Sunday, May 28, 2017: Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; The Holy Hieromartyr Eutychius, Bishop of Melitene, Nikitas, Bishop of Chalcedon, Eutechios, Bishop of Mytilene, Helikonis the Martyr, Heladios the Hieromartyr of the East, Zacharias the New Martyr
Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13
Let’s look ahead for a moment.
Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. We sometimes, wrongly but understandably in my view, refer to this feast as the “birthday” of the Church. And yet, if we read the Scriptures and the fathers carefully, we discover that Pentecost is but one moment in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Clement of Alexandria puts the matter this way: “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called “‘the Church’”
And so in Holy Tradition we see a series of churches. There is Israel, the Church of Jews. In the liturgical tradition, paganism is called “‘an infertile, sterile church,’ but a church nonetheless.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote
Writing some 200 years after Clement, St. Epiphanius, argues that the Church is the goal of all things (Panarion 1,1,5:PG 41,181C). This make sense if we remember that the Church is the Body of Christ and that the world is “made through Him” (John 1:10, NKJV) and “were created … for Him (Colossians 1:16, NKJV) and “through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6, NKJV).
The centrality of the Church to creation and to God’s plan of salvation is why we are always concerned not just about our relationship to Christ as His disciples, or our love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ but also the dogmatic integrity of what we preach and teach. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that whole of created reality–visible and invisible–depends on the Church because it is in and through the Church that creation finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
And the centrality of the Church’s teaching also explains one of the central–and to those outside the Church sometime puzzling and even offensive–aspects of the Church’s worship. Orthodox worship is for all its grandeur and beauty is unapologetically dogmatic.
In part this reflects the ancient Christian norm–lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi–the rule or law of prayer, is the rule of faith and the rule of life. While we share this with our Western Christian brothers and sisters, as Orthodox Christians we positively delight in weaving dogmatic formula into our worship.
In the Creed, we use highly technical, theological language when we say that the Son is “consubstantial” or (in a different translation) “of one substance” (homoousion) with the Father. Frequently in our services we say that God the Father is “super-” or “supra-” substantial.
And of course, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy we don’t simply formally proclaim the Orthodox faith and remember the Ecumenical Councils and saints who defended it but also solemnly anathematize those who reject “…the Faith of the Apostles, … the Faith of the Fathers, … the Faith of the Orthodox, … the Faith which has established the Universe” (Synodikon Of Orthodoxy). Our anathematizing of the heretics doesn’t end here.
At Matins for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we also read about the death of Arius, the heretic whose false teaching was refuted and rejected at the First Ecumenical Council we commemorate this morning.
Because Arius denied that the Son was consubstantial with the Father, that Jesus was really and truly God and not simply the most magnificent (as he taught), the liturgical tradition calls him the “arch-heretic.” This doesn’t simply mean that he is the worst (or among the worst) heretics. No, the prefix “arch” means that he is the pattern on which all heretics base themselves.
We need to know all this to understand the graphic detail in which we recount the story of Arius’ death. You read the whole account in the Synaxarion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy that having only pretended to repent of his false teaching Arius dies in a public toilet on his way to serve Liturgy with Patriarch Alexander of Constantinople. This may seem to us a rather vulgar story to read in church but it is include to stress the lifegiving importance of the Church’s dogmatic witness.
Given all this, it isn’t surprising that sometimes, alright often, we can be triumphalistic and even arrogant in how we present the faith. Let me say first of all, that triumphalism has no place in our lives as Orthodox Christians. We harm the Church’s witness when, however we might justify it to ourselves, we denigrate the convictions of others.
Trying to convince someone of the Gospel by offering long, laborious explanation on Church history and the theological underpinnings of Orthodoxy is foolish. It’s like trying to save a drowning man by lecturing him on the evolution and functioning of the human respiratory system. What you say may very well be true but you can’t save him unless you jump into the water and pull the man out.
Trumphalism is lecturing a drowning man about respiration. What I say may be true but it saves no one.
So what are we to do instead?
Recall what I said a moment ago. The Body of Christ, the Church, is the reason for everything. Because God wills that Christ be “all in all” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:28) He also wills the same for Christ’s Body. We don’t need to coerce people emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. The acceptance of the Christ, the Gospel and the life of the Church taken together are the fulfillment, the reason, for each human life.
This means that God has already inscribed the path of salvation in the heart of each person we met. Far from being something imposed from outside, the desire to follow Christ, to accept the Gospel and to live the life of the Church is as natural to each human being as breathing. It is sin that is unnatural to us and grace that makes us most fully ourselves.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We oppose heresy because we love our neighbor!
We battle spiritual wolves because we have accepted Christ’s call to be witnesses to the Resurrection!
To lovingly bear witness to the Truth of the Gospel means to reveal to others the presence of Christ in their hearts. We haven been given to Holy Spirit so that we can do this. So let us now proceed to do what we have been given to do.