Have you ever noticed that in the Apostles’ Creed, there are only five persons explicitly named? The Father, the Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and Pontius Pilate. At times, I’ve found myself wondering why it is so important to make mention of Pilate in the confession of our Christian faith. Certainly it makes sense that the Persons of the Trinity are highlighted as the Creed announces that at the heart of our belief as Christians is that the deity we worship, who is at work in the world is (three-) Personal. Hence the primary question is not so much “What is God?” but rather “Who is God and how do the Persons of the Godhead relate to creation and the course of history?” And it is certainly appropriate, even for non-Roman Catholic Christians, to draw attention to the blessed Virgin as she is the mother of our Lord, the one in whom Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. But why do we find it necessary to point out that it was under the governorship of Pontius Pilate that Jesus suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried?

[Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Per: wikipedia.org]

Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. In the statement, we affirm our belief that Jesus was (and is) a real human person and not a fictional character. Ancient historians other than the authors of what would later be canonized as Scripture also wrote about the leadership of Pilate as the Roman governor over Judea in the first century. Most notably, Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, wrote about Pilate’s cruel treatment of the Jews in and around Jerusalem. As the Creed is traced back to the end of the 2nd century (over 100 years prior to the adoption of the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical), including the reference to Pilate may have served to combat any notions or rival accounts of Jesus that had him as a mere character in a moral story (imaginary or otherwise) or thought that the Evangelists behind Matthew, Mark, Luke and John embellished some of the stories of the man’s life into legends of miracles, prophetic teaching, etc. of a figure who really wasn’t quite so radical as these “gospels” claimed him to be.

2. In the statement, we affirm the importance of Jesus’ location in the course of history during the Roman Empire. This is, of course, related to the first reason as it recognizes Pilate’s relationship between Rome and Judea, but more than that, it directs us to a theological point made by St. Paul in Ephesians 1 & Galatians 4 about what he called the “fullness of time” with regard to the Incarnation of God’s Son. This statement in the Creed makes it clear that the suffering and death which Jesus endured was during the time of and by the tortured means of a government whose empire had dominated the known world at the time. Those who make the confession that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” hail and acknowledge Jesus as the true sovereign and make this bold claim to pronounce that their sole and complete allegiance belongs to King Jesus, whose “kingdom is not from this world.” As Jesus told Pilate at the trial, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

3. In the statement, we affirm that Jesus really did suffer, really did die, and as the rest of the Creed affirms, really did rise again bodily from the dead. Though this reason is less about Pilate himself, and more about the suffering, Pilate’s role in Jesus’ suffering cannot be denied. As the Creed was being drafted, various accounts and doctrines about Christ were being proliferated, including one idea that claimed that Christ was not actually human, but only “appeared” to be so. (See this article about “Docetism” for more info.) Among other reasons that some made this claim was their belief that the physical world, including the body, is evil and hence God could not really take on  human flesh. Much less could they come to terms with a God who would enter suffering to such a degree as to taste death. Against this sort of understanding lay the tradition handed down from the apostles to the days when the Creed was drafted and adopted and through the course of history to our present day that affirms that Christ was really and fully human and really suffered to the point of death on a Roman cross in Jerusalem, under the gubernatorial direction of Pontius Pilate.

4. In the statement, we affirm that the means by which Jesus saves the world is what the world would be least likely to expect. I really like the way N.T. Wright describes Pilate’s exchange with Jesus (as recorded in John 18:33-40) in John for Everyone:

Pilate, of course, can only see things from a this-worldly perspective. As far as he knows, the only place you get truth is out of the sheath of a sword (or, as we would say, out of the barrel of a gun). Political ‘truth’; my truth against your truth, my sword against your sword, with those two meaning much the same thing. And ultimately, for a Roman governor, my truth against your truth, my power against your weakness, my cross to hang your naked body on.

Ah, but that’s the truth. The truth that belongs with Passover. The truth that says that one man dies and the others go free. Barabbas, the brigand…faces the gallows as well…[but] the Truth stands there in person, taking the death that otherwise would have fallen on the brigand.

Pilate didn’t see it at the time…This is what the cross will mean. This is what the truth is and does. Truth is what Jesus is; and Jesus is dying for Barabbas, and for Israel, and for the world.

And for you and me.

The question in our court is that which was also implicitly asked in Pilate’s: how will we respond when faced with the Truth of a kingdom breaking into this world from another, but which bids us not to take up our swords, but to take up our crosses and be willing to suffer with our Lord in this world?

Text: Matthew 6:25-33

Have you ever met a killjoy? You know that person who just sucks the energy, enthusiasm, and life right out of you. Some of you may want to call such a person a “Debbie Downer.” But since my mother-in-law’s name is Debbie, I could get in hot water if I use that term. (And if your name is Joy, please know that no harm is intended toward you in this post!)

A killjoy is that person who whenever they speak up, you want to grab a trombone or tuba and play, “Wah…wah…” Like when you’re having a party or sharing some good news of something terrific that happened to you, a killjoy will hop in and spoil it with saying, “Well it must be nice to be you. Let me tell you what happened to me…” or will go all doomsday on you and say, “Just wait until next week when that good thing is taken away…”

As an example, Thanksgiving is a time of year when I am tempted to play the role of the killjoy at family gatherings because, in case you weren’t aware, I am allergic to poultry. Now just picture me at a great Thanksgiving meal with the turkey being carved and everyone gets asked the question: “White or dark meat?” and there I sit, feeling sorry for myself, that I don’t get to fully participate in this marvelous feast. I could tell my family as they share in the joy of eating holy bird, “Well, it must be nice to be able to thank God for your ability to eat this feathered friend.”

A still of “Debbie Downer,” a character from Saturday Night Live, right after she’s just rained on someone’s parade. (Photo credit: daviddust.blogspot.com)

But see, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a killjoy because killjoys take away your desire or ability to enjoy life.

And one of the premiere killjoys that plague our lives is something that we just read about in this passage: WORRY! Worry is a killjoy. Worry consumes all your energy, all your enthusiasm…worry drains the life right out of you. And there is plenty of worry to go around during the holidays. Toward the beginning of  ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ Charlie Brown, notorious for seeming to see the downside of everything says, “Great, we have ANOTHER holiday to WORRY about!”

But as we listen to the words of Jesus, we see and hear that kingdom living calls us not to worry in life. And perhaps this is one of the most challenging aspects for kingdom living at this time (2012), in this part of the world we live in (the US). Living without worry sounds as impossible to some people as living without breathing. Many of us are addicted to worry. In fact we may be so addicted to worrying that if we discover that we don’t have anything to worry about at the moment, we worry that we’re forgetting something. When Carrie and I sold our house last month, I found myself continually worrying: “Did we sign all the papers just right? Did everything get fixed on the inspection report? What if we forget to sign something or to call someone?”

As I kept frantically worrying about making sure all the t’s were crossed and all the i’s dotted, I missed out on some of the joy of actually getting the house sold. You see, as a killjoy, worry takes the joy of living out of us because worrying blinds our eyes from seeing every good and perfect gift that God has given to us. Worry shows that when it comes down to it, (and this might sting a little) we really don’t trust in the God who has brought us this far. 

When we worry, someone has said, we act like atheists. This is true at least with regard to the present and future. It’s as if we say, when we worry, “Maybe God brought me to this point, but I’m not sure that God’s gonna get me through this…or what’s coming around the corner.”

As worrying shows that we don’t really trust in God, it is one of the worst forms of ingratitude, and that’s why we need this message from Jesus, especially around Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving: a time to look back and say, with Thomas Chisholm, the great songwriter who wrote these lyrics: “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness; morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

If it is true, God, that “Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been thou forever wilt be…”  and if it is true that “All I have needed [God’s] hand hath provided” then we need not worry!

But, how many of us will go back to the worrying life less than a handful of hours after being thankful? I’ve seen it put this way in one particularly well-worded quip: “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample others [worrying that someone else will beat us to that deal] for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

Or, if not held captive to Black Friday, we often find other ways to worry, like getting prepared and always worried about what’s next: the next holiday, or the next event, or the next crisis we think is coming.

Or, maybe we start (or get back to) worrying about the basic stuff, the necessities: where our next meal is gonna come from, or where we will get water for our everyday living, or if we’ll even be able to keep paying the mortgage or rent to keep a roof over our heads.

Now, when Jesus says not to worry about what you’ll eat or drink or wear, he’s not saying that food, water, and clothing aren’t important…he’s making a statement about worry and priorities. If you’re always consumed with worry about “what’s next” you’re robbing yourself of the joy and gratitude you can experience now!

As N.T. Wright has said it, in thinking through what Jesus meant in saying in “seek first the kingdom of God”: “Put the world first, and you’ll find it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Brothers and sisters in Christ, in the kingdom of God, there is much joy. And to seek God’s righteousness, I believe, means that we recognize that there’s more than enough of God’s grace and provision to go around. And what this means for Thanksgiving is this: “Gratitude toward our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow-creatures.” – John Wesley

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I want to express that if we want to know an even deeper sense of joy and thanksgiving, let us learn the joy of sharing in God’s faithful providence with those around us. Have a joyous Thanksgiving, y’all!