Exploring the Apostles Creed
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Part 1: ‘I Believe ...’

by Rev. Robert Griffith
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It was still dark when the first rooster crowed. I was exhausted. They had kept us awake all night and we were all so tired. I could barely keep my eyes open. When the cock crowed, they grabbed me under my arms and lifted me up and took me outside.
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I could just see the first trace of light beginning to appear in the sky as they led me down to a flowing stream and stripped off all my clothes. Then someone came with a big jug of oil and grabbed me by the shoulders, turning me towards the west. While still holding me, this person said, “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” And I renounced them. There I stood, completely naked, as the oil was poured over my whole body until I was saturated. I was then turned back towards the east and led down into the flowing stream.
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Standing there in the water, I was then asked three questions. The first question was, “Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth?”  As soon as I had choked out the words,    “I believe,” someone grabbed me by the head and pushed me under the water as if to drown me - and then lifted me back up again. Then I was asked a second question, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead, buried and risen, the third day ascended into heaven, who will come again to judge the living and the dead?” Once again, I sort of squeaked out the words, “I believe,” and once again I was shoved under the water and lifted back up again.
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While I was still gasping for breath, I was asked the third question, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, and the resurrection of the flesh?”  For the third time I said, “I believe,” and for the third time, I was plunged under the water and back up again. Then, when all the other people who had also been stripped of their clothes had gone through the same thing, we were dried off, dressed and led back into the Church.

Now what I have just described to you is a firsthand description of a baptism service from the late second or early third century. You can find this in The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus – a book which is long out of print now but it contains many great insights into life in the early Church. Among them is this elaborate ceremony of baptism and it talks about the whole process leading up to baptism. Not only was the baptized person kept awake the night before for  prayer and Bible study, but there were months, sometimes years of instruction leading up to this. This moment, on Easter Sunday, when all of the new believers were brought down to flowing water and baptized and then brought into Church to receive Communion. Sometimes for years, you would have to be prepared until you were ready and you really understood what you were going to do and what it meant to go down into that water and to utter those words three times, “I believe ... I believe ... I believe.” Now the text that we know of as the Apostles Creed has its origins right here in this baptismal service from the very early days of the Church. It was much later that we put it together as a Creed which millions of Christians would say together in Church.-
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The Apostles Creed
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I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died,
and was buried; he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the
right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
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Originally, this was something that you confessed publicly, in order to be baptized, and you would be baptized three times, according to those three parts of the Creed. I believe in God, the Creator ...  I believe in Christ, the Redeemer ... I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier. The Apostles Creed isn't just a summary of what Christians believe or a summary of Christian doctrine. It is so much more than that. In the early church, when you made those three public confessions, “I believe, I believe, I believe ..” you were handing yourself over to death and burial and resurrection. The act of being pushed down into the water and raised up again was an active sharing in Christ's death and burial and resurrection. This was not just symbolic, because in the early centuries of the Church, once you had taken that step, once you had allowed yourself to go down into those waters, you were literally handing yourself over to death, because early Christians were often physically persecuted and many were put to death because of that confession.
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So these three statements of belief were a way of making sure you really knew what was at stake, when you handed yourself over to baptism. It's not that you've just joined a new religious club and found some nice people to hang around with. These three, “I believe”confessions were a statement of deep personal allegiance. This was an act of handing your whole life over to something risky and dangerous and exciting. The Apostles Creed comes down to us as this kind of charter for the baptized life, not just as a summary of beliefs or doctrines, but as a pattern of what it looks like to be baptized into Christ's way. The Apostles Creed shows us a pattern of the disciples life, of the baptized life.
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It's very striking in the early Church that baptism involved physical nakedness. Now there was some discretion – the women and children went first and were not paraded before a pack of naked men! But it was still pretty confronting and I am sure you are all glad that this tradition changed over time. However, that change weakened the power of baptism in terms of its symbolism. You see, not only were you naked, but you had to remove all rings, bangles, ear rings – any jewellery – anything which was alien to your body, you had to take it off. So then there is nothing that you bring with you to those waters, except your body, and your voice saying, “I believe ..” You bring nothing with you to Christ, except your whole life. There are no accessories; everything has to be removed; everything has to be stripped away; you come naked to the waters.
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It's not only a picture of burial and resurrection, it's a picture of new birth. It is as if you're being born, naked, vulnerable and exposed to the elements. Just like when you were first born as an infant – you are now being born into a new humanity into a new human family and those three statements, “I believe, I believe, I believe ...” is the birth cry of the new Christian. This is our first wailing moan of dependence, just as a new baby cries out of dependence. “Where's my mother; somebody feed me!” This baptism was a statement of total trust, total dependence. It's God or nothing. As I go down into these waters, either Christ is with me; either Christ is going to raise me up to walk in new life, or there's nothing for me anymore. That's what this Creed is all about. That's what it means to say the Apostles Creed and, contrary to what most people in the Church today think, I believe the Apostles Creed is not only relevant for us today, it is deeply challenging and radically counter-cultural.
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Now we live in a society where we are very cynical about trust, we don't really get trust anymore. Our politicians make promises and we don't even expect them to keep those promises. We know it's just posturing to gain support and earn our votes. We come to a wedding ceremony and make lifelong promises of commitment to one another - after we've gone into the other room and signed the prenuptial agreement – and before you think that’s only for celebrities and the mega-rich, you would be surprised how many couples go down that road today. We are cynical about other people's promises; we are cynical about our ability to keep our own promises. Our confidence in words of promise, words of commitment, has been seriously eroded.
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We just don't get trust anymore and what this Creed tells us is that life is founded on trust. Those first words of the Creed, those baptismal promises, “I believe, I believe, I believe..” show us that life begins with this confession of trust. One of the great early thinkers in the Church was St. Augustine, and he once asked these confronting questions, “How do you really know who your father is? Were you there as an eyewitness to your own conception? Do you have absolute personal evidence? Are you really sure that the person you think is your father really is your father? Did someone just tell you that he is? Was there a whole crowd of eyewitnesses at the moment of your conception who have been able to hand on reliable information to you about your real father?“ Now this was 1,500 years before DNA tests so don’t let that distract you from what Augustine was saying. He went on to say that the only person therefore who really knows for sure who your father is, would be your mother. His point was that one of the most basic, important things about yourself, who your father is, is something you had to accept by trusting somebody else. Your life begins with trust. Augustine's point is that the basic fabric of our society is held together by this thread of trust. There are certain things we just take on trust, and we live on the basis of that - we live out of trust.
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So when Augustine thinks about the opening words of the Apostles Creed he says, “Don't wait until you've understood everything first, believe first, and then your life begins in an act of trust, accepting something that you haven't seen for yourself, confessing something that you can't easily prove.”  We live from trust and move into understanding. The Creed begins with the confession, “I believe that God created the world.” But who observed that? Who exactly has given us that piece of important information about the world and about our lives? Were you there when God was laying the foundations of the world? Was the person who taught you the Creed there? So where do we get that information from?
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So you see this Creed is inviting us to take up a position of fundamental trust in God, and live in that environment of trust. I don't think this means that the Christian life is just a big, leap into the dark with our eyes closed. You know, let's just pretend that God's the Creator, even though we don't know for sure. The Psalmist exhorts us to, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” And the Christian faith is a faith that says, ‘Look, if you're still struggling to understand, come and trust, and then you'll see how trustworthy God is. Take that step of faith and then you'll see how faithful and how utterly reliable God is, and then you’ll see that the Lord is good.’
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Life begins in trust and life grows constantly out of trust. The life into which we are baptized as Christ’s followers, is a life of trust. Not only through God, it's not just that we're committing ourselves to God. This Creed starts with “I believe in God, the Creator of the world.” The second part is, “I believe in Jesus Christ” - God becoming flesh within the created world; God actually becoming one of the creatures in the very creation that God has made. The third part is “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” sanctifying creation; transfiguring creation; transforming it, and ultimately the resurrection of the body.
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The Creed isn't just these ramblings about what God is like. The Creed is inviting us to take up a position of basic commitment towards the whole world. This world in which we live, is brought into being by a good God. The world in which we live is united to this God in Jesus Christ. And the world that is created by God and joined to God in Christ is also continually sustained and given life and renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit gathers together a new humanity. This Creed invites us to a fundamental trust in God, and to a fundamental commitment to our world – to affirm that this world is God's world and that God is intimately involved in this world from start to finish. Here's another thing that I think is challenging about this Creed. That first word ‘I’ – ‘I believe.’ Think about this for a second, who is the ‘I’ whose voice is speaking in the Creed? Have you noticed the fact that at many wedding ceremonies these days, the bride and groom choose to write their own vows?  I am not against that, but in the past, one of the main things that made weddings so special, so sacred, so important, was the fact that you said exactly the same words that everybody else had always said. They weren't just your words.
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The reality of your relationship was going to be the same as every other married relationship, bonded together by the same promise that all your ancestors have made since time began. That’s how it used to be. But we're kind of suspicious of the past these days. We tend to think that our ancestors, the people in the past, weren't really as enlightened as we are today. They didn't really know how we feel now. So we decide to write our own vows. We think that the truest thing we can say is something we've come up with ourselves. I think the truest thing I can say, is an expression of my own feelings for this other person. Whereas for our ancestors, the truest thing you could say was the same thing everybody else had always said. Your vows connected you with a much bigger reality.
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Sadly, I think in the whole of life today, we have this suspicion towards anything that's just handed down to us. We have a suspicion of anything that wasn't produced by our own feelings and by us reflecting on our own experience. That’s why Creeds like this are rarely read or recited anymore. Maybe we would be happy to write our own creed which would reflect our own opinion and our own views of the world. But as Christians, we are never invited to design a personal creed. We are invited to embrace the Creed millions of others have embraced - to join our voices to something that has been said by a whole community of believers stretched out across time and space and spread across the whole earth.
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So who should that ‘I’ be at the beginning of this Creed? It should be the body of Christ. We affirm this Creed as a worldwide community stretching across time and space - that great community of disciples who get to affirm their belief together, with one voice. You're not being invited just to say how youfeel about the world - you're being invited to join your voice to the voice of the Church. The Creed challenges us with the idea that perhaps the truest and most important thing that we can ever say is not just an individual word, but a corporate, communal word. Then my individual ‘I’ becomes part of the voice of the whole Church. Sadly, our whole society today tends to assume that faith is basically a private thing - something you do in the privacy of your own home; it doesn't affect public life; it doesn't affect the way you work; it doesn't affect the way you organize your life. It's a kind of accessory. That's the way our society thinks about religion and about faith.
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Let me wrap up the first sermon in this series by finishing the story I began at the beginning – that graphic historical account of baptism in the late second, early third century - here's how it ends. After this traumatic experience staying up all night, renouncing the devil, being baptized three times, being anointed with oil, being led into Church they are then given the Holy Mysteries of bread and wine. They say the Creed again as they share Communion. They take the bread three times and the cup three times, in the name of God the Father, in the name of Christ the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit and when these things are done, the presiding Minister would say, “Let each hurry out to do good works and to grow in faith.”
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So yes, the Apostles Creed is a summary of everything Christians believe. It is a summary of a whole way of seeing the world as the domain of God's redemptive work of grace. It is the pattern of everything Christians believe, and yet it is also the pattern of the baptized life. It is the template for a life of discipleship and that’s why the thing that they have to do after saying the Creed is hurry out into the streets to do good work. Why? Because once we've said the Creed, once we've understood what we're doing, we realize the world outside the doors of the Church is a world brought into being by the love of God. The world outside the doors of the Church is the very world for which Christ died. The world outside the doors of the Church is the environment of the Holy Spirit, which will one day be transfigured and resurrected and given everlasting life.
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So let's hurry out to proclaim the message of Christ; to confess the truth because our faith is not something we only do in the privacy of our own homes or in the privacy of our own religious gatherings. There should be nothing more public than the Christian confession of God the Father Almighty, and of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to whom be glory forever and ever in the Church and in the world. Amen.

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FEEDBACK: robert@gunnedahbaptist.org.au
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