Today we celebrate and remember the first ecumenical council. This council was summoned on May 20th in the year 325 ad in the city of Nicaea by the emperor St. Constantine to deal with the first great controversy that had overtaken the Christian world. Some people think that speaking and writing about theology is unnecessary but in today’s gospel we hear the Lord praying for unity. Unity is only possible when we agree on truth. If truth is a matter of debate, unity is the first victim.
The council was attended by 318 bishops who met to discuss and resolve questions arising from an Alexandrian priest named Arius. Arius preached and taught that Jesus Christ was a creation of God the Father. He believed this to be true from his study of the Bible (a good indicator that reading the Bible alone is not sufficient to instruct one in the proper faith). He struggled with passages such as Luke 2:52 where Jesus is shown growing in wisdom and stature. And others such as Mark 6 where Our Lord asks “how many loaves do you have?” Certainly according to Arius, if Jesus was God he would know the number of loaves, and would not need to grow in wisdom either.
Now the passages that really troubled Arius were the passages regarding our Lord’s suffering such as Our Lord being hungry or tired or being crucified. For Arius the ultimate question was “Do you expect me to believe that God can suffer?” The idea that God could suffer was a scandal back then and is still considered a scandal by so many today.
So what’s the big deal with the teachings of Arius? The big deal is this, there is one thing that truly separates God from all else. Only God is uncreated. Only God has no beginning. All others find their origin in Him but He does not have an origin. When anyone says that Jesus Christ is a creation what they would in fact be saying is that He is not God. And the next problem is this; if God has not suffered as a human, then we have not been saved.
The truths of the Christian faith have repercussions on our whole reality. Whether we choose to live by them or not….they will affect us because they express reality to us.
If we believe Arius’s teaching we now have a big problem. What’s the problem? Jesus Christ is no longer capable of being our savior. You see if it was not God who went to the cross but merely a man what makes this Jewish man’s shed blood any more important than the next? Nothing.
If we believe Arius we have another rather big problem. If we believe him we are calling Jesus Christ a liar since Jesus refers to himself as not only Son of God but as God Himself as He states in John 8:58 “before Abraham was I AM” this I AM is none other than the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. There are of course many other examples but I am keeping it simple for time’s sake.
The great defender of Orthodox Christianity during the council was a deacon who later became the patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius the great. He was well known during his own lifetime even when Orthodox Christians were a minority to the Arian christians. Someone once remarked to him “Athanasius the world is against you.” to which he replied “And I against the world.” Aside from showing the clear scriptural proof of the divinity of Our Lord. St. Athanasius went a step further by explaining why God took flesh. Athanasius tells us that “He (Christ) became man so that we might become god.” On the Incarnation 54
What a powerful statement and understanding of our Christian faith. Yes one of the reasons and the importance of Our Lord Jesus Christ becoming a man in the flesh was that He could heal our flesh through this act. As the Fathers have said “He took what was not natural to Him (death) so that we might take what was not natural to us (immortality). In the incarnation of Christ there is a complete transference of our worst qualities to Him, and His best qualities to us.
So St. Athanasius along with the Fathers of the first Council not only knew how to defend the Christian faith based on a proper and sound reading of the Bible in front of them, they also understood the ramifications for such belief. God doesn’t want truth obscured or hidden from us. But God is not known in our imagination or even simply through reading the Bible as Arius shows us. We can know God through His body, the Church, when we live with the Church as the center and focus of our existence. God loves us and the death of His Only Son Jesus is meant to heal and unite us as persons and as a body of believers. Struggle daily to know God and you will find yourself united to truth, salvation, joy and life in every daily task. And Glory be to God forever AMEN.