Sunday, June 9, 2019 – After-feast of the Ascension, Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
Holy Gospel according to St. John 17:1-13: “At that time, Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee, since Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom Thou hast given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent. I glorified Thee on earth, having accomplished the work which Thou gavest Me to do; and now, Father, glorify Thou Me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made. I have manifested Thy Name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word. Now they know that everything that Thou hast given Me is from Thee; for I have given them the words which Thou gavest Me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from Thee; and they have believed that Thou didst send Me. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom Thou hast given Me, for they are Thine; all Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine, and I am glorified in them. And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one. While I was with them, I kept them in Thy Name, which Thou have given Me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to Thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.”
“Christ is Ascended!” (From Earth to Heaven!)
I guess I don’t have to tell you – We live in a divided world. There are those countries who can provide an environment for their citizens to work, eat, live and prosper and those countries where their citizens are under constant threat of violence, starvation, disease, homelessness and destruction. We are a divided world. Even in our own country there are those who are trained, educated, employed, cared for and connected to a community and family where they belong and thrive and then we have a population who are uneducated, unprepared, unemployed, forgotten, isolated, disconnected, lonely, and totally dependent on others for their existence. Sometimes you hear people describe this situation as “the haves and the have-nots”. The “first-world and the third-world”. The “insiders and the outsiders”. The “rich and the poor”. In politics you see divisions – the “liberals and the conservatives”. Among certain issues being discussed and debated in our country you find neighbors and family members who are “pro-life and pro-choice”. You will meet those who are for “gun-control” and those who are for “gun owner’s rights”. You know some who are home schoolers and those who are public schoolers. Those who are opposed to vaccinations and those who support them. There are those who support the traditional family and those who wish to redefine the family to include anyone who decides to create a family with anyone no matter their sex and ability to propagate and reproduce within that family. We are a divided nation.
Additionally, there are Christians and non-Christians and then within those of us who are Christians we have divisions – Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mainline denominations, independents, contemporary, sacramental, reformed, and “spirit-led”. We are divided church. Matter of fact it would be interesting to keep track of how much time and energy we each spend on understanding, explaining and defending how we are not like others. We work hard to clearly describe ourselves as this and not that. We are us and not them. They are wrong and we are right. They are evil and we are good. They are dumb and we are smart or clever for having arrived at where we are – at least until we change our minds or our positions.
In today’s Gospel lesson we find Christ, on the other hand, praying for the unity of his followers “may be one, even as We are one.” In one of the final prayers recorded that Christ prays for His disciples He is praying for their unity. Matter of fact He prays this for us as well, just a couple of verses after today’s lesson but in the same prayer, we read, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one.” This prayer is for us.
This prayer is the one where the Evangelist Mark records takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane in between the Last Supper and the betrayal and arrest of our Lord by the religious leaders. This is that same prayer where Christ prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” This is that same prayer where Jesus is described as troubled and deeply distressed and he admitted to the three who were with Him in the garden (Peter, James and John), “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” He pled with them three times to “stay here and watch!” But they slept.
St. John the Theologian goes into great detail about this “priestly prayer” recorded in John 17 so someone must have stayed awake long enough to overhear the heart-felt prayer that Christ offered on behalf of his most loyal and faithful followers. And what was His prayer? He prayed for their unity. He prayed that they (we!) would be one as He and the Heavenly Father are one. Unity in faith. Unity in love. Unity in purpose. Unity in name. Unity in truth, knowledge and belief. Yet, only a few short minutes later one of His own most loyal band of followers would come and betray Him with a kiss so those gathered with lanterns, torches, weapons, clubs and swords would know who to arrest in the dark of night in the garden.
The ultimate betrayal recorded here in these chapters in which we became so familiar during Holy Week and we read again less than 8 weeks later here this week – every year on this Sunday when we commemorate those 318 bishops who attended the first great ecumenical council in 325 in the city of Nicaea at the request of the Emperor Constantine who only 12 years earlier had issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious tolerance for the Christians throughout the Roman Empire. In the midst of this new-found “freedom of religion” throughout the Empire the Christians had become divided. Some were following a very popular priest from Libya who was currently living and serving in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius. This priest had come to believe that there was a time when Christ was not and this doctrine known as Arianism, affirming the created, finite nature of Christ and this was denounced by those who attended this council as a major heresy. This division nearly destroyed the early church and would have continued to spread across the world if it weren’t for a young 25 year old deacon named Athanasius who led those who held that the Father was always a Father, and both Father and Son existed always together, eternally, coequally and consubstantially.
The argument led by St. Athanasius stated that the Logos was “eternally begotten”, therefore with no beginning. Those in opposition to Arius believed that to follow the Arian view destroyed the unity of the Godhead, and made the Son unequal to the Father. They insisted that such a view was in opposition to such Scriptures as “I and the Father are one”[John 10] and “the Word was God”,[John 1]. They declared that the Son had no beginning, but had an “eternal derivation” from the Father, and therefore was coeternal with him, and equal to God in all aspects. The Council declared that the Son was true God, coeternal with the Father and begotten from His same substance, arguing that such a doctrine best codified the Scriptural presentation of the Son as well as traditional Christian belief about him handed down from the Apostles.
This belief was expressed by the bishops in the Creed of Nicaea, which would form the basis of what has since been known as the Nicene Creed. This creed would continue to be worked on in later councils and the influence Arius would continue to be felt throughout the church for decades, however this council laid the foundation and devised formula which was followed more than 6 times in later councils to preserve and bring us the canons, doctrines, dogmas and truths that the church has held from the beginning, in all places, by all people, for all time. These councils have brought about unity of faith, belief, practice and doctrine. This council was attended by 318 bishops from all throughout the known Christian world who had endured some of the most indescribable persecutions the church has ever endured. The great church historian Eusebius wrote: “The most distinguished of God’s ministers from all the churches which abounded in Europe, Africa, and Asia assembled here. The one sacred building, as if stretched by God, contained people from [a very long list of nations]. There were more than 300 bishops, while the number of elders, deacons and the like was almost incalculable. Some of these ministers of God were eminent for their wisdom, some for the strict living, and patient endurance of persecution, and others for all three. Some were venerable because of their age, others were conspicuous for their youth and mental vigor, and others were only just appointed. The Emperor provided them all with plenty of food.”
July 4, 325, was a memorable day. Delegates came from every region of the Roman Empire, including Britain, and from the Christian churches from the ancient see of York. The participating bishops were given free travel to and from their episcopal sees to the council, as well as lodging. These bishops did not travel alone; each one had permission to bring with him two priests and three deacons, so the total number of attendees could have been above 1,800 to come to Nicea, a little town near the Bosporus Straits flowing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
In the conference hall where they waited was a table. On it lay an open copy of the Gospels.
The emperor, Constantine the Great, entered the hall in his imperial, jewel-encrusted, multicolored brocades, but out of respect for the Christian leaders, without his customary train of soldiers. Constantine spoke only briefly. He told the churchmen they had to come to some agreement on the crucial questions dividing them. “Division in the church,” he said, “is worse than war.”
The bishops and deacons were deeply impressed. After three centuries of periodic persecutions instigated by some Roman emperor, they were actually gathered before one not as enemies but as allies. Some of them carried scars of the imperial lash. One from Egypt was missing an eye; another was crippled in both hands as a result of red-hot irons.
Why do we commemorate these 318 bishops of the first Ecumenical Council on this 7th Sunday of Pascha in between the great feasts of Ascension and Pentecost? The prayer of Christ in the garden gives you your answer. This council brought about unity of faith in the early church and in answer to the prayer of Christ on the night of His betrayal, arrest and scandalous trial and the Emperor St. Constantine went to great expense and care to bring about unity in the Church.
Cyril of Alexandria has written about these verses in John 17: “Christ wishes the disciples to be kept in a state of unity by maintaining a like-mindedness and an identity of will, being mingled together as it were in soul and spirit and in the law of peace and love for one another. He wishes them to be bound together tightly with an unbreakable bond of love, that they may advance to such a degree of unity that their freely chosen association might even become an image of the natural unity that is conceived to exist between the Father and Son. That is to say, he wishes them to enjoy a unity that is inseparable and indestructible, which may not be enticed away into a dissimilarity of wills by anything at all that exists in the world or any pursuit of pleasure but rather reserves the power of love in the unity of devotion and holiness. And this is what happened. For we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” that is, in the unity of Spirit. This is also what Paul himself meant when he said “one body and one spirit.” “We who are many are one body in Christ for we all partake of the one bread,” and we have all been anointed in the one Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.”
Where should we strive to live out these “unbreakable bonds of love and unity”? We begin in our homes and in our marriages. Committing to unity with those whom God has given us in our families. We support them, love them, cheer for them, cry and rejoice with them. They are our first level of unity. They are our blood and our bonds of undying commitment. Are we living in unity with those closest to us? Are we mentally, physically and emotionally living in unity with our spouses, children, parents and extended family? Are they seeing the unity and love of Christ in us and how we relate to them?
Secondly, I believe it is important to ask these same questions about those with whom we are journeying in our church here at St. Anna. To the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul writes (Galatians 6:10) “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We are commanded to show special favor to those who are gathered here today and those who might be missing but are part of our community here at St. Anna. Do we stick up for one another, support one another, pray for one another, and assume the best of one another? (John 13:35) “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Are each of us doing all we can to live in unity with those whom we are laboring and praying each week?
Thirdly, I believe the others we should be living in unity with are those outside of our families and our church – our neighbors. Who are our neighbors? Jesus answered this question when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbors are those who are different from us but need our help. Those who have experienced ridicule, embarrassment, and have been ostracized. Those on the fringe, the outcast and rejected. Jesus described them as those who have been beaten up, robbed and left on the side of the road. We may not see many along the side our roads in middle Tennessee who are in need of our help but many are among us where we work, play and live who are lying along side the road socially, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. Living in unity with those people means that we must slow down and pause for them in order to see their needs and dig into our wealth of a life with Christ to help them with their needs. Do we listen to those who need a listening ear? Do we patiently draw-out and befriend those who are unlike us but need someone who will take time to understand what they are going though and to come along side them to hold them up as they get back on their feet?
Our efforts at living a life of unity with our families, our church and our neighbors will make a great difference in bringing about unity in our world, our nation and our faith family. It starts with us in our little world, on our little block, in our little family and in our little church. The heartfelt prayer of Christ was “that they may be one, even as We are one.” St. Constantine urged the church in 325 to live in unity. He believed that division and disunity were worse than war. Are we living lives of unity or division? Do those who see us, live with us, and work with us know that we are His disciples, by the love we have for one another?
(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”
Christ is Ascended! From Earth to Heaven.