Scripture Reading – Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Following his resurrection, Jesus sent his disciples to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news and make disciples of all nations. From the beginning, in accordance with his command, part of the task of calling people to discipleship in Jesus has been inviting them to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. That baptism, of course, is not just an empty ritual, but a powerful act by which those who receive it are joined to Christ and united with the body of Christ on earth. Especially in those early days, it was important to make sure that those who approached the font understood the faith into which they were being initiated. As a result, it became common practice for those who were being baptized to confess their faith by responding to three questions about the nature of God. Here, for example, is a series of questions attributed to the early church father Hippolytus, dating from around the year 215.
Do you believe in God the Father who rules all things?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was begotten by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died and rose the third day living from the dead, and ascended into the heavens, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy Church, and in the resurrection of the body?
Those who answered, “Yes,” to these three questions were admitted to the font. Of course, the content of these questions would have been part of the instruction these candidates received before their baptism, so it’s not as though these questions presented a barrier for most; they simply provided an opportunity for people to make clear that they shared the faith of the church as it had been passed down to them. Because these questions were grounded in the instruction of the Apostles Jesus had originally sent out to baptize and teach, they formed the basis for the confession that eventually – around the year 700 – became known as the “Apostles’ Creed”. In fact, a long-standing tradition stated that each of the twelve apostles contributed one section or idea to the creed, so that it was said to represent verbatim the teaching of those individuals who had walked with Jesus. Though that tradition is probably not true, it is true that this creed represented the beliefs of a large number of Christians dating back to the earliest days of the church, attested by the witness of Scripture.
In keeping with its roots as a sort of interrogation of those who approached the font, the Apostles’ Creed continues to be tied closely to our practice of baptism. When we ask questions of those who are being baptized (or those who bring their children to be baptized), this creed forms the basis of our response as individuals gathered to witness the Sacrament:
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
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 God 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.*
This baptismal connection is the reason that we use the Apostles’ Creed during Lent, the yearly time of penitence and renewal in which we reflect on our relationship with Jesus – a relationship forged by our obedience to his command and the gifts of grace and new life received in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Besides that specific connection to baptism, we also use the Apostles’ Creed on the Sundays that comprise what used to be called “Ordinary Time”, the long “green” seasons that take up the majority of the church year. Throughout the bulk of the year, then, we recite these words each Sunday to affirm what we believe about God – the one who created us, who redeemed us through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and who continues to gather us into one church and grant us forgiveness through the Holy Spirit. More than that, we are reminded by reflection on the name of the creed that what we profess is part of the historic witness of the church going back to the time of the apostles, that in an ever-changing world our worship and our faith is rooted deeply in the soil of the early church.
By and large, this Apostles’ Creed has now become the default confession of faith in Lutheran congregations, partly owing to its historical significance within Western Christianity. The churches of the East (what we now call the Orthodox churches) never accepted the Apostles’ Creed, substituting local baptismal creeds for the Nicene Creed shortly after its composition and using that Creed almost exclusively since then. As a Church of the Reformation, a church with ties to the Western Catholic Christian tradition, this creed is a part of our heritage, shared with many of the other churches that emerged from the turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth century struggles over religion. In this creed, then, we find a point of unity that transcends the many differences in belief and practice between Anglican, Protestant, and Roman Christians – we profess, after all, that there is one holy catholic (or universal) church, and that this church is formed and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Despite its origins in a very individual practice of confessing faith before baptism, this creed also has the potential to link us more closely with brothers and sisters who are often visibly divided from us, and that is a great gift to us and to the Church.
The other reason this creed has been so important in Lutheran circles is because of the extensive treatment it receives in the writings of Luther, particularly the catechisms that have been such a vital part of transmitting our traditions through the generations. For Luther, this creed had the benefit of being brief enough to summarize the faith so that we can easily remember the fundamentals, while also being deep enough to ponder for a lifetime. When we think about it this way, the creed can be not only a public affirmation, but also a source of private reflection on God and how God has been revealed to us in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is my prayer, brothers and sisters, that we will take another look at these words that are so familiar to the church, so that we can appreciate them anew, remembering the connection we share with our ancestors in the faith through this confession and the union we share with Christ in Holy Baptism. Amen.
* Questions are found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, © 2006 Augsburg Fortress (Minneapolis, MN); English translations of The Apostles’ Creed © 1988 English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC). www.englishtexts.org. Used by permission.