A homily from St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, June 1, 7529 (June 13, 2021, on the civil calendar).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today we are in the in-between of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, a time of rest for the Church but also of completion.
Fittingly, today we commemorate on this Seventh Sunday of Pascha the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in 320, convened by the Emperor Saint Constantine the Great.
It was at this Council that the core of the Nicene Creed that we recite at each Liturgy, and often in daily home prayer, was composed by the Holy Fathers and accepted by the Church with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Creed articulated what was already Church teaching and truth, from Scripture and tradition and inspiration, fulfilling the Old Testament in the New, and specifically refuting the Arian Heresy.
Arianism, and subsequent related heresies, held that Jesus Christ was not fully God and fully man, but was created. It was of a piece with heresies of Unitarianism and Gnosticism that in various new guises trouble our modern culture greatly still today.
Such heresies lead to a sense of mechanical materialism that encourages the atheism and nihilism and lonely self-assertion that trouble our era. Remember that the Apostle John the Theologian stated that the spirit of anti-Christ can be recognized in denial that Jesus Christ our God has come in the flesh.
In stating that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father, while also fully man, the First Council adopted the Greek term homousios.
The competing term at the Council had been homoiousios, meaning “similar essence” not “one essence.”
These words themselves are deceptively alike. There was only the Greek letter iota that made a difference between the two words. But that was all the difference. Our Lord said that “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Jot in that familiar English rendition translates iota.
Here significantly it is a matter of embracing the quietude or silence in rightly dividing the word of truth, not to add that letter, so to speak.
Every letter counts in God’s embodied Word, in His language of Pentecost and literal symbolism of scripture, and His meaningful Creation, as in also the detailed words and acts of the Divine Liturgy passed along to us by the Church.
And the Council decided on homousion because that is the truth of Jesus Christ, Who told His disciples that they would know the way He went because He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. He ascended bodily, fully God and fully man, to be at the right hand of the Father. And as the final version of the Creed tells us, He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose Kingdom shall have no end.
Tradition reports that St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea and hit the heretic Arius who did not accept the wording of the Creed that Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father. St. Nicholas was disciplined for this but forgiven. This tradition about the fight at the Council connects us with another event this past week, in which fighting was futile because of not fully standing for truth, namely the anniversary this past Friday of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Despite the bravery of its overwhelmed defenders, the city’s defeat by the Muslim Turks is a reminder of how Christian societies fall by not keeping faithful to the law of God, which is summed up for us in our Symbol of Faith, the Creed. The leaders of Constantinople had wavered for some time in their efforts to seek help from the West, even departing from Orthodoxy in their fearful effort to find material help from the heterodox for their fight, forgetting the full law of God.
But God’s Povidence still sustained His Church.
When Constantinople fell, the niece of the last emperor would end up marrying Ivan III, Prince of Moscow. There, in what became Russia, monastic asceticism and hesychasm that came from Byzantium had been quietly nurtured, flowering in the life of St. Sergius of Radonezh among others.
Orthodox Russia herself would bloom forth as what would become called the Third Rome.
The mark of the success of Christian community however lies in faithfulness to Orthodox teaching and tradition, embodied in the unchanged Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, finalized at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantople. Material power and wealth never ensure safety or long-term privilege in this mortal world, for America today or any country, nor should they, as idols.
Fidelity to the teachings of the One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, affords through our Lord’s grace the rock of our salvation in Christ, upon which we built with certainty and the gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church.
As we strive with God’s help to build our mission and temple, let us unworthily imitate the holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in adhering to the whole truth of Orthodoxy in this modern age, so increasingly hostile to traditional Christianity, rather than cut corners in our faith or alter an iota. For the Apostle John also adjures us to love in truth. The whole truth is the Person of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and His Body is the Church. We encounter the truth in His wholeness in the Eucharist and in our unworthy prayerful struggles, with His grace, to love in truth.
Then we remember that there is no safety in riches or armies or any other idol.
The rock upon which we must build our mission is the Truth of Him as of one essence with the Father, fully God and fully man, homousion, as the Fathers inspired by the Holy Spirit gave it to us in the Creed, with His help hopefully and in humility rightly dividing between every iota, even as our Lord knows the fall of every sparrow and each hair of our heads.
In the Epistle Reading today, the Apostle Paul shares words of Jesus Christ not in the Gospels but directly from living tradition of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
And our Lord in the Gospel reading speaks of how he worked on earth so that we might have His joy fulfilled in ourselves.
One in Essence with the Father, the Son became fully God and fully man to save us, and in the process showed how we find ourselves in Him, and through Him in the Father, and with one another, by God’s grace and always worshipping His glory and mystery.
In the spiritual unity of sobornost or spiritual unity in truth, love in truth, we find ourselves through self-emptying in Christ, not in self-assertion.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us, Amen.
Picture: Ilya Repin, Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, Russian, 1871.