Passion? (Palm/Passion Sunday)
Passion (Palm Sunday 2021)
Apostles’ Creed #3
As we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks... the Apostles’ Creed is a concise statement that helps us profess what we believe. And God, in three persons... God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Ghost - is the central figure. But it also mentions the Virgin Mary - and one other person... who is it? (Pontius Pilate)
However... has it ever occurred to you, that if we were to remove the words Pontius Pilate… and we were only told of the fact that Jesus suffered… that he was crucified, dead and buried… the meaning of the Creed would not be changed at all? Which of course begs the question, “why is Pontius Pilate even mentioned?”
I mean (indulge me for a just a moment), let’s think about it. The Apostles’ Creed stresses that we believe in God the Father Almighty who made heaven and earth, that we believe in Jesus Christ is only son our Lord. It goes on to say that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary (which we will get around to talking about soon)... and that he suffered… He was crucified, dead and buried. If we left Pilate completely out of Creed - and never mentioned him, by name... it would not change a single thing. The meaning, the relevancy, the weight of the Creed would not be affected at all. So why’s he included? Why mention him?
Well, most scholars seem to believe that Pilate is included in the Apostles’ Creed for one reason and one reason only. And that reason is to ground the Creed in the events of human history. To anchor, to establish, the events of Jesus’ passion, his suffering and death as actual historical events. Datable. As much so as Paul Reveres’ midnight ride... or the American Revolution, or the signing of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence or any of 1000 other historical events that actually happened.
In other words, the claims of Christ… Christianity… are grounded in history... not based on some fantasy or myth, or fairytale, or some philosophy… but on an actual historical event.
And what an event it was - it’s the most significant, world changing event in human history! The Passion or Suffering of Christ was real... it actually happened.
It’s been said that Crucifixion is the most barbaric form of execution ever devised by man.
Cicero, for example, described crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment”, and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
Roman Crucifixion was typically carried out by specialized teams, consisting of a commanding Centurion and the hundred soldiers under his command.
First, the condemned would be stripped naked and flogged or scourged - beaten to within a inch of his life... the loss of blood from the beating would be enough for most to enter a state of shock. The condemned would then usually be forced to carry the horizontal beam of their cross to the place of execution...
During the death march, the prisoner, probably still nude after the scourging, would be led through the most crowded streets bearing a titulus (tit-u-lus) – a sign board proclaiming the prisoner’s name and crime.
Finally... upon arrival at the place of execution, (which was selected to be especially public), the condemned would be nailed to the cross. If the crucifixion took place at an established place of execution, the vertical beam would be permanently embedded in the ground. The condemned person’s wrists would be nailed to the horizontal beam, that he’d just carried to the place of execution, and then he’d be hoisted off the ground with ropes to hang from the elevated horizontal beam, while it was being fastened to the vertical beam.
Next, the feet or ankles would be nailed to the upright post or tree. The 'nails' were tapered iron spikes about 5-7 inches long, with a square shaft 3/8 inch across. The tit-u-lus would also be fastened to the cross to notify those who passed by of the person's name and crime as they hung on the cross, further maximizing the public impact.
In Roman-style crucifixion, the condemned could take several days to die, but death was sometimes hastened. The Roman guards couldn’t leave until the victim had died, and they were known to “hurry things along” by deliberately fracturing the tibia and/or fibula... or spearing the condemned person in the heart.
Of course, on-the-other-hand, the person was sometimes deliberately kept alive as long as possible to prolong their suffering and humiliation, in order to provide the maximum deterrent effect. Corpses of the crucified were typically left on the crosses to decompose and be eaten by animals.
It was an excruciating way to die. By the way... do you know where we get the word excruciating? It comes from the Latin, crux (or cruces... “kroo-seez”)... meaning “a cross.”
I say all of this to say this: the complete measure of human depravity was on full display at the crucifixion of Jesus. The holy, righteous, spotless Lamb of God, was humiliated, tortured, and executed for the sinful likes of you and me.
Like I said earlier... if Pontius Pilate had not been included in the Creed, if he had not been mentioned, it wouldn’t change the meaning, or the purpose of the Creed at all.
BUT... Pilate’s inclusion in the story (and the Creed) does serve a purpose, as it grounds the events of Christ’s crucifixion in the pages of history - AND - it reminds us that people... real people... like you and me... were responsible for the death of Christ. NOT just Pilate... but everyone around Jesus... every soldier... every politician... every religious leader... everyone who shouted “crucify him” - everyone within the sound of my voice, even today. We were all responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
The crucifixion of Christ revealed the fallen nature of every single person on earth. We all played a role in Jesus’ death.
He paid the price for our sins... past, present and future...
We may not like to talk about it. It makes us uneasy as good, proper Presbyterians... it makes us uncomfortable to linger too long in this part of the story. But the fact is... our sin was so great, that it took Jesus’ death, his blood, to atone for it. Jesus became the great sacrificial Lamb given for you and me... in order that we may know life, that’s full, and free, in the forgiveness of Christ. It was an amazing act of pure grace...
You know... when we sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” - the second stanza begins... “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear... and grace my fears relieved.” John Newton had been a slave trader (which to this day, is considered to be one of the most heinous and sinful of occupations... we call them “human traffickers” today)... but he was convicted of his sin... and turned to Christ in repentance. He realized, it was grace that enabled him to feel the weight of his sinfulness and to acknowledge his sin and his need for repentance. And it was also grace that, despite his guilt, forgave and restored Newton, to a right relationship with God in Christ.
That’s why God’s grace is so amazing! Grace shows us the depths of our sin... but it also shows us the heights of Christ’s love for us. That Jesus would willingly sacrifice himself... dying the most brutal and excruciating of deaths... for our salvation, for our forgiveness... is truly, nothing short, of amazing.
That’s why we profess it! Every. Single. Week. As part of our corporate profession of faith. The Apostles’ Creed serves to remind us, that Christ’s Passion, his suffering, and death... was for me!