By Jessica LaGrone
A young woman was sitting around one evening with a group of friends when the conversation turned to religion. While politics and religion are known to be dangerous subjects among even the closest friends, the way things have gone in the political sphere lately, religion may have been the safer topic!
As her friends went around discussing their convictions, it was clear that most of these young adults weren’t really sure what they believed. They spoke in vague generalities, and some of them weren’t able to articulate what they believed at all.
Finally, she realized everyone was looking at her. Somebody said: “Well, you’re quiet, what do you believe?”
She opened her mouth without even knowing how she would answer. She started out: “I believe… I believe in God.” Then out of nowhere heard herself say:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” Almost unable to stop herself she continued: “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried….”
She proceeded to recite the entire Apostles Creed from beginning to end. When she looked up her friends were wide-eyed, and no one was more shocked than her. She had grown up in the church reciting the Apostles Creed – and even though she didn’t even know she had it memorized, when asked what she believed, it just came out.
Millions of Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed on a regular basis. Others may not say it aloud, but look to it as a template for the most basic beliefs of the Christian faith. For many, the words of the Apostles’ Creed have formed the backbone of their faith.
Many churches have drifted away from using repetitive liturgy like creeds in worship. They say that we do better to speak straight from the heart each time we articulate our beliefs and feelings about God, since anything we repeat often enough will become rote, more about habit than genuine conviction.
One of the first weddings I ever performed taught me a valuable lesson about speaking from the heart. I was just out of seminary, young and naïve, and when the couple said to me in premarital counseling, “Pastor, we’ve written our own vows,” I had no good reason to object, so I said yes.
When we reached that point in the service, however, I realized the wisdom of using traditional vows, as the couple’s words spoken “from the heart” ranged from cliché to cringe-worthy.
“I vow to be more in love with you each day than I was the day before.” “I vow that I will always rub your feet at the end of a long day.” “I vow that you will always be my Pookie Bear.”
That’s when I realized that you just can’t improve on the traditional words that couples have spoken at weddings for centuries. “I promise to love you, comfort you, honor and keep you, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to you as long as we both shall live.”
You really can’t do better than to promise those things. They are the heart of every strong marriage.
The same thing is true about the Apostles’ Creed. You really can’t improve on these promises, these vows. Sometimes words that are scripted for you can express the convictions of your heart better than anything you could make up yourself.
When we try to express what we believe about God, our words will always fall short. But the words of this creed have stood the test of almost 2000 years of Christians saying what we believe together.
While it wasn’t written (as some legends have surmised) by the apostles themselves, the basic form of the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to the earliest centuries of the Christian faith.
It served three basic purposes for the early Christians:
1. To catechize – to teach new believers what the Church stood for.
2. To defend – to guard the faith against heresies and false doctrines.
3. To evangelize – to tell the world the core of what the Church believed.
The Apostles Creed was used as an outline of the faith for baptism preparation for new believers.
During what we now call the season of Lent, those who wished to be baptized into the faith would spend time studying the beliefs of the Christian faith as outlined in the words of the Creed. Then, at dawn on Easter Sunday, they would line up and affirm their faith by responding to the Creed as a set of questions.
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth? And they would answer, in chorus: “Yes, I believe!”
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord? “Yes, I believe!”
This would continue until they had answered in the affirmative to all twelve declarations of the Creed. Only then would the new believers line up, and one by one, step into the baptismal pool and be immersed in the water, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Creed itself is Trinitarian in shape, with a section affirming the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, followed by a handful of short but important pronouncements at the end – the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting.
It can seem unfair that, while the Father is given just a couple of lines, and the Holy Spirit a meager six words, the lengthy core of the Creed is dedicated to declarations about Jesus.
The explanation for this seeming inequity lies in the Creed’s objective to defend the faith against false doctrines. In the early days of Christianity heresies about Jesus were rampant. Rumors that Jesus was not truly human, or that he was not divine, or that his crucifixion or resurrection were a sham quickly turned into doctrines for splinter groups of Christians. The Apostles’ Creed was a way of summing up, in very few words, what Christians do believe in order to stop speculations.
Centuries later, there are still more misconceptions about Jesus than any other person in history. We need the affirmations of this Creed more than ever to remind us of the core truths about Jesus Christ.
It’s interesting that the only person named in the creed besides God is Pontius Pilate. Since Pilate was a recognized historical figure, the statement “suffered under Pontius Pilate” served to place Jesus at an exact moment in history, refuting any claims that his story was a fairy tale existing outside of historical record.
Pilate goes down in history in the Apostles’ Creed as the one under whom Jesus suffered, even though he never physically struck Jesus, never convicted, or sentenced him. All Pilate did was wash his hands of the situation. His public censure everywhere the Apostles’ Creed is spoken reminds us that there is no neutral stance where Jesus Christ is concerned. When faced with the question of Jesus, Pilate’s attempt not to decide where he stood was a clear and condemning decision. Our words affirming belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God whenever we say the Creed marks our choice.
The content of the Creed follows a basic explanation of what Christians believe, simple enough for anyone to share with a friend who wonders what this faith is all about.
I often hear from new believers who have been regular church attenders in the past but have only recently embraced the faith for themselves. They sometimes say things like: “You know, I’ve been in church all my life, but until now I never heard the Gospel.” I’m never sure exactly how to respond to that. I usually say, simply, “That’s a shame.”
It is a shame. It’s a shame that there are churches out there that have lost sight of telling people that God wants a
relationship with them, that he wants that so much that he died for their sins and that their lives and eternal life can be changed forever if they understand and accept that. It’s a shame that there are churches that aren’t preaching the Gospel.
But there’s something else that’s a shame. It’s a shame they weren’t listening.
If you ask most people who say they’ve been in church their whole lives without really hearing the Gospel: “Did your church ever say the Apostles’ Creed?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Some would even say: “We said it every Sunday.”
If that’s the case, then it’s a shame they weren’t listening. Because not only did they hear the Gospel, they actually said it with their own mouth.
Here’s the gift of this Creed to the Church: No matter what kind of church you are in, no matter who is preaching or what they say or what they don’t say, if you are in a church that is at least faithful enough to say the Apostles Creed, you hear the Gospel.
Sadly, there are some churches that have even strayed beyond these basic bonds of belief.
A friend of mine moved to New England several years ago and found a church that she felt was the right fit for her. She like it that it was a church that labeled itself “progressive,” valuing tolerance and openness to all beliefs instead of proclaiming one set of beliefs in particular.
The church had few members and wasn’t growing, so they decided to put together a brochure to put the word out about who they were. The committee tasked with writing the brochure agreed that the cover should say who they were. So they began by writing:
“We are a church that believes that…” And that’s where they stopped. They couldn’t agree on what to say next. They thought about putting the name Jesus on there, but they knew that might offend some people. They thought about saying something more generic about God, but they were concerned that might turn some people off.
“We are a church that believes that…” Wait, someone said, we can’t really say that we all believe the same thing. So they backed up: “We are a church that…”
Wait a minute, someone else said – should we even use the word church in there? Someone might have had a bad experience with church, and be put off by that word.
“We are a…”
They had to disband the committee. They couldn’t even agree on what to call themselves.
My friend left that church. As progressive as she was, she knew there was no life in a church that cannot even express what it believes.
Where the Church is letting go of its ties of belief to Christians through the centuries it is slowly withering, cut off from its power source. But where the words of the Apostles’ Creed are believed with sincerity, proclaimed with feeling, lived out with fervor, there is where the Church is thriving. Answering again and again to the question of faith with the response: “I believe… I believe… Yes, I believe.”
Jessica LaGrone is the Pastor of Worship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston, Texas. She is a guest speaker at churches and events around the country, and her new Bible Study, Namesake, was recently released by Abingdon Press. Her blog, Reverend Mother, covers the daily life of balancing pastoring and mothering, at www.jessicalagrone.com.