Pentecost 4 - Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils

July 20, 2016 Length: 10:20

So often we think of these Councils as ancient history, but their message is clear. The Fathers were saving the Gospel in order to save the people. They were seeking to proclaim the Incarnation in all its glory. All these Councils are deeply important for your life and mine today. Listen in.

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There’s one other text that you’ll hear tomorrow, and it’s just a portion of the text at the same time.

Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end: eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the weekend when we commemorate the Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils. As you know, we have a special day on which we commemorate the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which is the one which has to do with the restoration of the icons in the Church. But on this day we commemorate the first six Councils because they all deal basically with the same issue.

Many years ago, there was a meeting, an ecumenical meeting of ministers and that sort of thing, and the person who was in charge of the meeting for the day wanted to talk about things like giving your life to Jesus and all that sort of stuff, but he got up and he said, “Can you imagine back then, in the third or the fourth century—I don’t remember which—the Church actually argued over one letter!” And there were all these titters of laughter and guffaws that went up in the room at that particular point.

Okay, so, in the interest of honest confession, I did not leap up at that time with flames coming out of my mouth and my ears to say, “What kind of an idiot are you, to believe that that was inconsequential in the fourth century!? The difference was between whether or not Jesus Christ was of the essence of God or was some other kind of a creation. And if you buy that second half, then you can go to the Jehovah’s Witness convention which is happening as we speak, at New Mexico State University.”

These things matter, friends, and that’s why we commemorate them. The key issue here in all of these Councils, in all of these Ecumenical Councils… the key issue is: how can we save the Gospel in order to save the people—that’s the key issue. The results of these Councils are held universally by many churches: Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, some others I guess as well—but these are of the very essence of what the faith is all about: the decisions of these Councils. They’re not stupid little things, arguments over one letter, “hee hee hee.” They have to do with your soul and with mine.

So what was the argument all about at that particular time? The argument was always about the Incarnation. It was about: was Jesus of Nazareth truly God and human at the same time, or was he not? And there were all kinds of conflicting opinions at that particular point. Some said, “Nah, he was a creature that’s sort of somewhere halfway between God and humanity.” That was Arius. There were others who said, “Well, he was human, but what happened was that he really didn’t have a human spirit. He had God’s spirit put within him.” And that was [Apollinaris]. Others said, “Well, this Holy Trinity thing, it’s sort of like God puts masks in front of his face, so now like one minute he’ll be God the Father and the next minute he’ll be God the Son and the third minute he’ll be God the Holy Spirit.” And the Church deliberated all of these views over the course of these centuries, not because they’re inconsequential or stupid or on an intellectual level only. It’s because they affect our faith. And if they didn’t, they would have never argued over these things.

So the question is really: how did they affect our faith? Since the beginning of Christianity, since the very beginning of Christianity, the issue has been: did God really enter into the human mainstream in order that humans might once again return to God? Athanasius expressed it in a simple formula: God became man in order that man might become god. It was a really simple, straightforward formula. It needs a bit of nuancing these days, perhaps, because it’s not meant that you become God in the sense of some particular churches, but it’s meant that you once again reenter into the divine realm with Christ because Christ became everything you are in order that he might return you to God.

That’s what’s missing in the heresies. What’s missing in the heresies is the completeness of the faith, and that’s why people like Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory—why these people rose up at that particular time in history to defend the faith. It wasn’t for the sake of intellect; it was for the sake of salvation. It wasn’t for the sake of looking good; it was for the sake of you—that you and I might find the true pathway to God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why these things went on so long is because of a secondary issue, which is intellectual pride. These guys were not about to give up the viewpoints that they had invented. Arius was stuck in the mud. He was not ready to give up his position. He said, “No, no. I’m right, and the rest of the whole Church is wrong.” And that’s why councils were called, and the Holy Spirit was invoked upon those councils, in order that they might find what the truthfulness in the situation was. So they were led forward by that Spirit, and we have continued to pray through the centuries that we would be held up and upheld by that same Spirit as well.

So there’s a big “so what?” in this, you know. I prepared a little paper that I’ll give out tomorrow after the Divine Liturgy, but I wanted to approach it sort of personally tonight, to say that this is of the guts of the faith. I mean, if you give this stuff up, you have given up what Christianity is all about. That’s what’s so important about it. God is love, and we receive God as love, but there has to be a way for God to get to us, because we cannot rise to God on our own. We are broken people. We live under the sign of sin, even if that’s a difficult word in these days. So we need that which Christ brought among us.

Over the course of the centuries it was argued about in so many different ways: what does it really mean that God became human? And those who held onto the faith delivered it to us in order that we might keep it whole and intact for another generation. Yeah, there was that subsidiary issue of intellectual pride on the part of those who refused to see the truthfulness of their opponents, and those who did not and walked away and gathered other people with them then became schismatics and invented other alternative churches to what we know today and call Orthodoxy.

That’s the story for this particular weekend. Perhaps, as over the course of the next week you think about this story and think about the four major problems in the early Church of figuring out how Christ was related to God and related to humanity at the same time, you can give thanks to those Fathers of those six Ecumenical Councils, because they did deliver “the faith once delivered to the saints,” as it says in Scripture.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christ is in our midst!