On this wonderful Sunday that falls between the Feast of Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday and the feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday, we celebrate the Holy Fathers of the first ecumenical council assembled at Nicaea. We also hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. One of the last things that the Lord prayed aloud on the night in which He was betrayed were these words “Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”
Imagine the deep desire of the Lord Jesus Christ for unity. Imagine the love that He has for His Church! His prayer is not for Himself but for His followers. His goal is our unity. When someone loves God he desires peace and unity everywhere. The Lord loved His bride the Church so much that He was praying for her with fervent prayers. The Lord desires unity. This unity is a sign of love between all the Christians and it is a sign of love for God. When this unity is broken, everything in the life of the Church begins to fall apart. It is the same in any family, but the Church is not just any family. It is the household of God.
In Acts of the Apostles chapter 2 verse 42 we hear these words “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers.” For us, this verse tells us so much about the early life of the Church and what it tells us has the power to change our lives by reorienting how we understand the church.
We are told that those who were Christians maintained a bond of love and a unity with the apostles. We know this because they continued steadfastly in their fellowship, meaning they remained united to the apostles and to those who had been appointed by the apostles. In addition, we find that they show their unity by being of the same mind as the apostles. We are told that they steadfastly kept the doctrine of the apostles. We see the early Christians devoting themselves to fulfilling this prayer of the Lord Jesus. They are steadfast in their resolve to be united. To have one mind, one heart, one doctrine, one fellowship. This is how Christianity is supposed to look.
In the early Church you either followed the apostles of the Lord or you broke away from the fellowship and were treated as a schismatic (one who breaks away) or worse yet, as a heretic (one who has false teaching). Today we have hundreds if not thousands of denominations that supposedly represent Christianity. They are not in fellowship with one another, let alone with the apostles themselves. Not only is there not fellowship with the apostles, but there is no continuation of the apostles doctrine in it’s fullness. In addition to that there is no continuation in the breaking of the bread, which we know as Eucharist, Holy Communion. So in virtually every respect we see Christians who are divided from the one, holy, apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ.
They are divided from the doctrine of the apostles and from the life-giving sacraments that only the Church offers to the world. I say that with a heavy heart, not with a sense of joy or triumphalism. I am sad when I think about the way that Christianity is fractured and splintered into tiny fragments. I can’t rejoice when I know that so many people are not receiving the true faith and the spiritual healing that Christ provides through His holy Church. So we pray continually that people would come not only to Christ as the savior, but to His one unbroken Church so that they might receive the fullness of the faith and not some revised, “reformed” version. When God created the Church He did not have a beta test. He made one Church and there is no version 2.0.
For Orthodox Christians it is natural to want to trace our apostolic lineage all the way back to the apostles and to the Lord Himself. We want to know the spiritual “bloodline” of the Church and ensure that it is truly the same unbroken, undivided church that existed in the book of Acts. Every Orthodox Church can trace itself back to one of the Apostles in an unbroken manner. We are the church spoken of in the book of Acts.
At times this one Church faced divisions and often those divisions were the result of false teachings or heresies by influential people (usually clergy). The Church was forced to deal with these issues, not because she desires power, or control, but because she desires what her Master desires, that is, a united Church which leads people to salvation and true knowledge of God. In fact the Lord Himself says in today’s gospel “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent.” For us, the only way to have eternal life is through true knowledge of God and His Son. Yet it is precisely the truth of God and His Son that is distorted by false teaching.
Imagine the potential problems. How can people be introduced properly to Jesus Christ when there is no unity in the Church and everyone teaches different things, false things? Perhaps that is why this country and it’s citizens are so confused and in disarray. Yet our holy Orthodoxy stands in sharp contrast to this predicament because you can go anywhere in the world and find that the Orthodox worship in the same way, pray in the same way and believe in the same way. In addition, they can all clearly show that they are united to the Apostles through the laying on of hands, and they are still united to one another.
So today we celebrate the memory of the holy fathers who met in the city of Nicaea in the year 325ad. This council was a gathering of many of the Christian bishops around the world and it was paid for and organized by the emperor Constantine the great. They gathered to discuss a great heresy that rose in the Church at that time. This was the heresy of Arianism. In modern times, Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons are modern offshoots of this heresy which teaches that Jesus was the Son of God but was not actually equal to God the Father. They teach that Jesus was a creation of God the Father and not eternal, without beginning or end.
It is interesting to note that those priests and clergy who argued for this doctrine, did not do so simply from their own twisted opinions. They used the Scriptures! It reminds us that using the Bible alone, may not be enough to come to the truth. One can twist the Bible to come up with strange variations to our faith. Such is the problem with those who claim Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone does not always give clear answers to certain issues.
The Church believes in an enlightened reading of Scripture which comes to life by the Holy Spirit and is properly interpreted within the boundaries of the Church and the protection it provides. The Church exists to hold onto the truth and pass it to generations. It exists to continue the work of the Lord Jesus and His apostles and disciples. So anything that does not line up with the teaching of the Apostles or comes from outside of the fellowship of the apostles, is considered suspect.
This council of bishops was the first but not the last to address the many theological heresies that arose in the life of the Church. They prayed and reasoned and argued from scripture and holy tradition in order to clarify and properly teach the faith as they received it from their predecessors. And in doing so, they have transmitted to us the gift of knowledge of the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ. What a gift we have received! We thank God for the holy ones who gathered together out of their love for the Church and their firm desire to see her united in truth. May we be like these holy fathers and like the Lord Jesus and pray earnestly for the unity of the Church and the spreading of her true faith, which is eternal life. Glory be to God forever AMEN.