The Orthodox Pages



 28th MAY 2009


















































































































































The Church has dedicated the following Sunday to the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council which was held in Nicaea of Bithynia in 325AD. It was only natural that the readings for the day would be chosen so that their content would in some way reflect the meaning of the celebrated event. The Apostle reading is an extract of St. Paul’s talk to the Elders of the Church of Ephesus. Paul, having finished his third journey, sails to the coasts of Asia Minor from where he is in a hurry to return to Jerusalem by the Feast of Pentecost. He reaches Miletus having bypassed Ephesus so that he would not be delayed and from there he sends word to the Elders of Ephesus to come to Miletus to meet with him. During this meeting, Paul addresses a wonderful talk which is a tribute to all Christian sermons. As a kind of speech we can say that it was a farewell speech and at the same time an exhortation. He begins by reminding the Elders the way and the conditions under which he preached the Gospel in Asia and then comes to the present and the future revealing to them that their meeting together is the last. This is very clear in the verses 22-27 which have been dropped from this reading because as already said, today’s reading is concentrated on the Holy Fathers and not on Paul and his Journeys. He then tells them to be watchful and be dedicated to their duties and lastly by projecting his own unselfishness he commends them to have true and sincere brotherly love for the members of the Church. Paul’s words beat with fervent love for the Church and are filled with a deep feeling of pastoral responsibility. They reveal his unease and continual concern for the preservation of the Church’s unity and the pureness of her teaching.
This same purity of the Christian teaching was the concern of the Holy Fathers who with many struggles, dedicated their lives to the ministry of the Church and fought with all their might to preserve unimpaired the faith that was entrusted to them. Thus, this explains the choice of the reading for this Sunday. Let’s then hear the reading which is from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 20: verses 16-18 and 28-36.
“In those days, Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost. And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 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. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.”
16) “In those days, Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost.”
s already mentioned, we find ourselves at the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. Sailing along the coast of Asia Minor he is on his way to Jerusalem where he wants to reach without delay at the latest on the feast of Pentecost. This is his last trip to Jerusalem. Now because he is in a hurry, he decides to bypass Ephesus. Why this great rush we cannot be certain. It’s very unlikely that it was to take part in the festivities, but rather for the crowds, who would have gathered from various places, would have given Paul the opportunity to preach to his fellow countrymen or to disproof the charges which had propagated against him. Another possible explanation is the one which we can conclude from his talk to the Elders in the verses that have been omitted from the present reading. He says: “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem,” and he senses that there awaits him “bonds and afflictions”. This means that he was being directed by the Spirit of God and although he could foresee the temptations and trials that were to befall him, he places his complete trust in the hands of God.
17-18) “And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them.”
eaching Miletus, Paul sends out messengers to Ephesus to call the Presbyters of the Church to come to him. He knows that this is the last time he will be in the area and desires to meet with the heads of the Ephesian Church, whose members were very many, to greet them for the very last time and to address them with his final advice. The church of Ephesus is the fruit of his preaching and many struggles and it is natural that he should feel a special love for her and an increased concern for her unity and stability. Because the Church of Ephesus was very large with many members she would have had many Presbyters. But it is also possible that, as Ephesus was the metropolis of the area, that Presbyters from others areas near to Ephesus also came to Miletus with the Presbyters of Ephesus. To the gathered Presbyters Paul now addresses his last teaching.
28) “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
here it says: “to feed the church of God is a wrong translation. In Greek it is “ποιμαίνειν” which means “to shepherd” so it should read “to shepherd the church of God”.
The thing which a shepherd of the Church must be armed with is carefulness, in other words, he must be spiritually alert and have a sense of responsibility. Paul advices the Presbyters to take heed firstly with themselves and secondly with their flock at whose head they have been placed by the Holy Spirit. The “take heed of yourselves” consists of moral uprightness, an impeccable manner and speech and the correct teaching, these are the basic requirements for all those who take upon their shoulders the work of shepherding the faithful. The manner, attitude, and words of a shepherd have a direct impact on the lives of Christians. For this reason he is obliged to take extreme care in how he conducts himself in public and in what he says.
The term “flock” in the Christian language of course means the Christians who are the people of God. Here we can say that Paul means specifically the Christians members of the local Church of Ephesus. The Presbyters with their ordination – a mystical act whereby the Holy Spirit appoints the ministers of the Church and empowers them with his grace – are placed as overseers of their flock. In the Greek the word overseer is επίσκοπος meaning bishop which literally means to oversee. During those early years of the Church, the ecclesiastical ranks had not yet acquired the form which they received in later years. Thus the overseers or Bishops at this time were the Presbyters, the priests, a title which quickly passed into the Christian life because it already existed in Judaism and who were the people who had the running of the Synagogue and the “bishoping”, that is, the oversee of the flock. So those who Paul at first calls presbyters he now calls bishops, because the presbyters were obliged to shepherd the flocks of the Church, lest someone was losing his faith, or someone was hungry or thirsty or had need of supervision and help to return.
The work and mission of the Presbyters was shepherding the Church of God. The holiness of the work of the Presbyters and its importance is made clear by St. Paul with what he says of the Church. The Church which the Presbyters are overseers belongs to God. It is the Church of God which the Lord purchased with his own blood. Therefore if God, with the blood of his only-begotten Son saves and sanctifies the Church, then the Presbyters and in general all ministers, are obliged to serve it with divine zeal and unending care. Neglecting the Church is equal to being in contempt of the precious Blood of our Lord which he shed for us. St. John Chrysostom observes that “with what St. Paul says, he shows how precious a thing the Church is, and the danger (if the Priests are not careful) is not a trivial matter, if the Lord did not spare even his own blood for our sakes.”
29-30) “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.”
s already mentioned, this meeting with the Priests is the last. Paul’s farewell talk hints at his own death, but also warns of the enemies that will rise up against the Church. Wanting to put emphasis on what he is to say and draw the attention of the Presbyters he says “I know this.”
Paul places the enemies of the Church into two categories. The first, which he calls “grievous wolves” and who shall conduct themselves before the flock hard and ruthless with the intention of wiping them out and will attack externally. The Lord also once likened the false prophets as “ravening wolves” who approach the faithful dressed “in sheep's clothing” (Matth. 7:15) which the intention to delude them and draw them away from the truth. The Second are those who will come internally from the very bowels of the Church and will twist the truth, by preaching various heretical teachings and will divide the unity of the ecclesiastical body, dragging the disciples into their delusions and schisms which will be created. When Paul says “Also of your own selves shall men arise” he doesn’t specifically mean from among the Presbyters, but from among the whole body of the Ephesian church and probably the Christian communities in the area. Without question, the two categories were to cause great harm; of the two however, the appearance of heretics from among the faithful was much worse and dangerous. History verifies the immeasurable harm made against the Church by the divisions and schisms caused by delusions and the disorderly conduct of many of the members: even high ranking shepherds of the Church who with demonic madness tried to break the unity of the Church and adulterate her tradition.
Paul’s prophetic words are very general and do not help us to understand which heresies he is referring to, but in the New Testament there is mention of various heretics of which six were Ephesians. Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20), Phygellus and Hermogenes (2 Tim. 1.15), Philetus (2 Tim. 2:17) and Diotrephes (3 John 1:9).
31) “Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.”
aving prophesied of the appearance of heretics, Paul very naturally now hastens to advice the Presbyters to fulfil their obligation. In verse 28 he told them to “Take heed”, but now he tells them to “watch”. To be watchful means to be spiritually awake, to be on guard and to have your wits about you. Christ used this expression when having prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane came and found the Apostles sleeping, he told them “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation:” (Matth. 26: 41). Paul uses the same expression here to warn the Presbyters that at all costs they must give wakeful attention and be spiritually alert according to the dangers that were to threaten the Church. Shepherds very often remain awake during the night to watch over and keep safe their sheep from wolves and other dangers. The presbyters of the Church as shepherds of the human flock are obliged to rid themselves of slothfulness and sleepiness of the soul and remain awake guarding the flock of Christ from the ravenous fury of the wolves dress in sheep’s clothing and the ecclesiastical truth from the danger of adulteration and corruption.
Paul doesn’t just limit himself to giving advice, but at the same time give himself as an example. For three years, which is the time the Apostle previously remained in Ephesus, ceaselessly day and night he preached the Gospel and warned them with tears, each one separately. With his example we have all the basic characteristics of a genuine shepherd and true teacher: the self denial, the dedication to his mission, the unlimited affection and love for the flock and the laborious yet very fruit-bearing pastoral practice of individual spiritual guidance. St. John Chrysostom in admiration of his example says: “Look at how many things at such a wonderful degree! With tears day and night and each one separately. He was not only saddened if he saw many, but knew how to do everything even for just one soul.
32) “And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
fter giving them his teaching and advice and knowing that his meeting with the heads of the Ephesian Church was the last, Paul commends the Presbyters to God’s providence. From now on he would not be able to care for them and the Christians of Ephesus. That is why he entrusts their protection and care to God himself. From now on God himself will strengthen and teach then with the word of his grace. He is the almighty Lord of the Church which he founded and continues to build upon. The increase of the Church and the spiritual progress of her members can only be achieved with the grace of the almighty Lord. It is he also that gives inheritance, in other words, the right and possibility to inherit the kingdom with all them that are sanctified. Those who are sanctified are those who become saints, in other words, Christians. Paul often called Christians by the name “saints”. With this understanding in mind the text means to say that it is God who grants the right of entry into the Church. But the text also appears to have an eschatological perspective. With the term “inheritance” Paul gives reference to the future hope so we should understand it as meaning that God grants the possibility of partaking in salvation just as Abraham inherited the Promised Land.
33-34) “I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me.”
aul, who having the prerogative of being pre-eminently the spiritual father and founder of the Ephesian Church again comes round to his own personal example to show the Presbyters that they must have selflessness and not be lovers of money and wealth. He confirms that not only has he never sought to gain money and good clothing which is a sign of wealth and luxury, but has never allowed himself to be enslaved by their desire. Selflessness and shunning wealth are visible virtues of a shepherd and are the basic guarantees of his priestly ethos and his inner holiness. These together with integrity of which Paul’s greatness consist; reveal the fact that for his needs and also for the needs of his co-workers, he did manual labour. Paul constrained himself only to the very basic needs and did not overlook the needs of his loved and faithful co-workers. In many places, in his Epistles, Paul mentions the manual labour of making tents which he did to provide the daily necessities for himself and his co-workers, because he did not want to burden others or the Church. Paul then is truly an example of heroism and a measure of comparison for all shepherds of the Church for it is not enough to just be a successor, but also to be of the same manner as the Apostles.
35) “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
gain by using his own personal example, Paul advices the Presbyters how they should support the weak, in other words, the weak and poor among the brethren who must be helped with the product of our hard work. The words of the Lord which he tells the Presbyters to remember have not come down to us through the Gospels. Many things which the Lord said and did are not written in the Gospels and undoubtedly the disciples preserved the memory of many of these things which were not written. But it is also possible that the phrase “the words of the Lord Jesus” means in general the Gospel tradition. The Lord’s words “It is more blessed to give than to receive” does not condemn anyone from receiving something offered to him. The Lord did not say that it is wrong to receive, but compared the receiving with the giving and says it is of far more worth for someone to give than to receive. Our offering to our brethren and especially when they are in need, is an act that simulates us with our God and Father himself who continually gives to all without himself receiving the slightest from anyone.
36) “And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all.”
aul, having then finished his farewell talk to the Presbyters kneels to pray with them for the last time. The prayer to the Lord and saviour by the great Apostle, his disciples and the successors of the Ephesian Church comes and seals their unity and their unwavering trust in divine providence. At this point, Paul is imitating the Lord who after his talk with the Apostles before his passion sealed everything with his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Judging from other occasions mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians seem to have had the custom of praying fervently when someone was to be separated from them because of a journey. Their prayer was usually on bended knees: a position which indicates humility and the venerable disposition of the person praying.
As mentioned in the beginning, this Sunday is dedicated to the 318 Holy Fathers who gathered in Nicaea for the First Ecumenical Council to save the Orthodox faith from the Arian heresy. Arius was an Alexandrian priest who taught that the Son was inferior to the Father denying him the Divine Nature of God, and taught that Jesus Christ was a mere creature. If Arius’ teaching had prevailed then it would have put an end to man’s salvation for which the Lord became man and gave himself to death as a ransom so that he could purchase us and raise us to the glory of deification. If Christ was not perfect God, consubstantial with the Father, how was it possible for him to save us, how can he sanctify us if he is not God. This Sunday’s Gospel reading is an extract of the Lord’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane which underlines Christ’s divinity as the pre-eternal Son and Word of God, consubstantial with the Father for as he says “we are one” (John 17:22)

The reading then is appropriate for the feast of the Holy Fathers because it verifies the truth for which they fought to keep safe from heretics like Arius, but it also it appropriate because the contents of the prayer show us how a shepherd of the church must pray for his flock. The Lord’s Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is also known as the Archieratical Prayer or the High Priestly Prayer. It is called High Priestly because of its unselfish character. In just a few hours, Jesus would be arrested and crucified. He used his last remaining time to pray. When we look at someone’s prayer, we can see what is important to them. Many people’s prayer is selfish: “Oh Lord, give me this and give me that.” But Jesus’ prayer shows him as our high priest (Heb 6:20). His prayer shows us how a good shepherd ought to pray. He prays a little for himself, but mostly he prays for his sheep that are vulnerable and need protection and sanctification. Like a high priest, his primary concern is that the Father be glorified. God is glorified when the church is united with each other and with him. So let us hear the reading and then comment on some of its truths.
The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. John, chapter 17, verses 1-13.
“At that time, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was. I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”
he whole of our Lord’s life is one continual prayer, a personal relationship of love and communion with his Father for he exists always in the Father and the Father in him. It is the perfect relationship of the divine persons to which we also have been called to be partakers. Many times as a man, Christ reveals something of this mysterious relationship he has with his Father so that we can have a taste of it. One such occasion is the prayer which he offered a little before his passion, so that he could teach us that the beginning and end of every prayer is the glory of God and to this we must aim everything we do, our work, our joys, our grief and in general our whole life. Because Christ offers this prayer before his great pain and suffering, he wants to guide us to do the same: in times of difficulties to seek refuge with God because there we will find help and the source of salvation.
Just a little time before his voluntary passion and his death on the Cross by which he will deliver man from death, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said the things we have just heard which is only a part of what he said There is much more to the prayer which each and everyone of us can read and study for himself.
He offers this prayer at the hour of his sacrifice as a true High Priest of our souls, but also as a lamb without blemish, a divine sacrifice who will lift upon himself our sins. He will condemn them in his flesh and make them disappear. For being himself sinless he will transform them into life and immortality. In general all the prayer wants to reassure us of his unlimited love for us. For us to know the name for which he came to reveal to the world, that God is Father. This is how he begins the prayer “Father”. Up until then God was known as the creator, but not by the name Father. His paternal quality was revealed by the Son.
The Lord’s Prayer, his passion, the Cross, his Resurrection, his Ascension into heaven all came about for the sake of mankind. He doesn’t beseech the Father to make lighter the pain of his imminent passion, or to suffer some lesser inhumane treatment from his executioners. His only concern is man’s salvation which is the realization of his Father’s will. This is why he accepts completely the pain of the passions which he transforms into love for God and for man, in other words into life eternal. This is the way a dead man is resurrected and risen as a god by grace to the right hand of the Father.
Christ doesn’t want to give us something from the divine graces, he wants to give us all of the divine life, so that where he is we also will be. He prays for everyone and leaves no one outside of his love.
The Lord’s Prayer continues even in heaven because his Priesthood is unfading without beginning of end. It didn’t begin at some time in history, neither will it have a successor and is unapproachable to men. It is divine and not of this world and his salvation is eternal. He is a High Priest before all ages and for all ages. In the first words of the prayer, the Lord asks for the Father’s glory and for his own as a man. Thus he teaches us that the purpose of prayer is to glorify God. Christ as God was always glorified before the world began and his glory was not only immortal and unchanging but also complete. There was no room to be glorified more for his glory was full. When he put on the flesh of our inglorious body, and became a man, his glory still remained unchanging in the manger, on the Cross, in death, in Hades and in Paradise, but invisible from fallen man who became enslaved to the passions and distorted the “according to the image”. Thus Christ has no need of glory but he wants to make man worthy of glory, divine, incorruptible and immortal. The fallen human nature that he took upon himself he will transform by the Cross, from the inglorious state of its decay and death and raise it to the throne of the Godhead on the right hand of God the Father. In other words, God’s glory will also include man. Christ will first be glorified in the flesh having beaten death and will become the first of the new creation, and his glory will be extended to every flesh, to all of mankind, to the Church, so that no one will be lost. Thus when he says “glorify thy Son” he is saying glorify man with thine own self with the divine glory. Glorify the human nature which now is inglorious and dishonourable with the glory “which I had with thee before the world was.”
By his victory over death, Christ resurrected the human nature and he wants this victory to be extended to all flesh, to every human person. For this to happen each person must believe and follow a life in Christ, in other words to have a relationship and communion with God, to be joined with him so that he will be free from the death of his absence and have eternal life. As it is made clear in verse three of the reading “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” In the same way that ignorance of God is a source of all evils, knowledge and knowing God is a source of good things and is identified with eternal life. But knowledge of God is not intellectual, it is beyond human knowledge, it is untaught and can only be achieved through personal experience from the grace of the Holy Spirit which dwells in the hearts of the humble. God is known by participation and piety. It is participation in divine love; it is being deified by divine grace. It is this participation that Christ means when he says: “they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ” which is eternal life.
Our repentance, in other words a change in our way of life is necessary if we are to participate in this life. And this life is the fruit of the Cross. The first fruit of the Cross was the thief. Without having any other good things and only with repentance he asked of Christ: “remember me O Lord, in thy kingdom” and he was transported from death to life and from earth to heaven: he became a partaker of blessed eternity. From the cross of his condemnation he saw the Crucified one as God sitting on a throne with the Father. This vision is knowledge and participation in divine life.
The Holy Spirit implants in us this knowledge for he is the “Spirit of Knowledge”. (Isaiah 11:2) That is why it is necessary for the rebirth of our existence through Baptism and Holy Communion and our continual inner struggle to keep the divine commandments of Christ, which is another way of divine participation. And this we keep doing until Christ is formed in us and dwells and walks in us and we will be proclaimed as sons and gods by grace.
The Cross of Christ enlightened the world and changed everything that was taken for granted. The multitude of people who were ignorant of the true God and followed the devil and lived of this world: the kingdom of darkness and Hades, changed course and their way of life. Although man wanted to be rid of death, he journeyed towards it because he did not know God. Now he is enlightened and he knows that the cross leads to life. His participation in the cross of Christ is participation in his life. Man came to know the true God, the God of love and wanted to be joined with him. He desired to become a participator in the passions of Christ so that he would also become a participator of his Resurrection. With the light of Jesus’ Cross, man knows that life, the real, incorruptible and eternal life is in proportion to the cross and death of our life according to the flesh.
The Martyrs love for God surpassed their desire of this earthly life, they followed the path of the Crucified One: via the cross to Resurrection. And as Christ glorified the Father with his passion and Cross, so also the Martyrs glorified him with their martyrdom. They continue the example of Christ and trample upon death with the spiritual death of their passions and physical death and go over to resurrection and immortality.
Apart from the martyrs, all the saints offered their first love to Christ; they followed him with their daily death of the things of this world. By the cross everyone won eternal love and communion with God which is Resurrection.
Another achievement that springs from the Cross is the gathering of all the children of God into one. The characteristic of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity is love. Because they are love they are united as one. Christ prays for this love and unity to exist in men as a extension of the unity of the Father and the Son: “that they may be one, as we are.”
Our salvation is not a case of individualism, but ecclesiastical. It is a relationship of love and communion with God and with people – our brothers. This relationship joins God and man and creates the Church which is the body of Christ. When we fall away from the Church which is life, we separate ourselves from the body which is individualism, atomism, partition and death. The Church is over and above the “ego”, “the me” “”the individual” who is separated from the body. Our joy is of worth only when everyone participates in it, as Christ calls everyone to participate in his joy: “enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matth. 25:21).
Many out of love stepped into fire or were drowned to save others according to the example of Christ’s sacrifice. Thus they follow Christ and by death they trample upon death. Christ divinely performs the unity of many as one, and this is glory for the Trinitarian God.
The fathers say that we don’t ascend into heaven but rather that we co-ascend, in other words we ascend together. The grace which helps us to co-ascend is granted us by the Church, with our participation in the Divine Liturgy and the Sacraments. We partake in the glory of man’s nature if we make our faith a faith that has Jesus Christ as an example for everything we do and to have in our lives the desired relationship and communion with God and people.