Homily on the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
June 9, 2019
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ is Ascended!
Brothers and Sisters,
A number of years ago I was planning a trip to give a talk to the fathers at St. John's Monastery in Manton, California. The then Father Jonah Paffhausen sent me an email with very detailed instructions on how to get there which included these sobering words: “When you get to Ponderosa Drive, don't turn right as your GPS will tell you. If you turn right, you'll plunge over a cliff. Turn left, and you'll get to the Monastery safely! On a more recent trip, I was with my mother. We were taking a little vacation/roadtrip to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Somewhere in the middle of Oregon I had reserved hotel rooms for us for the night, but instead of relying on the written directions on the hotel website, I relied on my GPS. It was late at night, and we found ourselves in an overgrown field, which it turned out was part of an active landing strip, an airport! So what went wrong? What went wrong was that I put my trust in a device because I mistakenly thought it would be better, more accurate, more precise. Why? Because it was new, it was the new technology. The truth is, I should have relied on the accuracy of those who lived there and worked there, rather than on the technology. Sometimes the old way is still the better way.
Now, the holy apostle Paul was in the City of Miletus, as we heard in this morning's Apostolic Reading, and from there he called upon all of the bishops and presbyters from the region to gather together to him. This is what he said to them:
“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (overseers,) to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking distorted, corrupt things, to draw away disciples unto themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone, night and day, with tears...I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are being sanctified.”
Today we remember the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This great and all-important Synod was called by the Emperor, St. Constantine the Great, in the city of Nicaea, in the year 325. The Church's bishops gathered together at that time to defend the truth, the old truth, the truth about Christ which had been handed down from those who lived there and knew Him. Dangerous new teachings and new “truths” were causing incredible fights and divisions within the Church. These supposed new truths were the product of the demon-possessed mind of a heretic named Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt. What exactly did Arius say? Well, he taught that Christ was NOT one in essence with God Father. He said that Christ was only “the highest of all created beings,” in other words, a creature. With Arius there is no Holy Trinity, no divinity of Christ, no “God becoming man so that man could become god.” Arius' teaching was a false and spiritually deadly teaching. It was a doctrine that came from OUTSIDE the Church's holy tradition. That's why the bishops met. They didn't gather, as some heretics suggest, in order to create their own new teachings, their own new theology. They came to reaffirm those teachings which had been received from Christ and the Holy Apostles, and which teachings were always believed by everybody, everywhere. This is where we get the word “catholic” by the way. It comes from two Greek words: κατά which means “according to” and ὅλος, (ὅλως) which, in this context, means “the whole church, everywhere.” As St. Vincent of Lerins said so eloquently in the early 5th century: "Special care must taken that we hold onto that which was believed everywhere [ubique], always [semper], and by all [ab omnibus]." In other words, the bishops gathered to confirm not only what the Church's teaching was, but also what the church's teaching had always been. Arius' teaching was something novel, something new, something radically out-of-sync with “catholic” teaching...that which was believed from the beginning, by everyone, and everywhere.
This is just what St. Paul was warning his bishops about. This is just what the 318 holy fathers gathered in Nicaea were guarding against. Arius' teaching was outside of the church's tradition, outside of the church’s memory, and outside the church’s experience. Arius was providing directions from the outside, directions that would lead to spiritual injury, to the spiritual cliff.
St. Paul, in his first epistle to Timothy, writes this: “but if I am delayed, I write, so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” In other words, the Church, because she is the Body of Christ, having Christ as her Head, is the stable and reliable source for determining the truth. Some people think it's the Bible, but that's not exactly right. The Bible still has to be understood within the context of the Church's tradition, and not independently. That's why St. Peter writes: “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation”(2 Peter 1:20). This is how Arius got into trouble. He twisted the Scriptures to conform to his own dangerous ideas, twisting them to his own destruction and the destruction of others (cf. 2 Peter 3:16).
So, beloved, as we walk on that straight and narrow way that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:14), do not listen to words or guidance that do not conform to to the mind the Church, which is the mind of Christ. St. John of Kronstadt wrote this: “All that is pure, lawful, and holy, the impure devil endeavors to defile, or to misrepresent - to depict in an impure, perverted, and distorted manner. Oh, how evil he is, how impure, impudent, tireless, and active in his wickedness, in his malice, in his abominations! Who can escape his nets? He who believes firmly in Christ and the Church!”
And this is why we so joyfully sing today:
Most glorious art Thou O Christ our God!
Thou hast established the Holy Fathers as lights on the earth!
Through them Thou hast guided us to the true faith!
O greatly Compassionate One, glory to Thee!