Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This was the council which condemned the Arian heresy that claimed Jesus was a created being who only later was glorified by God. The council upheld the tradition of the apostles regarding the eternal divinity and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember the Spirit-led work of these Holy Fathers on this Sunday, right between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, because this timing helps us remember the promise made to the Church by her Lord. Jesus told His followers that He would not leave them as orphans after His ascension, but would send the Holy Spirit who would guide His Church into all the truth. The Spirit came at Pentecost, and remains with the Church to this day. Through the Holy Spirit, the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council aggressively defended the truth and quite literally saved the Christian faith at a time when the whole world was filled with the darkness of error and deceit. Our commemoration of the Holy Fathers of Nicea is therefore just as much a commemoration of the work of the Holy Spirit Himself, and a grateful recognition that He labors in synergy with holy men to uphold the truth of God and bear witness to the apostolic faith in every generation.

We can see an early example of the Holy Spirit working together with holy men this way in Acts chapter 15. There the Spirit is invisibly present in the council of Jerusalem, during which the apostles had to decide on the difficult matter of what to do with Gentile converts to Christianity. At last, in a letter sent to the Gentiles abroad the council declared its decision with the words, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us…” [Acts 15:28] With these words, the council of apostles and holy hierarchs was not trying to bolster its position or authority, but was simply recognizing that the Holy Spirit aided the Church in times like this, as the Guide into all the truth that Jesus had promised. This set the precedent that every successive authentic Church council would follow.

There have been seven ecumenical councils--meaning, councils whose decisions have been accepted by the entire Church, universally and throughout time--which were convened whenever any heresy endangered the purity of the Orthodox faith. Through all these councils, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us--meaning our Holy Fathers in every age--to articulate, clarify, and advance the Christian faith delivered once for all at that first Pentecost so long ago.

In our day, far too many believers ignore these historic and Spirit-led councils with the claim that “All I need is my Bible and the Spirit to lead me into all the truth.” How delightfully ego-centric! Such people make the HUGE assumption that there would even be bibles in existence today or any recognizable semblance of Christian faith to adopt had not these councils acted as they did to preserve the truth. “But God would have found some way to preserve His truth!” they might protest. And yes, He did find a way, and this was it: the Holy Spirit, working together with holy men, in His holy Church.

People have a hard time accepting what God actually did in history, preferring to substitute their own ideas of what He should have done. Perhaps this is because if they acknowledge what God actually did, that would mean that there is a higher authority than themselves; a Church to which we are accountable rather than vice-versa. When man is in a state of delusion, he imagines that the Church which Christ established, His very Body, which He promised the gates of hades would never prevail against, to which He granted the Holy Spirit to abide in it and to lead its faithful into all the truth, is somehow fundamentally less reliable than me with my bible. This is what Arius believed, and we see where that belief got him. And yes, it is delusional. God’s plan is and always has been centered on His Church.

Did you know that the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council are even alluded to prophetically in the Old Testament? In Genesis 14 we read of the foreign kings waging war and taking Abram’s brother, Lot, captive. Verse 14 tells us, "And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan." There Abram defeated the kings and set his brother free. Three hundred eighteen is also the exact number of Holy Fathers who were present at the council of Nicea. These were servants of God, raised in His own House (the Church) and armed with the knowledge of Truth, who fought against the Arians that had taken many souls captive with their foreign and corrupt teaching, and defeated them to bring freedom. The Church has recognized that this Old Testament story gained a New Testament fulfillment in the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This leads us to the understanding that it is not only Christ who fulfills Old Testament prophesies, but sometimes even His Church and His saints alike, because all are one in divine life and mission.

In our reading from Acts this morning, the prophecy continued with St. Paul warning the Ephesian elders to guard the flock and care for the Church of God which He had entrusted to them, for “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” [Acts 20:30]. Arius was such a man, a presbyter of the Church, whose perverted teachings nearly overthrew Christianity until the servants of God prevailed against it.

In our gospel lesson from John 17, Jesus told us what the stakes are. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent”. Eternal life hinges on true knowledge of the only true God, which the heretics pervert in their efforts to lead many astray. This knowledge is never merely theoretical, cerebral, or abstract; it is experiential, spiritual, and actively saving. Neither is this knowledge relative to what we choose to believe about God. Rather, the true knowledge of God is wedded to the Church, comes forth from the Church, and is fully known only within the Church. We come to know God not by reading about Him but by living in union with Him in His Church. The knowledge of God is not words and doctrines alone but life and communion.

It was this very life which they possessed that allowed the Holy Fathers to recognize the error of Arius when they encountered it. It wasn’t just that Arius was teaching something new; he was teaching something lifeless. It was a false teaching that did not unite its adherents to Jesus Christ, that did not lead to the true knowledge of God, that did not impart the grace and salvation of God. For this reason it had to be condemned. And all who do not confess the Symbol of Faith which came forth from the Council of Nicea also risk the condemnation of alienation from the true knowledge of God and from eternal life.

My brothers and sisters, we do not pronounce that judgement ourselves. We love all men and reserve for them the same hope of salvation that we hold for ourselves, regardless of their church affiliation or their beliefs. Yet we do not regard all churches or beliefs as equal before God. There is one true Church and one true life and communion within that Church. It is this Orthodox Church to which we must be faithful, even while we pray for the peace of the whole world and the salvation of all men. We are not called to judge but to witness, showing forth the light of God’s life in love to the fallen and broken world around us. Our witness must not consist of empty words or of dogmas we have not bothered to live, but of lives that have found their way into communion with God and are undergoing the transformation of love. This is what people want to see and what we can show them, for the Holy Spirit is still dwells with the Church, and still works with holy people to bear witness in a fallen and broken world. May God grant us to be that people.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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