Sunday after Ascension
630 Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council.
(Titus 3: 8-15; Matt. 5: 14-19)
Today, we remember the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon. Other Christians do not do this. We do, because we live with these issues. What the Councils have decided, that is Orthodoxy. The Fathers speak to us down the centuries. Paul’s words to Titus are of the kind which the Church often uses when it lays down the law, divides truth from error. Paul wants Titus to be ‘constantly occupied in doing good works.’ The word for being occupied means the same as standing before a shop as a tradesman selling his goods. It suggests being honest in offering things for sale in the market. Paul wants Titus to make a business of all that is excellent. As the Americans say, he wants to keep the Church honest. So Paul quickly lists what is not the Christian truth: ‘pointless speculations.’ Paul is saying the same thing that he says in I Tim 6: 4; and II Tim 2: 23. Don’t go in for disputes in which words are weapons. This leads to envying rivals, quarrels, and suspicions that the other side has no morals: the opposition are demonised, and the self-righteous become unreal. We sometimes try to force mysteries to make themselves simple. Paul dismisses genealogies. False teachers waste time on myths and genealogies. If we pretend that we are close to power and to nobility because we are related to powerful ancestors or impressive spiritual fathers, we make fools of ourselves and we waste time. Paul warns us to shun ‘quibbles and disputes about the Law – these are useless and can do no good to anyone.’ Paul tells Titus to give only two warnings to anyone who disputes what he teaches; and then to reject him. The warning may be by a private appeal to his conscience, or by a public censure. Paul may be referring to Jesus’ command (Matt 18: 15-17), that if your brother does not listen to you when you have two or three witnesses in addition, then you should report the fact to the whole community and treat him ‘like a pagan or a tax collector.’
Paul says that a person who disputes the truth and will not change is self-condemned; this is a word which he has coined. St Paul is always trying to make something completely new in meaning for the new circumstances in which the Church is developing. The reading ends with prayer for the disloyal as well as the loyal. This is like the Russian bishop who said ‘We know where God is, but we do not know where he is not.’ This is why Orthodox can be in spiritual contact with other Christians.
In the gospel reading, Jesus tells the Church what a real disciple is. Jesus has just explained this in the Sermon on the Mount. Now he tells us that we have to live ‘above’ the world and away from it; like a single street light in a bad part of town. If we lock away the spiritual light which is in us, that is as foolish as putting a lighted candle under a corn measure or a tub. Instead, we should put the lighted candle high on a stand so that it may cast its light widely, ‘for everyone in the house.’ ‘In the same way’, Jesus says, ‘your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.’ It is pointless to say how wonderful it is to be an Orthodox Christian if we do not show other people what the faith contains. And what it contains is an ethic, which calls us to act correctly, just as we believe correctly: think straight, believe straight, act straight: that is the Orthodox rule of life. That is the kind of thing Paul was saying in the epistle.
Jesus goes on to say that he comes to fulfil the law, not to annul it; but he is pointing to the law of love, the law which is shown by his crucifixion and his resurrection, the new agreement between God and man of which Paul was to be the faithful great teacher. Jesus exaggerates his meaning by saying that the smallest letters in Hebrew and Aramaic texts – the gospel calls them after their Greek names – will not be able to be omitted if the true law of love is to be expressed and read clearly.
In 451, the Empress Pulcheria and her consort Marcian, a veteran soldier, held the council of Chalcedon. The Church faced division because of the teaching that after Jesus was incarnated he had only one nature. This is the heresy of Monophysitism. Sadly, the language in which the Orthodox doctrines were defined was not the language of everyone who was an Eastern Christian. The Copts, the Syrians, the Armenians had their own languages – Coptic, Aramaic, Armenian – and their own ways of expressing the unity of Christ’s natures were different from the Greek ways; but they were not – we now know – they were not heretical. They certainly were not Byzantine; and the Copts, the Syrians and the Armenians all wanted local government and independence from Byzantine autocracy. The loss of those Christians to the main part of the family opened the door to the weakening of the empire and the rise of Islam.
Today, we who are Chalcedonian Orthodox and those who are non-Chalcedonian Orthodox have closer relations than we have with anyone else. All that we need now is to agree when and how we shall take the Holy Gifts from the same chalice. The Copts in Egypt, for example, have close relations with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The Church of Antioch in the Middle East as well as in North America has close relations with the Armenians.
But what did Chalcedon do? It made the big decision that Christ was perfect God and perfect man, of the same essence with the Father in his Godhead and with us in his manhood. Chalcedon laid down that Christ was revealed in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. Chalcedon laid down that the difference between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ is not abolished by their union. The two natures unite to form one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis.
When we say the Creed, we say with the Fathers of Chalcedon that Jesus makes us able to become divine; that God has entered human life; that our neighbour bears the marks of glory; that our obligation is to see his real nature. When we say the Creed we set ourselves apart from those who preach the nonsense that Mormons are a true religion; that Jehovah’s Witnesses are genuine Christians; that Rastafarians are genuine Christians; that astrology is true. That is why Chalcedon still matters. For the Creed of Chalcedon is the whole truth: the Catholic and Apostolic Faith which makes the Church Holy.
A great Russian Orthodox, Nicolas Berdyaev, said in 1949 something which springs right from the gospel and right from the Creed of Chalcedon. ‘Christian truth consists in taking upon oneself responsibility for the torments of mankind.’ If we Orthodox understand this, then we can really be the street light in the bad part of town.
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther, July 13 2003.
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