Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of the First Six Oecumenical Councils

Gospel [Matthew 14:14-22 (§58); John 17:1-13 (§56)]

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

Dear Father, Brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!

But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.

On this day we commemorate all the holy Fathers of the First Six Oecumenical Councils. Of course, as we know, the Orthodox Church upholds the teachings and canons of the Seven Oecumenical Councils. The fact that the Seventh Council is excluded from today’s feast points to the antiquity of this commemoration which presumably was established somewhere between the Sixth Oecumenical Council in 680AD – 681AD and the Seventh which held in 787AD. As a matter of interest today’s feast is now only found in the Russian Typikon and has not been maintained by the Greek church. I would thus like to use this homily to say something about the importance of the Oecumenical Councils in defining and defending our precious, saving and holy Orthodox Faith, before going on to talk briefly about the Gospel reading of the Miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with five small loaves and two fishes.

Let us first begin by clarifying what exactly is an oecumenical council? To start with it is important to recognize that the Orthodox use of the word “ecumenical” has nothing to do with the meaning of that term outside the Orthodox Church that some of you may have come across before. For, outside the Orthodox church, “ecumenical” or “ecumenism” refers to an approach which affirms that the Church is broken or fissured into tens of hundreds if not thousands of different branches: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and so on. For an ecumenist each of these individual branches or churches is equally valid, equally salvific and the role of ecumenism as a movement is to improve the relationships between these churches so that they continue to mutually recognize each other’s legitimacy and validity seen most obviously by the practice of mutual prayer and, increasingly, intercommunion. Thus interestingly, the ecumenical movement is not at all interested to achieve a real unification and consolidation of all these different churches into One Church, neither are they really interested in resolving the fundamental contradictions between the different “denominations” when it comes to points of belief or worship, rather they are interested in an external program of unification which uphelds the continued diversification and splintering of “Christianity”. It is also surely of no coincidence that the Ecumenical movement has come into being at precisely the same time as the advent of cultural movements of modern pluralism and relativism whereby absolute standards and exclusivist claims are exchanged for ones that emphasize the fundamental equality of all moral or religious truth claims. Your individual viewpoint is as valid and as true as mine. There is no criteria, no dogmatic framework or way of choosing between these different narratives or claims, rather all must be accepted.

Needless to say, the Fathers of the First Six Oecumenical Councils would be truly horrified by this epistemological levelling and theological degradation and see in this Ecumenical Movement an underlying nihilism, a denial of the Truth. Questions of right doctrine of right worship are not relative questions, open to equal and contradictory answers. They are, and always have been, questions of supreme, salvific importance that require careful, considered and prayerful resolution so that the Church, the Body of Christ, might be guided aright. But how does this happen? How do we decide between all these competing claims as to the nature of God, the nature of Christ, of how we should worship and celebrate the Eucharist? Maybe our question here shouldn’t be how, but Who? As our Lord said that He would send the Holy Spirit to his disciples, and that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, would teach them all things (Jn,14:26). Thus, according to Orthodox belief we believe that the Holy Spirit was given to Christ’s disciples on the feast of Pentecost and that it is He Who will guide Christ’s Church until the end of time, ‘and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Mt, 16:18b). The central premise of the Ecumenical movement – the validation of all Christian bodies calling themselves Christian – makes no sense of the exclusive Gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. How could the same Holy Spirit inspire both the Roman Catholic Church and the Baptist Church. How can the Holy Spirit confirm and inspire the teachings of contradictory religious bodies which have completely different beliefs and practices? Such a convoluted position surely only makes a mockery of Truth. Where is the real unity between these Christians who believe such utterly contrary and diverse things?

In terms of how questions of doctrine and practice were resolved, the model for this is given to us in Holy Scripture itself through the first council of Jerusalem as described in the book of Acts in chapter 15 where the apostles met together to discuss and debate some practical questions about the prescriptions of the Law for the new Gentile converts to the Christian Faith. We can see in this council the equality of the Apostles as they met in council. Note – against the claims of Roman Catholicism- that whilst Peter speaks first, he doesn’t speak exclusively, as the only one capable or entitled to define dogmatic teaching and is followed by Paul, Barnabus and James, the latter of whom, as the first bishop of Jerusalem, makes an especially important role at this council. Here we see the conciliar, collegiate and council-shaped model for determining the truths of faith which would become foundational and paradigmatic for how the Orthodox Church would resolve all questions of faith and practice.

The Apostles – who received the gift of the Holy Spirit – in turn ordained the very first bishops who became their successors and heirs, tasked with the responsibility of preserving the Holy Tradition that they had received and passing this on pure and intact. Where new beliefs or practices arose which seemed to conflict with the Apostolic inheritance that had been given unto them, the bishops would meet, just as the Apostles had done before them, in council. It is important also here to acknowledge that there have been far more than 6 or 7 Councils of Orthodox bishops. In actual fact there have been hundreds and thousands of church councils throughout the ages. These local councils of bishops would be formed and meet regularly as they still do up until our own days. At many of these councils creeds were also defined and proclaimed. The main difference between these regular, local councils and Oecumenical Councils, is that at the latter the judgments or resolution of that Council were declared Oecumenical by the whole oecumene, the Greek word for the ‘whole inhabited world’. It was not necessary that all the Patriarchs themselves of the Ancient Church centres should be present, at these councils. Often a deacon or priest may be sent as a representative of the Patriarchate. Again, against the doctrinal claims of Roman Catholicism about the place of the Patriarch of Rome, neither the pope, nor any papal legates were present at the Second Oecumenical Council! What was vital though was that those churches should be invited and the deliberations of the council should be accepted by all the Local Churches, and that also means the Local Churches in their fulness, their sobornost, not just the hierarchs, not just the priests or the clergy, but the whole gathered church including the laity. And this is what differentiates a Council from an Oecumenical Council, is that the deliberations of an Oecumenical council are proclaimed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit and thereby authoritative for the whole Church. Thus, in the same way as there are Oecumenical Councils, inspired by the Holy Spirit, just so there are false councils that have been inspired by the machinations of the devil, we might think here of the so-called Robber Council of 449AD or the Council of Florence, one thousand years later, in 1449AD, both of which were rejected by the Orthodox faithful, the returning hierarchs of the latter council were pelted with rotten vegetables for their betrayal of Orthodoxy by pious laymen and women.

A further objection, usually from Protestants, which is often made against the Orthodox commitment to the teachings of the Oecumenical Councils, is that they impose excessive amounts of dogmatic teachings for the faithful accept which go beyond the limits of Scripture. Against this we should remember that it was the Church, precisely through church councils, which defined and determined the biblical canon, the make up and composition of the Books which would become accepted as the Holy Scriptures. Without church councils there would be no Bible or Holy Scripture! Also, as is clear from the Creed and summary of the faith which we recite today, the Fathers of the Oecumenical Councils exercised great restraint in their expression of the Faith, not writing chapter and verse, but restricting themselves to clarifying the saving truth of the Faith where the Faith was at risk of becoming distorted by heresy.  

Let us turn now to our Gospel reading today and see how this might relate to the feast we keep this day. Our reading comes from St Matthew’s Gospel, a few chapters further on from the jam-packed miracles, excorcisms and wonders we have been hearing about these past few weeks. After the devastating news of the martyric death of the greatest of the Prophets, the Forerunner, St John the Baptist, our Lord ‘departs thence by ship into a desert place’. But even in the desert, our Lord as the Light of the world, draws all the people unto Himself, and it is this deserted place which leads to the practical dilemma that marks the context for the whole reading – how to feed so many hungry people in the middle of the desert. The disciples – forgetting, for a moment Who exactly it was who is with them in the wilderness, speak in a worldly and practical way –

This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.   

Then our Lord replies back to the unbelieving and undiscerning disciples with a shocking directness

But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.

For, through the grace which the Lord gave the disciples, it is they who are called to nourish the faithful both materially and spiritually, not to turn them away empty and hungry. Just as the Lord fed the famished people in Israel in their 40 year travail through the wilderness, so now the Lord God Incarnate feeds the 5000 people miraculously through the 5 loaves and 2 small fishes distributing it through the hands of His disciples.  

Dear father brothers and sisters, we live in a time of great confusion, and a time of immense spiritual desertification, when even the existence of objective Truth, of right and wrong are denied and ridiculed. Against a backdrop of pluralism, relativism and ecumenism, now more than ever, we are in need of hierarchs, as successors to the Apostles, who will feed those hungry for the truth with bread and not send them away empty. Let us find our spiritual nourishment here in the Church, and not in the surrounding villages. Let us remain anchored in the saving Orthodox Faith of the Oecumenical Councils, not daring to deviate from the Faith which has been passed on to us, knowing that it is in the safe boundaries of the Faith and canons of the Oecumenical Councils that we have all that we need for our salvation.  

May the holy fathers of the first six Oecumenical Councils pray to God for us!