February 16, 2018
By Walter Fenton
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
When you read the Nicene Creed slowly, almost devotionally, it can be jarring to move from those soaring lines about Jesus as Lord, eternally begotten, light from light, one Being with the Father, creator, and incarnate by the power of Holy Spirit to… crucified, suffered, and buried. In almost the blink of an eye we move from one who is transcendent and very worthy of our worship to the tragedy and mystery of suffering and death in this life and in this body.
It is not hard for us to understand why the creed included this sentence about Jesus’ crucifixion, passion, death and burial. These events are at the very heart of the Gospels. All the Gospel narratives slow considerably as they linger over the details of the mockery, suffering, and cruelty Jesus endured. And there was always considerable agreement as to the when, where, who, and how of Jesus’ death. By the fourth century, Christians knew the story so well and had known it for so long that it was possible to poignantly summarize it in just once sentence with those piercing verbs: crucified, suffered, and buried.
But why the suffering of the only Son of God, the eternally begotten? In the creed that crucial question and its awful, powerful, joyful, and mysterious answer is summed up in the sentence’s first three words: “For our sake.” And again, these three terse words are as rooted in Scripture as the other three.
Clearly, the letters of the Apostle Paul had so deeply burrowed into the hearts and minds of Christians that they knew those three words captured the why of Jesus’ death. He teaches us many things about our Lord and Savior, but he often appears consumed with telling us about Jesus’ death for us. He declared to the Galatians, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He reminded the Corinthians that he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” And he perhaps sang to the Philippians that “though [our Lord] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Paul is so anxious to tell us about Jesus’ death so that we might know life, and know it abundantly and eternally. As he writes to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
But of course , Paul was not alone in proclaiming Christ crucified. As he explains to the Corinthians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried….”
He surely heard the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and burial from eyewitnesses, and with them, he came to confess that Christ did indeed “die for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” and “for our sake.” This confession goes to the very heart of our faith, and it has the power, as our liturgy of Holy Communion puts it, “to liberate us from our slavery to sin and our fear of death.”
It’s an old quip, but it’s still a salient one: “The only doctrine of the church with firm factual evidence is the one having to do with humankind’s sinful nature.” We’re all too familiar with it. It so eats at us that we will do almost anything to deny it, to excuse it, or explain it away. We wince at the small, and yet still poisonous words we speak out of spite. And we are utterly dismayed by the truly cruel, horrific and systemic sins we commit when we find ourselves driven singularly or corporately by envy, hatred, and revenge. It is no wonder people suffer from a sense of alienation that is manifested in bursts of anger, waves of despair, and the numbness of banality.
Who can liberate us from our slavery to sin and our fear death? The creed proclaims, and the church’s people testify in word and deed, that in Christ’s death we are delivered from sin, transformed, and reconciled to a just and righteous God.
But our liberation is not accomplished by some act of divine magic. No, as the creed makes plain, it is through the flesh and blood of a man named Jesus, who truly suffered in a particular time and place, and who even now, in his Resurrection body, still bears the scars that won our deliverance.
Our hope and confidence for the future are rooted in Scripture and the great confessions of the church.
Walter Fenton serves on the staff of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. He is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.