Sobornost: The Unbroken Circle

Homily on Aug. 24, 7528 (Sept. 6, 2020, civil calendar), St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg, PA

This weekend we honor two saints who were influenced by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, and who all together remind us of the power of spiritual activism and of active love as transmitted from one person to another with God’s grace and our struggle.

Yesterday, we commemorated Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. He was born in Asia Minor about 140, the Synaxarion tells us. As a youth he followed the teaching of the elderly Holy Hierarch Polycarp, who himself had been a disciple of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John.

“It is in the Church that God has placed the apostles, prophets, and doctors, and all the Holy Spirit’s other operations,” St. Irenaeus wrote in his book Against Heresies. “From this Spirit are, therefore, excluded all who, refusing to turn to the Church, deprive themselves of life by their false doctrine and depraved actions. For there where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and there where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace. And the Spirit is Truth…. We must love with an extreme zeal that which is the Church, and take firm hold of the tradition of the Truth.”

His own life exemplified this, for he took the teaching from his spiritual father Polycarp, who had received it from the Apostle John, and transmitted it in the Church that he cared for as primate of Gaul or France.  Around 177 he became presbyter of Lyons, a title that at the time combined the functions of both Bishop and priest. This was at a time of persecution by the scholarly emperor Marcus Aurelius. St. Irenaeus bore a letter from the martyrs of Lyons to the Church at Rome, to Pope Eleutherius, which told of the martyrs’ battles to refute the Montanist heresy, which was a kind of charismatic movement of its day, claiming new revelation outside of our Lord’s Gospel and Church.

His book Against Heresies is a classic critique of the heresy of Gnosticism. The latter’s radical rejection of matter and dualism is still echoed in various forms, such as New Age appropriations of Christianity that reject its basic foundation in the Incarnation and the historical Church. The political philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that modern political gnosticism seeks a disembodied technocracy run by experts, but gnostic tendencies also have been observed in hedonistic individualism of consumerism tending toward atheistic socialism (think Silicon Valley meets the surveillance state).  

St. Irenaeus taught that true gnosis or deep experience of mystery lies in the Holy Church of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, a presence on earth as in heaven, of sobornost or spiritual unity of mystical hierarchy and conciliarity, in which each of us can find meaning and salvation. Her earthly presence in the mysteries of baptism, the Eucharist, Confession, and others, has embodied meaning in history, in a tangible expression of God’s love for us here and now, as we gather in worship and fellowship and unity in Him with the saints around us in the icons of our homes and temples, in our Church family. Just so, the spiritual Church lies beyond us, a mystery, symbolized by the iconostasis in our temples, yet the Church’s earthly presence matters and the two in a sense are one yet distinct. This is what St. Irenaeus experienced in his own spiritual family, from his spiritual father Polycarp, and his spiritual grandfather so to speak, the Apostle John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The following is a relevant summary of St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies as given in volume 6 of The Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra (published in 2008 by the Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia (Chalkidlike), translated by Mothers Maria (Rule) and Joana (Burton), based in part, on the Byzantine collection edited by St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite). The summary is interspersed with a sampling of translations of direct quotes.

He showed first that this ‘Gnosis,’ which heretics vainly sought in the mythical plots and complicated constructions of their perverted intelligence, is the pre-eminent gift of the charity that the Holy Spirit gives to the Christian in the living organism of the Church. It is only within it that one quench one’s thirst with the clear water that flows from the side of Christ, thence to receive life eternal. All other doctrines are nothing but broken cisterns (Jer. 2:13). The true ‘Gnostics’ are not those who reject and despise the body to worship God, ‘ineffable’ and his ‘Demiurge,’ but spiritual men who have received from the Holy Spirit the earnest of the Resurrection of the body and of incorruptibility. Breaking with the Hellenic duality of body and soul, Saint Irenaeus developed Saint John’s doctrine of the Word made flesh to interpret the meaning of the vocation of man. The first Adam had been formed from clay by the two Hands of God: the Word and the Spirit, in the image of God conformed to the model of the glorious flesh of Christ; and the breath of life had been given him in order to progress from the image to the likeness of God. Having been tricked by the Devil, jealous of his prerogatives, and having fallen into death, he had not, however, been abandoned by God, who had from all eternity intended to make him a partaker in His glory. The revelations and prophecies of the Old Testament, and above all the Incarnation of the Word, His death, His Resurrection and His glorious Ascension, constitute the necessary stages in this ‘Economy’ of the history of Salvation.  Always keeping in mind this ultimate end for which He had created man, the Word was made flesh, ‘recapitulating’ the first Adam in Himself. As the first man, born into a virgin earth, fell, through the virgin Eve’s disobedience by a tree, so Christ came into the world through the obedience of the Virgin Mary and had been hung on the tree of the Cross. ‘He gave His soul for our souls and His flesh for our flesh, and He has poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God with men, bringing God down into men by the Spirit and drawing men up to God by His Incarnation.’

The Word of God who had created the world, invisibly making it in the form of a cross, made Himself visible at the time appointed on the Cross, in order to bring together in His body all the beings that had become separated, and bring them to the knowledge of God. Appearing, not in His ineffable glory but as a man, He has shown in Himself the restored image of God, conformed once more to the likeness. He has nourished us ‘at the breast of His flesh,’ so that, accustomed to eating and drinking the Word of God, and strengthened by the ‘bread of immortality,’ we might draw near to the vision of God that gives us incorruptibility. ‘It is impossible to live separated from Life, and there is no participation in life without participation in God, and this participation in God consists in seeing God and enjoying His sweetness…. For the glory of God is the living man, and a man’s life is the vision of God.’

For Irenaeus, a disciple of those who had known the Apostles, knowledge (gnosis) is love and the deification of man in the Person of Christ the Saviour. Much more than a simple refutation of false ‘Gnosis,’ his doctrine, wonderful in its simplicity and profundity, contains the seed of all that the latter fathers developed in their inspired writings.

Ending its summary of Against Heresies, Fr. Makarios’ Synaxarion notes that, while most of St. Irenaeus’ writings did not survive in their original Greek, his main ideas continue in the works of Sts. Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, John Damascene, and others. So the circle is unbroken from apostolic times until now in our Lord’s Church.

Thus it is also with the Saint whom we commemorate today, a day after St. Irenaeus’ feast, and that is St. Eutyches the disciple of the Apostle John. St. Nikodemus the Hagiorite associated him with the Eutyches mentioned in Acts 20 as falling asleep during preaching by the Holy Apostle Paul in Troas, and falling from the third floor, to be restored to life by the Holy Apostle’s prayers. He is said to have been baptized by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, whom he followed on his travels. He threw down idols in pagan temples and endured beatings and long imprisonment as a result. One day in prison an angel appeared to him and energized he endured being cast into a furnace. Thrown to wild animals, he was seen talking with them, about which reportedly he said that they were part of God’s Creation too. By some accounts, he is said to have reposed peacefully in the Lord, by others he is said to have beheaded after praying for martyrdom. The Acts of the Apostle John says Eutyches was present at the repose of the Apostle, who wished to be placed in an uncovered grave while still living, some saying the Apostle’s body then disappeared during the night, but that the Apostle had given Eutyches a blessing to take spiritual leadership of the Church at Ephesus after him, an important Christian center warned in the Book of Revelation.

In any case, St. Eutyches like St. Irenaeus represents to us this weekend the Holy Church as the Body of Jesus Christ, an historical presence with us still, in the Eucharist and in the presence of the Church, even as the spiritual Church, symbolized again by the space behind our iconostasis, remains for us to aspire to through His grace and our struggle in this life.

St. Eutyches was a disciple of the Apostle John helping the Church in Asia Minor with great courage from God. St. Irenaeus was a disciple of a disciple of the Apostle John spreading the Gospel in France. Imagine the blessing of such discipleship. But the Circle is not broken. We are part of that living embodied story, the living tradition and life of the Church, even here in our small mission today. We are a small group, but we are part of our Lord’s One Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church, of sobornost or spiritual unity in Him with His saints. The same family genealogy comes to us through the Apostles down to our Bishops and Priests and spiritual fathers. Think, for example, of our patron, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and his disciple Blessed Seraphim Rose of California, whose writings helped lead some of us into Orthodoxy while St. John was spiritual father to the father of the Chancellor of our Diocese. Then there is St. Joseph the Hesychast of Mount Athos, who was spiritual father to the spiritual father of the founders of the holy monastery in White Haven, Holy Protection, from which our mission took her first name.

Truly we are, as Scripture tells us, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Let us go forth inspired by their witness, and asking them for their prayers for the same spirit of courage, to bring the Gospel to our families, friends, and neighbors here in the lands at the Confluence of the Susquehanna Watershed, and to stand for Him who stood for us on the Cross and still stands with us. Through the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos and of all the saints, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us and save us!

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