On the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, the Church commemorates the Sunday of the Holy Father of the 1st Ecumenical Council which was dedicated to the unity of the Church. Shortly before His crucifixion, Christ prayed for us to be one as the Trinity is one. If we are going to be like God, then we must be committed to unity, not just in the name we call ourselves, but in the way we think about God. We must be committed to the oneness of mind with the Church.
My brothers and sisters, we heard in this morning’s gospel about a woman who for 18 years was living a tortured life by the devil. 18 years she had been unable to find any kind of comfort or healing from anyone, from her friends, from the doctors, from the apostles. No one could heal her. I want you to imagine going through life, even for one day, let alone 18 years bent over, staring at the ground, having so much weight upon your shoulders you can’t even lift up your head to look up to God.
This is the torture that this woman lived through for 18 years. No one could help her. Finally, when she went to God, it happened to be on the Sabbath, and when God healed her, he touched her, she was able to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. And what was the first thing she did? She was praising God. And what’s the first thing the crowd did? What’s the first thing the Pharisees did? They began to punish her. “How dare you come on the Sabbath to be healed?”
Christ, we know the story, he corrects them because in their mind she was less important than even the donkeys in the stable. He says, “Even your animals on the Sabbath, you’re going to go. You’re going to untie them so they can go get a drink. You’re not going to help this woman who the devil has bound for 18 years? She’s not worth something?” You see, they had forgotten what God had given them. They were so preoccupied with crossing the “t’s” and dotting the “i’s” they had forgotten that God gave them the Sabbath for a reason, and the reason was so they could focus on God.
They could find peace and quietness in their world because they were so strict with the rules. All the work stopped on Saturday, not so they could stay home and sleep, but so they could focus on God. God gave them the Sabbath so they had time for him. This is why it was so painful to watch them get mad at this woman. The one thing that should have been blessed and accepted and endorsed on the Sabbath was this woman being made well, having time to worship God. The one thing that they should have wanted to do on the Sabbath, they tried stopping her.
But I’ve got news for us. This story is not just about them, it is about us. God has given us the church. He’s given us a way of life as orthodox Christians, a way to pray, a way to worship, a way to focus our attention on God. And what do we do? We leave God to whatever we don’t have anything else better to do. Maybe we say our prayers when we wake up, but if we wake up late, the first thing we do is we skip our prayers so that we can get to work on time. If a friend calls and says, “Hey, let’s go fishing.” We are up before the sun.
But we live five minutes away and we can’t get to church on time. We have forgotten the blessings that God has given to us. God has given us this glorious cathedral. Yes, we have to repair it, but we repair it, not so we can show the world how beautiful our church is. We repair the church so we have a place to be with God. Because this woman in the gospel had nowhere else to turn but to God. And my fear is that as the world continues to go astray, it’s going to become easier and easier for us to forget God’s church. Because we don’t want to go out into the world and be called names from other people. And I hear it sometimes, “Oh, they think they’re holy. They go to church all the time, oh this, oh that.” Just like the crowd in this morning’s gospel.
But here’s our chance. We are in our nativity fast. As Orthodox Christians, we are preparing for Christmas with prayer and fasting and taking care of the poor. Not because fasting is some checkbox that we’re going to mark off, but because when we fast, we learn to pay attention to God. When we allow the life of the church to become our life, instead of considering the life of the church as rules that limit our behavior, I invite you to look at the life of the church as opportunities to focus on God. In our daily prayers, in coming to church as often as we can, not just on Christmas, Epiphany and Pascha, not just for weddings and funerals, but as often as we can. Not because it’s going to somehow make us more eligible for heaven, but because this is where we spend time with God, in his church.
And we, blessed as we are, one of the only churches in America that is open seven days a week, that has services seven days a week so that we can spend time focusing on God. This is why he gave us the church. This is why he gave the Jews the Sabbath. Don’t become a hypocrite, as in this morning’s gospel. Don’t try to dissuade. Don’t try to push people away from spending time with God. But more importantly, we need to come and spend more time with God, in our prayers and in our fasting.
My brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you, unless we embrace fasting in our regular life, we will be so focused on the world that we will forget that God is right in front of our face. This is the joy of fasting. It’s not a rule. It’s a blessing, to take our minds and turn it off the world for just a moment. Even if we’re sitting in the drive through or in the, looking at the menu at the restaurant, in that moment of determining what we are eating, we can say, “No, I’m focusing on God and so I’m going to eat something different.”
Not because of the rules, but because of the blessing. And then we’ll be able to stand up straight like this woman in the gospel. We will be able to stand up straight and be praising God continually. As St. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” This is our opportunity, but I’m going to warn you of something. The world is going to think we are cuckoo. The world is going to think that we don’t know the better way. Let’s show them we do. Let’s show them that we are the sane ones. We are the ones who are focusing on the good of God.
My brothers and sisters, we just heard a very important prayer of Jesus Christ. In the gospel this is called the High Priestly Prayer, and it follows the tradition of the ancient Jewish temple where right before the sacrifice, the priest would offer a prayer to God that was related to the sacrifice as an example, right? And here we heard in this morning’s gospel, a portion of that prayer that Christ himself offers to the Father before going up on the cross. He gives glory to God the Father, and the Father gives glory to him, the Son.
But he says something very important in this morning’s gospel that I want us to focus on, not just today, but for the rest of our lives. Christ says … Oh, I lost it. Wait a minute. There it is. “Now I am no longer in the world. Christ says,” he’s speaking to the Father, “but these are in the world and I come to you. Holy Father, keep them through your name, those whom you have given me,” now, listen to this, “that they may be one as we are one.”
The prayer of Jesus Christ before he goes up on the cross is for us to be just like the Holy Trinity, not divine. We’re not going to become God. We’re not going to become the Holy Trinity. But he wants us to be just like the Holy Trinity. He says that they may be one as we are one. And now we have to remember all the way back to Genesis. We are created in His image, and the image of God Father, Son, Holy Spirit is a trinity of oneness. One love, one mind, one agenda we could say, using today’s terminology.
And if we remember in the garden, the devil trying to trick Eve, the devil says to Eve, “He doesn’t want you to eat from that tree because he doesn’t want you to be like him.” But that’s exactly what God does want for us, to be like him, to be unified with each other like the Trinity is unified. In the divine liturgy, and I want you to listen for this today after … actually before, I’m sorry, before we recite the creed, I’m going to come out and I’m going to say, let us love one another that with oneness of mind, we may confess. And you are going to pray and the choir is going to sing, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided. And then we are going to recite the creed, the Pistevo.
You see, my brothers and sisters, the church is training us to be just like God. We pray that we have oneness of mind. It’s not good for us to say, We’ll just have to agree to disagree when it comes to our life with Jesus Christ. Agreeing to disagree is what brought the world 45,000 denominations of Christianity. Does that sound like a Christian people united to each other like God? Unity is from God, division is from the devil. There’s a reason we call him diavolos because he divides us. He divides us one from another, husband against wife, children against their parents, church against church. All these divisions in the world are not what God wants for us.
And this is why on this Sunday, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, the church brings to our mind the Holy Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council gathered in Nicaea in 325. It was so important for the church to remain united, that the emperor brought all the bishops together so that we as Christians could be in oneness of mind. When we are divided, we are nothing like God.
And so my brothers and sisters, as we continue today’s divine liturgy and as we eventually walk out those doors and continue with our daily life, here is the challenge. It’s a difficult one this week, unite yourself in your mind to the church. Not just where you put your name, not just a list of names, but unite yourself in the way you think with the way the church thinks about God. Because as we celebrate next week, the coming of the Holy Spirit, God promises that the Holy Spirit is going to give the church the truth.
And the first ecumenical Council and the second, all the way down through the seventh, the Holy Fathers gathered for one purpose, to remain united, not politically, but united in faith, united in belief, united in worship. That ultimately is what is going to be heaven for us, to love being oneness of mind with each other and with God. It’s not an easy challenge, but it’s the most important thing that we can work on for our eternal salvation depends on being like God.
Let’s start with casting away our own agendas and solidify our unity as a family in Christ, solidify around the gospel, around the sacraments of the church, around Orthodoxy. Because as the world continues to get more estranged from God, the devil will continue to try to convince us, “God doesn’t really want you to be like him.” Don’t fall trap to the devil. Be like God. Unite yourself in the way you think, in the way you believe, with the beliefs of the church, which have been given to us by Jesus Christ, which you celebrate today in commemorating the fathers of the First Council. Glory to God for always.