Ars Praedicandi: Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

May 28, 2017
Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
John 17:1-13

Every Sunday, when I serve Liturgy here, I am awestruck by the “Monogenes” hymn we sing, the Troparion of the second antiphon. Church tradition attributes the introduction of this Troparion to the Divine Liturgy by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The brief hymn offers a synthesis on Orthodox identity: we have gathered here praise and worship the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Troparion proclaims the eternal son of God, the Word of God who was God and with God from the very beginning, to be the one who took flesh (σαρκωθῆναι) from the Virgin Mary and was crucified, and conquered death by death for us (and for our salvation): our response to the gift God gives us in his only-begotten Son, Christ, is to glorify Christ – together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Truly, a university professor could develop a course in systematic theology 101 on the Monogenes of the Divine Liturgy.

Each time I hear this hymn (and sing along), I marvel at the convenience we enjoy to utter these words. We proclaim together that Jesus Christ is the divine Logos who was born of Mary: complete human, completely divine (just as much “God” as the Father himself), in one person.

I wonder if we appreciate how difficult it was to arrive at this point, to sing the hymn which is a type of synthesis of the Creed we say together at each baptism and Liturgy. We are enjoying a gift that was hard to receive. If we have been paying attention to the Gospels read from Pascha until today, we hear two related themes: one, Jesus Christ is the anointed one, the divine word of God who comes to us so we can receive the privilege of truly worshipping God (this theme of true worship appeared in the Gospels of the previous two Sundays and it strikes at the heart of what it means to be ‘Orthodox’). True worship happens in Christ himself: it is necessary to receive Christ as the divine word of God who took on flesh for our sake. But the stories we hear show us that many who encountered Jesus did not accept him as the legitimate son of God. This is true not only of the Pharisees, but also of Jesus’s own disciples in John 6:66, as some abandon him when he says that he is the true bread of life, and that one receives life by eating his flesh.

“Who is Jesus?” This question vexed Christian communities through the first few hundred years of the church’s history, and a lack of consensus among Christians on Jesus was one of the primary factors leading to division in the community. On this Sunday after Ascension, we celebrate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical council: it was this council that formulated the first part of what we know as the Nicene (Constantinopolitan) Creed, professing Jesus to be the divine Son of God who was born of a virgin and crucified under Pontius Pilate. This day is crucial to understanding our identity as Christians because the council sought to clarify who Jesus is once and for all – for the purpose of reuniting Christians who were divided about this question.

When I said that we might take the hymn we sing for granted, it’s not only about the profound theology, the beautiful claim that Jesus Christ is God – it’s also how this theology was developed in order to unite Christians who were divided. In other words, these feasts – all of the Sundays from Pascha through today – are designed to encourage us to seek unity with all, to form one Christian community that gathers for the true worship of God.

A few days ago, we marked Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In everyday life, the Ascension feast marks the end of the forty days of rejoicing, of constantly singing “He is Risen.” For the Christian truly drinking from the cup of Paschaltide, Ascension can be a disappointment. Theologians remind us that the Ascension is a remarkable event in the ongoing time of Pascha: Jesus, who is Risen in the body (remember his invitation to the disciples to touch him and his willingness to eat), ascends to heaven. Jesus, like us in every way except for sin (Hebrews 4:15), an enfleshed human being, ascends to heaven, giving more hope to a world stung by death. Jesus’ Ascension also confirms the teaching of the council in Niceae: as one person with human and divine natures, it is right for him to ascend.

Jesus’ Ascension leads to his sitting at the right hand of the Father; we just remembered this “sitting” in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom. Sometimes the sitting is rendered as a “session,” where Jesus Christ, our eternal high priest, prays for us. We can – we should – hope that our Lord prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

The Lord whom we glorify in song at each Liturgy is the same Lord who never ceases to pray that those whom he has chosen will be one, as he and the Father are one. Knowing this, how can we be advocates for division or exclusion? How can we substantiate the claim that Christian unity is impossible because of the vast differences separating us? Have we not learned that with God, the Creator of life, nothing – absolutely nothing – is impossible? What, then, are we to do? How are we to respond to the word God speaks to us today?

Brothers and sisters, nothing afflicts the world more than separation, alienation, and exclusion. Not only among Christians, but in our neighborhoods and homes, too. We must not underestimate the power of prayer to heal. Yes, we should continue to dialogue with others, to learn, and not to become an entirely different Church – that’s not the point of dialogue. Dialogue cannot heal divisions among Christians on its own; dialogue cannot heal the tendency to divide humans. God can. And so it is our duty today to join in prayer with the Risen and ascended Lord, who holds a session at the Father’s right hand, and to pray “that we may be one, as he and the Father are one.” We must make this a part of our rule of daily prayer, to learn how to desire unity with those who are different or separated from us in our lives. This is how we can live up to our claim that we are “Orthodox” true worshippers of the living God. Therefore, let us pray under the presidency of our Lord Jesus:

“Heavenly Father, you created humanity to live in community. You gave us the gift of your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who gave us your new commandment: that we would love one another as he has loved us. Today, your world is afflicted by violence, war, separation, and the scandal of humans abandoning one another. Merciful Father, we bow our heads before you in repentance and beg for your mercy. Look down from heaven, o Master, and grant us the courage to see the faces of those whom we have abandoned from anger, pride, or ignorance. Send your Spirit upon us to heal our divisions so that we would be one, to glorify You, together with your only-begotten Son and your all-holy and life-creating Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

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