Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
5th of May, 2019
An introduction to the Apostles Creed
One word that might be used to describe the group of us gathered here today is ‘believers’. Have you ever thought about how strange that is; to describe the people who follow a particular religion not by what we do but by what we think? It would seem to make more sense to describe religious people as ‘doers’ rather than ‘believers,’ since what we do can be experienced by others at first hand but no one else can be certain about what it is that we truly believe. And yet religious people are described as ‘people of faith’ and ‘believers’ rather than ‘people of action’ and ‘doers’.
Christianity is somewhat unusual in its focus on right belief or ‘orthodoxy’ over right behaviour or ‘orthopraxis’. When I talked to the children about Judaism and Islam, after the Christchurch massacre, one of the things that I mentioned was that both of those other ‘religions of the book’ put more emphasis on how one behaves than on what one believes. Jews are distinguished by the practice of circumcision and by following the Law; and Muslims follow the five pillars of Islam. Jews may eat kosher food, and Muslims food that is halal, but there’s no equivalent word for food acceptable to Christians because we eat anything. Both Judaism and Islam do have affirmations of faith that are recited. Many Jews pray: ‘Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one’ twice a day; and one of the five pillars of Islam is reciting the statement of faith that ‘there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger,’ but it’s only Christianity that has creeds. It’s only Christianity that puts so much emphasis on being a believer.
Over the next four weeks we’re going to examine one of those creeds in detail. We call it the ‘Apostles Creed’ because of a fifth-century legend that before Jesus’ apostles went out to make disciples of all nations they met together and agreed on the elements of this new faith that they were going to preach and teach. One version of the legend has each of the twelve contributing a clause. That didn’t actually happen, but the legend points us to why the early Christians felt that creeds were necessary. Unlike in the parent faith, Judaism, people did not initially become Christian through birth. Christianity was a converting religion; people who had been and believed and done something else became Christian by learning something new. New Christians had to be taught the faith, having grown up being part of something else. In the first centuries of the church that process of learning the faith took three years from the time a seeker was first accepted as a catechumen, a student, until the time when they were baptised. Through the ‘catechumenate’ they learned about this new and strange religion, and the creeds provided them with a summary of what it was that they were being taught.
The first ‘creeds’ were probably used in exactly the same way we use the Apostles Creed in the baptismal service today. Candidates for baptism would have been asked whether they believed in God, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, and would have answered in the words they had been taught. The questions might have been asked in this trinitarian shape because candidates were being baptised ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). From Christian writings of the late second and early third centuries we know that when candidates for baptism were asked these three questions their answers included some stereotyped phrases from the early church’s agreed ‘rule of faith.’ The ‘rule of faith’ was taught by the bishops and it was believed to be apostolic, the faith that was first taught by Jesus’ apostles. When we answer those same three questions in the baptismal service today with the words of the Apostles Creed, we are doing something that goes right back to the birth of the church, even if the exact words that we use only date back to the fifth or sixth century.
One of the reasons that we still say the Apostles Creed today, in the twenty-first century, here at the bottom of the world in a country of which those first Christians knew nothing, is that these millennium-old words remind us that each of us is a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic church throughout time and space, that as Christians we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. In a book on The Making of the Creeds the church historian Frances Young puts it like this: ‘there are issues of truth and identity which matter and which belong to the whole corporate life of the Christian community through history’. When we recite the creeds we acknowledge that we have things to learn from the past, from what has been said and believed by all those other Christians. Each of us needs to make the Christian faith our own, and accept for ourselves its truth, but when we do this we don’t start from a blank slate. One of the ways in which we receive the faith is through the words of the creeds.
Ben Myers puts it best:
When we say the creed we are not just expressing our own views or our own priorities. We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and tongue. We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place.
This is the way that the Basis of Union describes our use of the creeds. Paragraph Nine of the Basis says of the Apostles and Nicene Creed that: ‘[t]he Uniting Church receives these as authoritative statements of the catholic faith, framed in the language of their day and used by Christians in many days, to declare and to guard the right understanding of that faith’. The creeds are written in ‘the language of their day;’ the Basis of Union recognises that they need to be translated into the language of our day and that is one of the jobs of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Paragraph Nine goes on to say that ministers must be committed to ‘the discipline of interpreting [the creeds’] teaching in a later age’. Geoff Thompson, who teaches at Pilgrim College, thinks that ‘framed in the language of their day’ might be better put as ‘responding to the issues of their day,’ and one of the things that I’ll be doing over the next three weeks is talking about those issues, and what questions the creeds are answering. But behind the words of those days is something that is just as true now as it was in the first century, something that remains constant about Christianity across time and space.
The last thing that I want to say about the creeds today is that they are ‘doxological’. Doxology is just a churchy way of saying ‘giving praise’ or ‘thanks-giving’. When we say the creeds together as a community we aren’t primarily making an intellectual statement; we are glorifying God. I began this reflection by talking about the emphasis Christianity puts on belief, on orthodoxy, but we must remember that Christian belief is more a matter of our hearts than our head. When we say we have ‘faith’ in God, we aren’t talking so much about believing in the existence of God as about trusting God. Our belief is that God is trustworthy; a Being on whom we can depend. When we stand up together and affirm that we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we are really rejoicing that we are the children of a loving Father, that we have been adopted into the family through the Son, and that the Spirit enables us to accept that adoption and call God ‘Our Father’. It doesn’t matter whether we can intellectually assent to every single clause of the creeds, what matters is whether we are willing to put our trust in the God the creeds describe. Together we stand with every Christian who has ever lived and will ever live and we offer ourselves to God. This is what I invite you to do now. Let us stand and join with Christians of every time and place as we acclaim the God we are gathered here to worship:
The Apostles Creed
In unity with the whole Church
throughout time and space
let us stand and affirm the faith
into which we were all baptised.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
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.
 Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (1991), p. 106.
 Ben Myers, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism (2018), p. 10.
 Geoff Thompson, “In His Own Strange Way” A Post-Christendom Sort-of Commentary on the Basis of Union (2018) p. 60.
 Ibid, p. 59.