A Sermon on the Sunday of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
Beloved of God, today we commemorate the holy fathers of the first ecumenical council. These holy fathers were defenders of the faith, they fought against heresy. They guarded the Church from the Arian heresy. So let us talk about this today. This false teaching arose in the early fourth century and it is called after its originator a man named Arius. Arius was from Lybia in Northern Africa. He was a priest and in charge of one of the principle churches in the city of Alexandria. Here he attained success as a preacher and was known for his asceticism. But he fell away from the truth he denied that our Lord Jesus Christ was true God—as the Creed says He is true God of true God. Rather he maintained that our Lord Jesus the Son of God was not eternal but created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world and therefore Arius taught that the Son was not God by nature, but a changeable creature.
It was because of these lies Arius was excommunicated by the Bishop of Alexandria, and then the holy fathers we commemorate this Sunday met in Nicaea in the year 325 and condemned Arius and his teaching. So this Arius who was a priest and a respected preacher and ascetic became a heretic and one of the greatest enemies of the truth in the history of the Church. He was one of those whom the apostle Paul spoke of in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard today. He said, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Act 20:29-31)
This is something that should cause us to fear for he spoke of those who would speak perverse things and draw away disciples after them. He spoke of both false teachers whom he called wolves coming from without, and even teachers from within like Arius who will draw the faithful away from the truth. We must fear and be watchful as the apostle said, we must be watchful and hold fast to the truth that the Church has preserved for us. For false teachers still appear today. In keeping watch over ourselves it is not only sin in the form of the transgression of the commandments that we need to fight against, but we must also reject everything which is foreign to the teaching of the Church in doctrine. So both our life and thought must be in harmony with that which we see in the tradition of the Church.
Let us again consider Arius, he was a member of the Church who was obviously in good standing and well thought of. For he was ordained a deacon by one of our saints, Peter of Alexandria, and then priest by St. Peter’s successor, and he was respected in this office but then he fell into heresy and is renown as an enemy of the Church and God. He was condemned by the council of the holy fathers we commemorate today and he remained in his error, he refused to repent and accept the truth. Why did he act thus? In his pride he listened to himself, he trusted himself; he did not humbly submit his ideas to the Church and listen to the Church.
This crucial for us today since in today’s world we Orthodox are a minority and we are bombarded with concepts contrary to our faith. Both in the world at large and in religious organizations there is pressure to keep up with the times, to be ever changing. For one to be innovative and invent something new is considered cute and admirable. To be speculative and opinionated, to express and cling to personal opinion is all seen as something praiseworthy. And this pattern or mode of thought creeps into the Church. It was in such a spirit and way of thought that Arius became a heretic and enemy of the Church.
So with today’s commemoration of the Holy fathers of the First Ecumenical Council we learn a lesson. We must be in humble submission to the teachings of the Church. Our opinions and concepts we may form must be checked by the Church. The Apostle Paul says something about this, he writes to the Corinthians: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”. (IICor. 10:4-5) Therefore we should confess that our opinions and concepts must be formed by the mind of the Church. We must cast down imaginations—that is, speculations and opinions and innovations—and make them captive and obedient to Christ.
This is what we must do if we want to fulfill the prayer that Christ offered to God the Father in today’s gospel. Christ said, “all Thine are Mine and Mine are Thine, sanctify them by Thy truth, Thy word is truth.” (John 17:10, 17) If we want to belong to God, if we do not want to be cast away like Arius, we must be in humble obedience to the doctrine taught by our Church which the Lord established. For as the apostle Paul writes to Timothy, the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth”. (I Tim. 3:15)
We should be aware of one more erroneous conception in our day which is based on another quote from today’s Gospel. Our Lord also prayed: “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.” (John 17:21) There are many today who, on the pretext of brotherly love and a desire for the unification of separated Christians will make concessions to the truth. They believe it is a fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer, but in reality it is a defilement of the truth—the Orthodox Faith.
So Let us end with that little prayer we offer near the conclusion of our Vespers and Matins services: “Preserve, O God, the holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Christians unto the ages of ages”.