Sermon – Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council
Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council
by V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
July 14, 2019
Today, along with three other times in the year we remember the Holy Fathers of our Church who participated in the great Councils: 1) On the Sunday following the Feast of the Ascension, we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (324 AD) which proclaimed Christ as being of one essence (homoousios) with the Father; 2) On the first Sunday during the period of October 11-17 we celebrate The Feast of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (787 AD) which defended the use of icons as expressions of Christian piety; 3) This Council is also remembered each year on the first Sunday of Great Lent – known as “The Sunday of [the triumph] Orthodoxy;” 4) Today, the first Sunday in the period between July 13-19 – The Feast of the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon (451 AD) which proclaimed that Christ has two natures, divine and human, united in one Person, and born of the Holy Theotokos. It is this Church Council which resulted in the first schism – dividing the church from those who, on the one hand, believed that Christ had one nature (the “monophysites,” also called “the non-Chalcedonians”) and those who upheld the decision of the Council: proclaiming that Jesus Christ had two natures: a divine and a human nature, united in one person.
We remember the Church Fathers as examples of faith, inspiration, sound teaching, holiness of life, and as courageous witnesses; in some cases even sacrificing their lives as martyrs of the Faith. Countless Church fathers and Church mothers lived what they taught, and taught what they lived. Heard in today’s Gospel lesson is the concluding verse: Whoever does [the commandments of God] and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19). Notice that the word “does” precedes the word “teaches.”
I am personally very thankful for having had many good teachers in my life. The lessons that I learned from them were effective because they were people whose lives were great with spiritual and intellectual content; of strong moral character; not hypocrites; fully human; repentant sinners. Men and women, who I greatly respected, but people who, I noticed, loved and enjoyed their work. They were people who were fully alive in doing what they did well.
You had a sense that they knew what they were talking about; people with experience and a good reputation. However, I have noticed that the best teachers among the very intelligent were the simple, uncomplicated, humble and loving teachers. [Remember I Cor. 13? It begins: If I speak (with) the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge… but have not love, and am nothing…]
St. Paul said in writing to the Corinthians: A man who thinks that he knows something, does not yet know as he ought to know. (I Corinthians 8:2) This wonderful verse is sandwiched between two verses that are its commentary. Verse 1 of chapter 8 begins, “…knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Then in verse 3 of chapter 8 in I Corinthians: “The man who loves God is known by God.”
A saint once said that a person who teaches by example is like someone who gives to others his own wealth, because he gives part of himself. There is nothing more inspirational or influential than the true example of people who practice the truths they teach. There is nothing more disappointing or disillusioning than to observe people who do not practice what they may profess. As Christians we do not only expect others to be examples for us, but we also have the responsibility to be examples ourselves to others through deeds, not mere words. A Christian always begins with himself.
Should we ever think that all of our theology is purely theoretical—having no relevance or application to how we live our lives, let us look more closely about what today’s Gospel reveals in what the Church Fathers have taught us.
The reading of today’s Gospel lesson is taken from the context of our Lord’s “Sermon on the Mount”. A close reading of the section will help us to recognize that our Lord was establishing a relationship between “doing what is good” and “keeping God’s Law”. However, as pointed out in many of my previous sermons: the Christian Law, or what Christ has established under the “New Covenant” is, in reality, a more difficult law because it pertains to what God has prescribed for our hearts.
Christian ethics is based on the truth that every one of us has “…sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”; we have all “missed the mark”, and there is no righteousness outside of what God has Himself accomplished in sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of a holy Virgin, under the Law, causing, as what is described in scripture: He who knew no sin to become sin for us; to be the most perfect sacrifice for our salvation in fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. For as we find in the words of St. Paul in writing to the Romans (chapter 8, verse 3-4), For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to (our) sinful flesh but according to the Spirit.
In other words, Christ’s saving work, His accomplished deed and supreme sacrifice on the Cross for you and I, fulfilled what no man’s human righteousness could achieve. His sacrifice went even beyond any animal offering of atonement for sin. For there is no righteousness, no holiness, no perfection, outside of the one who is righteous, the one who is holy, and the one who is perfect. For “One is Holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father” as we proclaim in our Liturgy.
Doing what is good therefore is: not only desiring, but doing our utmost to be in step with God’s will and Spirit. At the preface of today’s Gospel lesson the Christian is a person who is described as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”. Verse 13 of chapter 5 begins: “You are the salt of the earth… (continuing at verse 14) “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” And then, at verse 16 we hear: “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Upon first hearing such a description one could easily misinterpret what it means. St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on this passage helps us to keep the right perspective. St. John’s commentary also helps us to also understand the significance of this passage being chosen on the commemoration of the Holy Fathers, our preeminent teachers of Orthodox doctrine. St. John says: that “our Lord’s words intend to train us to strictness of life… to be earnest and devout in our endeavors; openly transparent before the eyes of all as “in the midst of the amphitheater of the world…” He goes on to say that it was not fame (of their teaching) that made the followers of Christ conspicuous, but the actual demonstration of their works; their deeds. In his own words St. John says, “…as through they had wings, more vehemently than the sunbeam, they overran the whole earth, sowing the light of godliness… It was impossible that what they preached (would) sink into silence and obscurity.” [Homilies XV, 11, and XVI, 5 on Matthew V]
In one of our church prayers, God’s Commandments are called: “a light.” Doing what is good in keeping God’s Commandments, can seem impossible for many. Today, many consider it too difficult and give up. That is because it is only possible through Christ. It is the greater work, the more profound and brilliant work of God, like the miracle achieved in the sacred union of a man and a woman. Notice I said “sacred”, meaning that it is blessed of God and unique. It is the beginning of not just any good deed, but a sacred good deed. Just as the work of an ordained person, or any baptized person for that matter is with the blessing and power of God Himself who also continues His creative work in the world through us – with all of our weaknesses and imperfections. This is what is meant by the word “sanctity”. One has sanctity when he/she is doing the work that is sanctioned; the work that is authorized, supported, confirmed, and blessed of God. On the contrary, one is “sanctimonious” when there is fraud, when one is pretentious, or is falsely pious.
The whole matter, while simple, becomes complicated to us because we are caught up and distracted by the many things of this world that cause us to think and believe differently from what God has designed. Life is not life if it is reduced to getting things, finding acquiring things, making things, using things. Life is acquiring the Holy Spirit. Without the study of Scripture, prayer, and fasting we cannot remain focused. These disciplines are taught by the Church as the means by which we preserve and maintain our vision of the Kingdom.
The lessons of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount as found in the Gospel of Saint Matthew therefore provide for us that focus, but only if they do not become for us a lesson that we interpret for ourselves to suit our desires and interests; our self-serving goals and selfish desires. Doing what is good, therefore, is simply loving God and keeping His commandments. It is the whole premise and basis to the Sermon on the Mount. It is not just love for love sake. It is not even love for your or my sake. It is God’s love for us, our love of God and love of our neighbor.
Our soul awakes early from the night, O God, for Thy commandments are a light. Teach us Thy righteousness, thy commandments and Thy statures, O God. Enlighten the eyes of our understanding, lest at any time we sleep unto death in sins. Dispel all darkness from our hearts. Graciously give unto us the Sun of Righteousness, and preserve our life unassailed, by the seal of Thy Holy Spirit. Guide our steps into the way of peace. Grant us to lead a godly life, both thinking and doing such things that are well pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art our Sanctification, and unto Thee do we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. A-men.