Sunday of the Fathers at the First Nicene Council
Today, (did you hear?) Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem in order to get there for Pentecost (Acts 20:16). Pentecost is coming next Sunday, and with it our commemoration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. Already, the Spirit is with us. And today we remember the fathers of the first ecumenical council, which met in Nicaea in 325, and who were also inspired by the same Holy Spirit.
|The First Council of Nicea, wall painting at the church of Stavropoleos|
At every Divine Liturgy and at every Compline, we repeat the Nicene Creed which these fathers began to craft under the inspiration of the Spirit. The Nicene faith is our faith, the God-inspired faith, the faith of our fathers and mothers.
The Holy Spirit inspires the Church. God is with us. Some fall into a trap of confining the presence and action of God to historical events like Pentecost or to historical documents like Scripture. Or, toward another extreme, some limit their understanding of the Spirit to private individual ecstatic experiences.
In truth, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church.
In truth, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church.
The Church is, but is not only, historical. It is also the living and breathing body of Christ. It is fully present here where we are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, where the Holy Spirit descends upon us and upon our gifts, where the Father hears our prayer. And it is present throughout the world wherever orthodoxy is believed and wherever orthopraxis is observed.
In the Church, our experience of God is, but is not only, private and personal. We encounter God alone in our prayer closets, but we also encounter Him in one another, in the least of his brethren, and in our communal prayer, in the mysteries of the Church and in the public proclamation of His Word.
In that public proclamation today we, with the apostles, overhear Jesus say to his Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).
There are ten thousand sermons in this one verse, but today I am struck by an odd turn of phrase: Jesus Christ calls himself Jesus Christ in the third person. This points to an intriguing possibility. It is possible that this prayer of Jesus at his Last Supper was long remembered liturgically before it was committed to writing, which could explain why the prayer is both from Jesus Christ and about Jesus Christ.[i] The gospel of John is the latest gospel to be written and it benefits from the longest theological reflection. Its prose and rhetoric are finely polished. Chiefly for this gospel’s sake, John, whose feast is today, is rightly called the Theologian.
These facts call to mind the reality that while for a while there were Christians without any written gospels, there were never any Christians without worship, without liturgy, without anamnesis/remembrance, without Eucharist/thanksgiving. The inspired Divine Liturgy precedes the inspired written gospels.
Today Jesus says to His Father, “I have given them the words you gave me and they have received them” (17:3). But Jesus did not write down these words. The gospels tell us that Jesus could both read and write. But the only writing that he does, mysteriously, is in the sand – letters that the wind could blow away – perhaps a wind like that wind that blows in the upper room where the apostles hide.
Jesus does not give us a manuscript, but rather the testimony of women and men. He writes his revelation on their hearts. He chooses to reveal himself through people – the people of God - that is, through the Church.
The Holy Spirit inspires the Church, and we must follow the Church, never the Scripture alone. The Scripture is the inspired word of God and the Holy Spirit inspires it in and through the Church, never apart from or against the Church. Decontextualized from the Church, the Scripture can be distorted and perverted to any false teaching or wicked purpose the interpreter desires. Thank God, God did not leave us with the Scripture alone, but also gave us His holy Church.
Today in Acts, Paul tells the elders [that is, the presbyters] of Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [that is, ἐπίσκοποι, bishops] to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The same Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture and that descends upon the apostles at Pentecost also makes presbyters and bishops for the Church. Ordination is an act of God, a holy mystery, an epiclesis. This isn’t a different Spirit, but the same Spirit. There is one Holy Spirit, one God, one faith, one Church. The Holy Spirit gives us the Scripture and he gives us the bishops too. We don’t get one without the other. We need them both absolutely.
This doesn’t mean that bishops are always good and holy. In fact, if we study the history of the ecumenical councils we discover an uncomfortable amount of all-too human politics, rivalries, and intrigues. Despite this, the Holy Spirit works through these councils, just as he works through Peter, who denied him, and through Paul, who persecuted his Church. Truth is expressed by God from out of the midst of human failings. God is with us, in the midst of us. The Holy Spirit inspires the Church.
When a presbyter, Arius, begins to lead people astray, teaching that Jesus is not of one divine essence with the Father, but rather some kind of exalted creature of God, the Holy Spirit inspires the Nicene council which we commemorate today.
The Arians misread today’s gospel. When Jesus says to his Father that he is “the only true God,” the Arians thought that this must mean that Jesus himself was not the true God. This is what I mean. How quickly the human mind can stumble into error when reading the Scripture alone unaided by the Church. The Holy Spirit has given us both because we need both in order to come to orthodoxy.
The Nicene Council provided the needed corrective. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages. Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father.” Our Christology couldn’t get any higher.
Our holy father Athanasius, who was present at the Nicene Council as a deacon and who spent the rest of his life defending its teachings against the world, provides the true understanding of the word “only” in today’s gospel. He writes against the Arians,
“If then the Father is called the only true God, this is said not to the denial of him who said, "I am the Truth…” And so the Lord himself added at once, "And Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Now had he been a creature, he would not have added this and ranked himself with his creator. For what fellowship is there between the True and the not true? But as it is, by including himself with the Father, he has shown that he is of the Father's nature.”[ii]
The Holy Spirit was inspiring the Church before the gospels were written, and he continues to inspire the Church after they are written. This is never more evident than when there is an ecumenical council. At the council of Nicaea, the Holy Spirit taught the Church a new word: homoousios, that is, of one essence. The Son is of one essence with the Father. Jesus Christ is not less than God. He is God. And there are not two Gods, but one God. Many of the fathers of the council were reluctant to accept this word at first because it appears nowhere in scripture and because it had been employed in the past by heretics. But guided by the Holy Spirit and for the benefit of all the people of God, accept it they did.
A priest once told me that there are only two words I must never say from the pulpit. One of them is “change.” I’m not going to say the other word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires change. Homoousios was a new word, once.
We must not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church at all times, without whose presence we are not the Church.