Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Changeless Change" - Sermon for the Sunday of the First Ecumenical Synod


In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s a common little joke floating around that seems to fit the Orthodox to a T. It goes like this: “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer is, "None - we don’t *change* the light bulb.” While certainly funny, this joke illustrates a very crucial point for us as we work to explain the Orthodox Faith to inquirers. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes, “The thing that first strikes a stranger in encountering Orthodoxy is usually its air of antiquity its apparent changelessness,” Now this changelessness is certainly the case, particularly when the Orthodox Church is contrasted with church bodies which have departed from any understanding of the actual existence of the historical Jesus, or of the literal reality of His resurrection from the dead, or of other basic truths of Christianity.

But it is also obviously true that the Orthodox Church of today is in many ways different than what she was during the first centuries of her life, the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic periods. For but one example, the Divine Liturgies we celebrate today are very much changed from the Eucharistic service as given in the Didache, an early second-century writing. The question, then, which will be addressed now in the ongoing task of equipping the saints is how to understand change in the context of the Church’s unchanging Tradition, and how this understanding can be applied in our lives as Orthodox Christians today.

The event the Church sets forth for our rememberance today provides us with an answer. On this day we commemorate the Holy First Oecumenical Council which met in the city of Nicaea in the year 325. This council was convened by the emperor St. Constantine to combat the teaching of Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ and made of Him a creature. We all know the outcome of that council: his teaching was condemned, Christ was confirmed to be truly God, and the Council drew up the Symbol of Faith which - along with the additions made by the Second Council - we all proclaim during every Liturgy. But what is relevant to the question we are addressing today is how the Council safeguarded the Orthodox understanding of Christ as God and His relationship to God the Father. How it did so was by introducing into the life of the Church one word: homoousios.

This is the Greek word we translate as “one in essence.” For us, looking back on it from the perspective of 1700 years later, it is easy to forget just how radical was the Council’s decision to use this word. First of all, it was an innovation in that it was completely unscriptural. In the beginning the Council had tried to limit itself only to language used in the Scriptures, because the holy fathers felt – and rightly so - that there must be continuity with what the holy apostles said, with what God said in the words of the Old Testament, and with what was written in the Gospels. This was an important point for them; just how important may be seen from a ruling of St. Constantine’s son Constantius which came later on during the period of reaction after the Council: “I do not want words used that are not in Scripture.” Pretty blunt, but it serves to make it very clear that Scripture was very important to the Fathers of the Council. And so to use this word which was not in Scripture was a very bold step, but a very necessary step. Because for all its importance, it was a point that the Council could not keep to, because the Arians could take many passages of Scripture and interpret them to support their own views.

Secondly, the word homoousios was radical because it did not originate within the Church; its origin came from outside the Church. It was first used by the Gnostics, and it was connected with the Manicheans. Gnostics were those who particularly denied the goodness of the material world and the created order. And Manicheans were a sect very similar. Again, they were very dualistic, spirit is good, matter is evil. It was also associated with the explicitly condemned teachings of one Paul of Samosata, who taught an adoptionist Christology - that is, what he said was that Jesus was a man upon whom God the Logos descended and indwelt at the Baptism in the Jordan, and only after that was He considered Christ and God.

And so the word not only was unscriptural, but also had a lot of baggage which would appear to make it unusable in the life of the Church. But these things were known to the Fathers at Nicaea; nevertheless they introduced that word while refining its meaning. They did this because they knew this: that the Church had always lived with the experience that Jesus Christ is God even if the ways used to express that experience were not entirely unambiguous nor entirely adequate. So we have “the truth”, and “the expression” of the truth. They knew that that unchanging truth, of Christ as God, needed a new expression so that the Church could remain true to itself, true to the Tradition she received and in turn handed down. That is what it means to have change in the Church: it is not that we change the eternal truths and dogmas of our Faith; they are set. But the ways those truths are expressed in each and every generation quite possibly need to be renewed so that we can take those truths into ourselves, make them one with us, make ourselves one with God in the Truth. That is the meaning of changeless change in the Church. Now an image that is often used for the Church is that of the body. If we think of human bodies, we know that bodies grow and develop, while still quite obviously remaining the same person, the same body. They develop while remaining true to themselves.

Now, what are the expressions of the Truth that we have in the Church? There are many ways in which the Church expresses her unchanging truths. We have of course preeminently the Symbol of Faith, the Creed. We have iconography, which expresses in pictorial form the truths of the saints, the feasts, the dogmas of the Church., and in we can discern different schools of iconography – one iconographic tradition, but different and developing schools within that tradition. These schools and their ways of approaching the saints and divine events do change and do develop over time.

The liturgy is another - we have already mentioned how the present liturgies have developed from and are very different than that one which is given in the Didache. And for those who have not read the Didache, this part at least is well worth reading because it gives a glimpse into the Eucharistic life of a second century Christian community. It is still the Liturgy of the Church, but it is the Liturgy before it developed into the form and the expressions we have today. So even in the Liturgy, there is room for development and change, when needed to better express Christian truths. On such Christian truth… well, we call the liturgy “LEITOURGIA” because it is “The People’s Work.” It is not just the work of the priest, but of both the priest and the people in SYNERGEIA, in cooperation. And, unfortunately, for a long time the sense of that was lost, a sense we are only now rediscovering, first of all in the efforts to recapture congregational singing, which we all know about because we have already been working on that here… the efforts of the people to contribute to and participate in the Liturgy in that way.

But there is another way to recover and renew the participation of the people in the Liturgy, and this gets back to what was mentioned a couple of weeks ago in the Teaching Liturgy concerning the Eucharist, the fact that the Eucharist is the center of our Christian life, and – again, that the Eucharist is not the sole action of the priest, bit is accomplished through the co-operation of the priest and the people. And this is expressed in the Liturgy, probably the most concretely, in the epiclesis, when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit. If you listen carefully, he calls down the Holy Spirit not only on the gifts on the Altar, but also on the “people here present”, so that the gifts may become the real Body and Blood of Christ *and* that we may become the Body by participating in them.

And so that prayer… as Fr. Tom Hopko said, there are no private prayers in the corporate worship of the Church, everything is communal prayer. So even that prayer, the epiclesis, is not just the prayer of the priest but is also the prayer of the people. And the people respond to it with their affirmation, “Amen!” Such that, when the priest is calling down the Holy Spirit and says, “And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.” It is not just the priests and deacons serving in the Altar that say Amen, but ideally it is *all* the people because it is all of our prayers, all of our joint work. “And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ.” – everybody: “Amen!” “And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ.” – everybody: “Amen!” And then, “Changing them by Your Holy Spirit.” - everybody: “Amen! Amen! Amen!” Because, as St. John Chrysostom says, “The prayers of the Anaphora are common.” He stresses that, that it is communal. There is distinction, obviously. The priest is the one celebrating, the people are the ones affirming… there is distinction, but there is no division within the leitourgia, the people’s work.

So this, too, is an area in which a new expression can reflect an ancient and unchanging truth: that all the People of God are One Body, participating in One Eucharist, and affirming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

This sermon may be heard as well, at the following link:http://stphilothea.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=619698#

Written material which accompanied this sermon may be found at:http://constans_wright.tripod.com/insert.doc