January 7, 2018 – 1st Sunday After Epiphany
The Apostles’ Creed, The Renewal of Baptismal Vows
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
The Book of Common Prayer provides instructions and guidance for all the forms of worship generally used in the Episcopal Church. In certain services, such as the service of Holy Baptism and the Easter Vigil, The Renewal of Baptismal Vows (pages 292-4) is required. On some occasions it is suggested as especially appropriate. Today is one of those occasions, the day in the church year when we remember Christ’s baptism. When we renew our baptismal vows, we do not recite the Nicene Creed or sing the creed in “Wonder, Love, and Praise.” The reason is that a creed is embedded within The Renewal of Baptismal Vows – what is called the Apostles’ Creed. If you put together each section that begins “I believe,” the result is the Apostles’ Creed.
I thought you might be interested in learning some facts about our creeds and this creed in particular. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo,” which means “I believe.” Creeds are statements of belief and, of all the major world religions, they are found only in Christianity. One reason for this is the history of the Christian Church and its vehement and even violent controversies regarding what is and what is not “orthodox” or “right opinion” in the faith. The creeds are the result of many people working out, over time, what the fundamental beliefs of Christianity are.
The Apostles’ Creed derives its name from a tradition that is no longer accepted as true: that when the twelve apostles set out to preach the gospel throughout the world, each contributed a clause to the creed. The earliest record of the Apostles’ Creed in the form in which it is now used dates from the 8th century, but very similar forms can be traced back to 4th century Italy, when it was used in baptism. There is evidence of the use of very similar words presented in question and answer form in baptisms at Rome in the 2nd century. So, The Renewal of Baptismal Vows which we use today has very ancient roots in Christian tradition and history.
In our Renewal of Baptismal Vows the first question is not part of the Apostles’ Creed: “Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?” This question is derived from descriptions of baptism in the early centuries of the church. I think you will find these ancient practices interesting.
The process of preparation for baptism of adults was long and intense. It involved learning the basic beliefs of the faith as well as living “good lives,” that is, caring for the sick and widows and doing other acts of mercy and charity. Once a person passed these tests, the final phase of preparation began.
It was a custom in the early church for baptisms to take place at dawn on Easter Sunday. On Maundy Thursday those to be baptized – the baptisands – bathed and put on white robes. (Incidentally, the white robes called “albs” – from the Latin word for “white” –worn by the people who serve in our liturgy represent the white robes of baptism.) On Good Friday the baptisands fasted. On Saturday they met with the bishop. The first thing the bishop did was lay hands on the people and exorcise any “alien spirits” from them. They then spent the night in vigil, being further instructed in the faith.
At dawn the water for baptism was poured into the baptismal font, which was more like a small pool than the basin we use. Then all the people to be baptized removed their clothing. The bishop blessed two kinds of oil, the oil of exorcism and the oil of thanksgiving. Two deacons held these oils, standing on the right and left hands of the priest. The priest began the exchange with each person to be baptized by bidding him or her say, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works.” The priest then anointed the person with the oil of exorcism, saying “Let every spirit depart far from you.” You see where our first question came from.
Then a deacon went into the water with the baptisand and they began the question and answer form of the Apostles’ Creed. When the baptisand finished reciting his or her belief in God the Father, the bishop or priest put his hand on the person’s head and baptized the person once. After reciting belief in Jesus Christ, the baptisand was baptized a second time. After reciting belief in the Holy Spirit and the church, there was a third and final baptism. The priest then anointed the person with the oil of thanksgiving. Baptism being accomplished, the new Christian dried his or her body, put on the white robe of baptism, and entered the church, to be admitted to the service of Holy Eucharist for the first time.
I’m sure that none of us would like to see a return today to the practice of baptism which I just described. But learning about the process of becoming a Christian in the early days of the church is instructive because we can see what a serious commitment a person was making at baptism. The early church was often persecuted, and many Christians were killed for their faith so becoming a Christian could be very dangerous. Committed involvement in one’s church community was expected. So was a certain manner of living – a “good life” of self-giving service to others, especially those in need. All this was part of following Jesus Christ.
Our church today believes that following Jesus Christ involves the same kind of serious commitment. In The Renewal of Baptismal Vows, after the recitation of The Apostles’ Creed, the remaining questions describe what Christian commitment means.
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” In other words, will you hold to the fundamental beliefs of the church and join with your fellow Christians to pray and receive the Eucharist?
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” In other words, will you do your best to live according to the ways of God and when you fail, will you try again?
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” One way to “proclaim by word” the Good News of God in Christ is to speak officially or publicly about Christ. That’s part of my work here when I preach and lead worship, and it is your work also when you give voice to scripture and prayer in worship. We all know the expression “actions speak louder than words.” That’s what proclaiming by example is about. Does your behavior clearly demonstrate your faith in Christ? What kind of behavior demonstrates faith in Christ? The last two questions guide us. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
To do all these things – to even attempt to do them – requires immense commitment to Christ and to the church. We need one another’s help. Gathering together regularly for worship can strengthen us. Making a public declaration of faith, as we will do in a moment in The Renewal of Baptismal Vows, can bolster our commitment. Reading what other Christians have written about their faith, their spiritual lives, and their experiences of following Christ can support us. Speaking to other Christian friends can help. Praying for one another is vital.
Above all, we need God’s help. The conclusion to The Renewal of Baptismal Vows acknowledges this. It is God who has the power to keep us in “eternal life,” that is, in life with God. It is in response to the grace and love we have received from God that we make our commitments to God, to God’s ways of living, and to Jesus Christ. And we pray that God will continue to grant us the grace we need to live with God, now and always.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.