makes in his New Testament writings is in making the claim that the life of Jesus is tied to our lives. Not only did he in some way take our sins upon himself when he died, but his resurrection and ascension are also about our resurrection and ascension. Paul says over and over that if Jesus wasn't raised from the dead then we can't expect to be either, and he goes as far as to call Jesus the new Adam. Jesus replaces Adam as the model for our life and death. Where Adam modeled sin, Jesus modeled perfection. Where Adam was given the curse of death, Jesus is given the gift of life. Where Adam is cast out of Paradise, Jesus is welcomed back in.

So, just on a purely psychological level, believing the things stated about Jesus in the Creed make for a much sunnier outlook on life. My sin is, perhaps, not inevitable. With God's help, I can live as Jesus taught. There's a purpose to my day...I can be a better person today than I was yesterday. But, most importantly of all, I do not have to be afraid of death. I don't have to be afraid of my loved ones dying, and I don't have to be afraid of my own death. And that is no small advantage.

This picture of Jesus dying and rising and ascending into heaven is a guidebook of sorts for us. It tells us what happened to Jesus, so that we can know what to expect when we die. For some of you, thoughts about dying might be very far away. For others of you, it may be much too close for comfort. But for all of us, there will come a day...whether it is tomorrow or 50 years from tomorrow...when we will suddenly realize... "Hey! This is really about to happen to me. I'm actually not going to be on this earth much longer. I've already had my last Christmas or birthday. Other people are making plans for next month, and while they go about their business, I will not be here."

Let me tell you that in those weeks or days or moments, religion has a way of mattering more. I feel so badly when I sit with families to plan a funeral and see that the family has no religious reserves to draw on in that time. They have no idea how to answer the questions that are raging in their minds, no way to interpret the experiences of their loved one's last days and hours. Sometimes I try to teach in an hour what it has taken me 44 years to understand.

I remember sitting with Ray Eaton a few days before his death. He knew the end was coming and was quite ready to go. I asked him, "Ray, are you afraid?" He thought for a minute. "No," he said. "I'm just wondering how it will be." Well, thanks to the things affirmed in the Creed, I could tell him. I told him that his body would give out, but that the part of him that he knew to be himself would not die. Just like Jesus, he would a very literal way. He would move up and out of his body. His spirit would rise from the dead body and any pain he had would disappear.

Experience with those who are dying allowed me to tell him that he would probably see others who had died who would come to greet him and help him know where to go. He might even see some of them before his body actually gave out and died, as they waited for him to take the next step. He should not try to take his body with him, but just let his spirit rise up. "He arose from the dead." But just rising would not complete the process. He needed to ascend into heaven as well. When he rose up out of his body he should look around for a brilliant white light and ascend right up into it. There he will meet God and receive a new body that is more fit for life in heaven.

Thanks to the beliefs expressed in the Creed, when Ray asked how it would be, I could give him an answer. While we often can't give as detailed an answer as some would like, we do not have to be left speechless when faced with the question of what happens when we die. Our bodies go down, our spirits go up...first up and out of the body and then ascending further into the Light of God, accompanied by the communion of saints...those who have gone before and come to greet and guide us.

Now maybe all this seems like a weird thing to be talking about on a Sunday morning. But I'm here to tell you that resurrection is central to our faith and it's meaningless to talk about resurrection if you don't talk about death. Death is the bad news against which resurrection sings her joyful song. Death rules this world, and if you don't believe me, look around. We will do anything rather than show signs of age. Color the gray hair, get rid of the wrinkles, get a face lift...we are a culture that even undergoes surgery to try to convince ourselves that we are not marching onward toward death.

We will maintain biological life at ridiculous costs, forcing bodies to keep breathing long past the time when their spirits have longed for home. The ultimate penalty we impose in our criminal justice system is death, and we shrink before the topic as if we had never heard the amazing news of Easter morning. The reason these parts of the Creed matter is because it helps us to face our own lives and the lives of those we love without neuroses. We still grieve at death as a healthy expression of love. We might still grieve our own death for work left undone or opportunities missed. But I can't in good conscience pastor a church without telling the congregation what I know...that death is just a change, not an end, and we can know at least some of what will happen by looking at what happened to Jesus.

That is part of why I believe that the things asserted in the Creed are not just symbolic but actually happened to Jesus in the flesh. We'll talk more about this on Easter, but if the disciples didn't have the benefit of seeing the resurrected Jesus in the flesh and actually watching his body ascend into heaven, they wouldn't have known it was happening. The whole point of God coming to earth as a man was so that we could know through our five senses what God was trying to teach us. The more subtle approaches God had used through Creation and through Scripture were getting muddled, and we needed to see and touch the truth first hand.

The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus needed to be just as physical as the rest of Jesus life or we would have missed all that God was trying to tell us in those events. "On the third day he arose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." Jesus says to his disciples in John 14:19, "Because I live, you shall live also." That's the point. Amen.

(c) 2004, Anne Robertson

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