SERMON ON THE SUNDAY OF THE FATHERS OF THE FIRST ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, JUNE 13, 2021
Dear Ones, Christ is Ascended!
Today’s Gospel reading is taken from John 17: 1-13. It is the first half of what many call Christ’s “High Priestly Prayer.” This prayer is the longest prayer uttered by Jesus recorded in the Gospels. So, what is it about, this High Priestly Prayer (or at least the first half of it)? Well, in the first two verses Jesus prays for Himself, proving that praying for ourselves is a good thing! So, He prays: Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You...that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him.”
In verses 3 & 4, the Lord, within His prayer, defines what eternal life really is. And what is it? To know God! This doesn’t mean to know about God, but to truly know Him experientially. That’s the sense of the Greek word γινώσκω, to know something or someone deeply, intimately. If we know God in this way, then eternal life is a consequence of our relationship, it is the result of our love.
In verse 5 the Lord rejoices in His unity with the Father, and how His humanity is united with His divinity.
In verses 6 through 9, Jesus prays for His disciples. He first extols their virtues: they have received and embraced the fullness of the Gospel message; they have believed that He (Jesus) is the Messiah, the Son of God, Who was sent by God the Father. His prayer for them is special, personal. He is not praying for all of humanity now, saying “I do not pray for the world” (“world” means people in this context), but He is praying specifically for His disciples. They are facing terrible trials and much-suffering ahead, so He prays for them.
In verse 10, the Lord now talks about how the disciples, the Church, are united to God, saying “All mine are Yours, and Yours are mine.”This refers to deification, theosis, or as St Peter puts it, the partaking of divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
In verse 11 Jesus acknowledges that He has already begun His walk to Golgotha, but prays that after He is no longer present in the world, that the Father would indeed grant the Holy Spirit to keep the church united with itself and with God.
In verse 12 Jesus declares that He was successful in keeping His disciples together, none was lost except for Judas, who chose to be lost.
In the last verse of today’s reading, verse 13, Jesus declares that He is ready to return His Father, even though He knows that first He must undergo unspeakable suffering, humiliation, and abandonment. He knows that the way to joy for all people, Himself included, requires the endurance of suffering. As St Seraphim says, “There is no salvation without sorrows. The Kingdom of God, where all the glory of the world pales in comparison, awaits those who have patiently endured.”
The High-priestly Prayer of Jesus is rich, it is personal, and it is deeply theological. Most of us don’t think much about theology, but Jesus did. Remember what He said to the Samaritan woman at the well? He tells her that she, along with her fellow Samaritans, are worshiping ignorantly, lacking a proper understanding of God, lacking proper theology (John 4:22). If your theology about God is faulty, then so is your worship. In other words, bad theology means you are worshiping a different God!
Today, brothers and sisters, we celebrate the triumph of true theology, the theology of Christ, the theology of the Apostles. It is the feast of the 318 Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council who gathered in Nicaea in the year 325. This council was not convened in order to create new theology, it was convened in order to preserve the authentic, original, Orthodox theology which had been preached from the Day of Pentecost in 33 AD. The despicable presbyter, Arius of Alexandria, worshiped what he knew not, because his theology on the nature and person of Christ, was warped, twisted, and just plain wrong! The Council was called in order to stop the spread of his pernicious, heretical theology. Why? Because it jeopardized people’s salvation! Right? Theology is important!
I remember way back in 1977, when the late Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann told us about a formal banquet where he was seated near the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III. As Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Fr. Alexander leaned over to ask Pope Shenouda a question: “Your Holiness, do you think that the teaching of theology is as important in today’s world as it was in the past?” Pope Shenouda, who was eating soup, seemingly ignored the question. Father Alexander admitted that he was a bit put-off. After some time had passed, Pope Shenouda finally turned his head toward Father Alexander and with a small smile said, “I believe we need theology to eat our soup, do we not, Fr. Alexander?” Fr Alexander was very impressed, and loved repeating this story.
So, dear ones, do we need theology? Do we personally need theology? What does St. Paul say? “Be diligent to present yourself to God as an approved worker who has nothing to be ashamed of, handling the word of truth with precision” (2 Timothy 2:15). I’d say that this saying of Paul’s, delivered to Timothy, equally applies to all of us, wouldn’t you? I’ll end with some verses from Sirach:
“How different is the man who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He explores the wisdom of the men of old and occupies himself with the prophecies; He treasures the discourses of famous men, and goes to the heart of involved sayings; He studies obscure parables, and is busied with the hidden meanings of the sages...His care is to seek the LORD, his Maker, to petition the Most High, To open his lips in prayer, to ask pardon for his sins. Then, if it pleases the LORD Almighty, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; He will pour forth his words of wisdom and in prayer give thanks to the LORD, Who will direct his knowledge and his counsel, as he meditates upon his mysteries” (Sirach 39: 1-7). AMEN.