Sermon – After Feast of Ascension 2019
The Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
June 9, 2019
On the seventh Sunday of Pascha (the Sunday following the Feast of the Ascension) we commemorate the 318 God-bearing Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which took place in Nicaea in Bithynia. The Council began on May 20th and ended on July 25th, in the year 325 AD. The Council took place in the twentieth year of the reign of Constantine the Great, following a period in which Christians underwent persecution by non-believers. During that time the Church was in a state of turbulence over a growing doctrinal controversy regarding the Divinity of Christ.
The word Ecumenical means "universal." The Council decisions were the formulation of Biblical and Apostolic teaching (doctrine/“dogmas”) accepted by both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
The First Ecumenical Council was the first of seven held throughout a period of four centuries, between 325 and 787 AD. The main objective of these Councils was to preserve the unity of the Faith as heard in the prayer of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, just prior to his Death. It is the section of today's Gospel reading. In the second half of verse 11 of chapter 17 of today's lesson we hear our Lord pray: Holy Father, protect them by the power of your Name - the name you gave me - so that they may be one as we are one.
Every Bishop's (and priest’s) first and most important responsibility is to protect, preserve and maintain the unity of the Faith by teaching correctly and guarding it from those who would divide or introduce any erroneous doctrine to misguide the faithful.
We hear after the consecration of the Holy Gifts at the altar: “…among the first be mindful, O Lord, of our Father and Metropolitan JOSEPH, whom do Thou grant unto Thy Holy Churches in peace, safety, health, and length of days, rightly dividing (or teaching) the word of Thy truth.” Thus, we believe that the unity of the church is maintained as our bishop’s first and most important responsibility is fulfilled: correctly proclaiming and teaching the correct doctrine.
Our Biblical Tradition is rooted in history. The Bible was written by the Church and for the Church. Our prayer language in the liturgy is based on Holy Scripture. We pray with the words of the Bible that expresses our desire is to live the lessons of the Bible. II Peter 1:20: Holy Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was not intended for private interpretation, neither was it revealed by the will of man, “but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (II Peter 1:21). Now, this does not mean that you and I cannot have a spiritual meaning that is personal and meaningful to us. It just means that we cannot make what we understand or personally believe to be universally accepted. Instead we accept and believe the Church’s doctrine that has been handed down to us as true. Now bear in mind (and this is very important) this faith, this Apostolic doctrine that is based in the Bible is a teaching that has undergone great testing through the ages. It withstood great trial. It is not just handed down to us from the minds of men. Many were martyrs who died for the truth. (Now there are all kinds of martyrs today.) We are living in a time of tremendous confusion over the meaning of words, not unlike the time of the early periods of the church. The difference is that today the world is able to quickly see deeds of men that are demonstrating their convictions through violent acts that are false truths and must be condemned. Moreover, we are living in a time when a popular consensus is based upon one’s personal freedom to explore and experiment with what scripture defines as unnatural passions. We proclaim and believe what has been handed down to us from those who were led by the Holy Spirit.
The First Ecumenical Council was convened by the Emperor Constantine the Great for the purpose of resolving a controversy: Arios, a priest from Alexandria (Egypt), taught that Jesus Christ was created by God and thus, there was a time when "he was did not exist."
The formation of two-thirds of our Apostolic Creed was completed by the end of the first Council, addressing the teaching of Arios, resulting in his excommunication. This meant that Arios' teaching did not meet the criteria of the church’s consensus as Biblical and Apostolic.
It was concluded that Jesus Christ is the "one Lord... Son of the Father, begotten (Note: not "born") of the Father before all time, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one essence of the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made (born a) Man…”
The final third section of our Creed (which addressed the person of the Holy Spirit) was completed by the Second Ecumenical Council in the year 381 AD. The final product was the Orthodox Creed as we know it today: The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
The Church’s placement of this commemoration was intentional: learning the Creed took place after one’s baptism. Behavior and Christian conduct was more important to the church than being able to speak or think theologically. In other words, it was how you lived your life that mattered; more than what you said you believed. Orthodoxy (“correct doctrine”) had to be accompanied with Orthopraxis (“correct practice”). The Church knew that being convinced and persuaded about the faith was not enough. In simple terms: Our Christian faith cannot be a “head trip.” It had to be a way of life. It had to demonstrate the love of God, His forgiveness and great mercy and compassion. It also had to be evident where a person lived.
This is precisely the reason why many today have some apprehension about being part of a church. They struggle with what they often see and hear. Many will say, “I love God; I love my fellow man, I don’t judge others; I do good deeds, and I rather not talk about it.” So why do I need to go to church? What is it that I am lacking in my understanding?
As a “Sacramental community,” we understand our participation in the Sacraments as a means by which we “touch God” in a mystical way by receiving the Sacramental gifts. This is done in a community of fellowship that prays together, studies and grows together, where persons are not in isolation from each other. It is therefore not a “private and personal affair.” It is a shared commitment in a common belief of an eternal reality that is seen and experienced in the Divine Liturgy and all of its related Sacraments.