Sunday of the Fathers of the First Council
On Thursday of this past week, we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Having accomplished all that was necessary in His earthly ministry, having conquered death and appearing to many over the course of 40 days, our Lord ascended back up to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. He assured His disciples that He would not leave them orphaned, that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth would be revealed to them and would guide them in all truth.
Next Sunday we will celebrate this descent of the Holy Spirit – the birthday of the fullness of the Christian Church. Christ our Lord most certainly did not leave us as orphans… He established His Church to guide us, to support us, and to sustain us in our Christian life. It is in and through the Holy Church that we receive the Sacraments, those grace-filled means by which God touches our lives. The Church also guides us in defining and defending the truth – the Church gave us the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament and all the holy writings provided in our services, in the lives and instructions of the saints.
It is in this context that we commemorate today the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council - a gathering of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in the year 325 in the town of Nicea. They had gathered to meet in council to clarify and more clearly define the truths of our Holy Faith. This was done in response to many false teachings which were beginning to be seen in the early life of the Church.
We heard this echoed in our reading from the Apostle Paul this morning wherein he was concerned about ‘savage wolves’ who would attempt to deceive the flock of Christ.
This has been Christ’s concern, and therefore the concern of those whom He has entrusted to shepherd His flock, for all the centuries of the faith. This is His concern because, contrary to popular opinion these days, truth does exist and it matters what we believe.
Throughout the centuries there have been false teachings about Christ and the Church has risen up in defense of the truth of our faith as it was handed down to us from Christ and His Apostles.
Does it matter whether we believe Christ was fully God and fully man? Yes, it does matter! If Christ is not fully God, how dare we worship Him? If Christ is not fully man, how could we claim that he was born, grew up, ate and drank among us, that He actually endured cold and pain and suffering and even death?
Does it matter whether Christ had two natures – human and Divine? Yes, it matters! What would be the point of His contest in the wilderness, when the devil presented his temptations if He was impervious to them? What would be the point of His agonizing prayer in the garden of Gethsemene, where His human will and nature recoiled from the suffering He knew was about to come upon Him? And yet, He courageously conquered all such temptations.
Does it matter whether we believe in the literal and historical accuracy of the resurrection? Yes, it matters - though there are some so-called Christians today who don’t think so. As Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is futile and your faith is in vain.’ If there is no resurrection, there is no hope, death prevails and has the final word. But Christ HAS risen, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it matters what we believe – for what we believe forms our understanding of God, of life, and of our salvation.
Christ knows this and therefore He assured that He would leave us not alone, but sent the Holy Spirit to guide and guard the Church in defining and defending the truth of our faith.
The fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, whom we commemorate today,
composed a short statement of these essential truths of the Orthodox faith – what we know as the Creed or Symbol of Faith. All Orthodox Christians should know the Creed by heart… it is part of our morning prayers and it is proclaimed at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
The Creed teaches us that we believe in One God, Who is also Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This distinction and revelation of God as Trinity is uniquely understood by Christianity and is the key to a correct understanding of the nature of God, a loving Union of Three Persons in One. There are many false teachings that reject this pillar of truth. We learn that God created the heavens and the earth - the complexity and beauty of things did not just randomly evolve through nature. We learn of the nature of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, begotten, not made; that He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary; that he did indeed suffer and die and rise again. We learn of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Giver of Life, Who is equally worshipped and glorified. We declare and proclaim that there is one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and we can confidently trace the unbroken teachings and succession of our bishops all the way back to Christ and the Apostles. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead and life of the age to come.
In today’s world there are thousands of different religions and philosophies and worldviews vying for our attention… Many of these groups are quite aggressive in preaching their personal understanding and interpretation of the Gospels.
As an Orthodox Christian, you must know what you believe so you can protect yourself against being lured by false teachings. Look through the history of the Church, look at the witness of the martyrs for Christ, think about the realities of the spiritual warfare that wages around us every day… if we are not clear regarding what we believe, we will be easily swayed by whatever current of opinion takes precedent.
The Truth of God has been revealed to mankind by God Himself. He unfolded this revelation of Himself slowly throughout the ages of the prophets of the Old Testament and revealed the fullness of Himself in the manifestation of the Trinity during the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church, through the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, has guarded and proclaimed this treasure throughout the centuries. We can rely on this source because Jesus Christ Himself told us that He would establish His Church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The example of the holiness of the lives of the saints of the Church provides further proof of the effectiveness and trustworthiness of her teachings. The Church has given us the Creed as our rudder that keeps us on the right path, it is our yardstick by which to measure and judge truth from falsehood – always subjecting our own opinions to the wisdom and reliability of God and His Church.
We must understand that there is no cause for pride - for the truth does not belong to us because we are Orthodox. Rather, we must have tremendous humility, because it should be just the opposite – the truth does not belong to us because we’re Orthodox; we belong to Orthodoxy because it is true.
Contrary to modern opinion and teachings, truth is not defined as that which you or I believe or wish to be true. God exists and there are true and false understandings of Him. The closer our perceptions and understandings are to the reality of God as He is, the better and truer they are.
It is the grace and active working of the Holy Spirit within the context of the Holy Church that reveals to us the truth. This is a very important concept for us to understand and to acknowledge, for it is the key to the correct approach of humility and obedience to the good order of things that safeguards us from the tyranny of our own opinions and our fallen personal points of view.
May we remember and honor today the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. May we heed the fatherly warning of Apostle Paul to beware of false teachings. May we guard and equip ourselves to know and understand the truth of our faith by committing to memory and bearing in our heart the Creed, the Symbol of our Faith. And, finally, may God grant us the humility to submit our arrogant minds to the greater and eternal wisdom of the revelation of God as He is – not as we might wish Him to be…not daring to conform God to our understanding and desires, but conforming and transforming ourselves to God as He has revealed Himself to us.