Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council
Orthodox Christian tradition has a major challenge today: its emphasis on correct dogma. People do not want to hear about dogma or creeds or ancient traditions. A quick glance at the religious landscape today shows that the fastest growing churches in America are the so called “non-denominational” or independent churches, led by charismatic pastors who preach excellent, very practical sermons, that are sometimes well grounded in Christian tradition, and sometimes not. We could discuss for many hours the reasons why this is so, but permit me to give just one reason: Christian doctrine is very challenging and not logical, at least not logical in appearance.
Examples: God is three persons; God is one. Jesus Christ is God; Jesus Christ is human. The kingdom of God is in another place; the kingdom of God is here and now. The Ten Commandments say to honor your father and mother; Jesus says that he who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. The world belongs to God; Jesus calls the devil the prince of this world. Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ; Holy Communion looks and tastes like bread and wine.
It is not easy to preach traditional Christian doctrine. But the other side of the story is this: the doctrine or dogma exists because we take the Bible seriously. We take what Jesus said seriously, even when it is a struggle to understand. An easy example comes to us from St. John’s gospel, part of which we read today. In chapter 20 the Lord tells Mary Magdalene, “Go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” One might easily read into this statement the idea that Jesus is not God. But in the passage that we read today we heard Jesus pray to God the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine,” which is a pretty audacious, if not a blasphemous way for a human to address God. The passage is one of many that can be understood only if we conclude that Jesus Christ was and is God.
Many modern atheists read the Scriptures, find the apparent contradictions, and then they say, “You see, the whole thing is craziness.” People of faith would respond, “Yes, this is difficult to understand, but we accept it in faith.” We call such things mysteries, meaning that they are teachings that cannot be comprehended, at least by mortal minds. We simply accept them as part of Christ’s teaching.
Can an ant, a little bug, understand what it is like to be a human? I think not. Are people really capable of understanding the universe? Its size is immense: about 28 billion light years in diameter. Our abilities go immensely beyond that of an ant, but really, is it logical for us to think that we can possibly understand everything? And yet God has revealed Himself through the Holy Scriptures, and we take this revelation seriously.
As I said before, the problem with ignoring doctrine is that the Bible gets in the way. C.S. Lewis wrote long ago that Jesus said some pretty incredible things about himself. Either He was telling the truth or he was lying, or perhaps he was crazy. Either you take him seriously, or you discard him completely.
There is another alternative: that people made up what Jesus said and did. In this case the Bible is a collection of folk tales, myths, etc. Many modern people, including some who consider themselves Christians, do precisely this. They discredit the Bible. It is an option, just not one that I would select.
Either you take the Bible seriously or not. Then you take Jesus seriously or not. You cannot claim to take the Bible seriously and then ignore what Jesus says about himself, about God, about the resurrection of the dead, and so on.
Today the Orthodox Church honors the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council, which was convened in the year 325 by our parish’s patron, St. Constantine. It was convened to address a question known as the Arian controversy, a dispute over who Jesus really was. In response, the first paragraphs of what is now known as the Nicene Creed were written. The New Testament at the time did not exist as a formal collection of writings; its various parts were written but not formally collected. This would happen in the century that followed. But the basis on which the fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council drew their conclusions was the Holy Scriptures, the gospels that we know and love, despite all the challenges that come from trying to understand them.
People today often treat religion as they would a buffet dinner, picking and choosing what they like. We believe that religion needs to be a complete package. If you study physics, you have to accept the whole package. You cannot say, I like the law of gravity, but not the law of thermodynamics. Well, you can, but I don’t think that it would take you far. In religion, you have to accept some basic concepts in faith, in humility, in confidence that God has given them to us as a precious treasure and a sacred hope.
The Book of Revelation (21) presents our hope as a beautiful city in which God dwells with humanity. Now there is room for more than one interpretation of this passage and of much of the Bible. But its basic truth is a given, for us, as it is for the entire Bible. I leave you with this hope.
He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.
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Text: John 17:1-13
At that time, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do; and now, Father, you glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.
"I have manifested your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world; yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you; for I have given them the words which you gave me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you did send me. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are mine; all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves."