THE EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
is the authority of Christ expressed?
How then is the authority of the Church expressed? Who can speak with authority about the Church? Who can explain the teachings of the Church? Who, in other words, can resurrect our dying souls and fill them with life? Can the authority of the Church be expressed by one man? By a genius? By a Pope? By an Emperor or a King? By our own Bishop?
No. In Biblical times, in which the Church still lives, we have an answer to this question of the authority of the Church.
Today we have heard the Gospel telling how some of the disciples were called and it is in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that we find the answer to this question of the authority of the Church. That Book tells us in Chapter 15 how, after the Ascension of Christ and after Pentecost, the Apostles gathered together in a Council and discussed and prayed about common problems. This is known as the Council of Jerusalem. At the end of this Council, the Apostles made decisions which, as they said, 'seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us' (Acts 15, 28).
In other words the authority of the Church is expressed by the Holy Spirit through groups of those who have succeeded the Apostles and who are gathered in prayer. The authority of the Church is expressed through Church Councils by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, sent by Christ from the Father, to lead us into all truth.
In Church history there have been Seven Great Councils of Bishops, successors to the Apostles. At these Councils, known as Oecumenical or Universal Councils, there were gathered together not a dozen bishops, not a hundred bishops, but hundreds and hundreds of bishops from all over the Christian world, in order to take decisions on very important issues, defining the bases of our Orthodox Faith.
The last of these Oecumenical Councils took place in the eighth century and it is this, the Seventh Oecumenical Council, that the Church remembers on this Sunday in October every year. The icon showing the Fathers of this Council is in the middle of the church and we are gathered around it.
Some people may ask, but why is it that the last Oecumenical Council took place so long ago and why were there only Seven Oecumenical Councils? The reason for this is simple. It is because all the great issues defining our Faith were resolved at these Seven Councils. Today, the only issues remaining are rather boring administrative ones which have nothing to do with the great doctrinal issues of the Seven Councils.
For example, the Seventh Council in the eighth century actually resolved all the great issues of the twentieth century. The Fathers there said that since Christ truly became a man, we can make images or icons of Him. Moreover, we can paint images or icons of the other saints too. For although the saints were material beings, made of flesh and blood like us, they are made holy, for they, like us, are made in the image of God. Although fallen and sinful, man also has a divine calling. True, man has depth, on account of sin, but man also has height, on account of the image of God within us. We are called to be icons of Christ, for we are made in the image of God.
The enemies of the Fathers of the Seventh Council said the opposite. Known as iconoclasts or image-breakers, they said that Christ had not truly become man. Therefore we cannot paint images or icons of Him. Therefore we cannot have icons of any saints. Ultimately, there are no saints because we are not made in the image of God and therefore we are unable to become like Christ. These people in effect denied the whole essence of our Faith. Therefore they took the icons out of churches and burnt them on huge bonfires, reducing church buildings into vast, empty white barns, devoid of spiritual presence. By denying that Christ had become man, they also denied the image of Christ in man. Denying Christ, they denied man. And so, lo and behold, they began organising masssacres and persecutions, burning not only bonfires of icons, but also burning human-beings on bonfires. They were godless: denying the presence of Christ, they also denied man. They denied the Resurrection of human nature by Christ the Life-Giver, and so they condemned man to death through their death-giving ideology.
Although these iconoclasts, or enemies of Christ, were vanquished in the eighth century, throughout history they have reappeared. In England they reappeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when again they burnt the images from churches and also burnt human-beings at the stake, as they stabled their horses in churches and fired their cannon from church towers.
In the twentieth century they reappeared all over the world, hiding behind all sorts of philosophies, both left-wing and right-wing. They dynamited churches, massacred priests and the faithful, and burnt the images of God. Destroying God, they also destroyed man in tens of millions. These disasters that happened all over the world at the end of the Second Millennium, in our own lifetimes, happened because if we deny Christ, then we deny the image of Christ within us and so we deny man who is made in the image of God.
Fathers of the Seventh Oecumenical Council speak then to the Second and
the Third Millennium today. Speaking with the voice of Christ through
the Holy Spirit, they say: Rise from the dead and live!