Confirming the Faith
John 17:1-13, Acts 20:16-18
In the Acts of the Apostles, twentieth chapter, we find Paul in the port city of Miletus in Turkey meeting with the leaders of the Church of Ephesus. The Holy Spirit was moving Paul to travel to Jerusalem, where hard times and imprisonment awaited him. Paul believed he would never see these Christian leaders again, and he left them with an ominous warning.
"Be on guard for yourselves and the sheep of your flock," Paul told them. "The Holy Spirit has appointed you to be shepherds to guide and protect His sheep, the ones for whom Jesus Himself died. I know that as soon as I leave, savage wolves will appear and attack your flock. From your own congregation, false teachers will arise, twisting the Scriptures and speaking lies to seduce believers into following them — instead of Jesus."
Today, the Church celebrates the memory of 318 of Jesus’ followers who heeded that long-ago warning, nearly 300 years after Paul spoke those words in Miletus. For it is on this day that we celebrate the lives of the Holy Fathers of the first Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in year 325 AD, at the time of Constantine the Great.
Saint Nicholas, Saint Spiridon, Saint Athanasius the Great, Saint Paphnutius and more than three hundred others of like faith and mind convened the Council at Nicea. They were a small and chosen group ... committed, Christ-bearing men. Christ lived and shone forth in power in the lives of each of them. They came together for the defense, clarification and confirmation of the most Holy and life changing Faith — the same faith that you and I have also received in our time, to God be the glory.
Many of these three hundred traveled great distances to attend the Council. Many arrived bearing in their bodies wounds received in the service of the Gospel. Saint Paphnutius had lost an eye to his tormentors. But all of them considered their own hardships as nothing for the cause of Christ. Their courage in defense of the Gospel was fierce.
Two great falsehoods — heresies — had arisen in the Church, just as Paul had warned, and were confusing and misleading believers. The solemn purpose of the Council would be to disprove these heresies, and stamp them out by setting forth once and for all the Church’s true credo.
The first of the heresies, Arianism, taught that Jesus was only human, and not also fully divine. But it is His divinity and His humanity together that makes the Gospel such good news, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ, who is divine, became a real human being ... the Son of God, equal to His Father in Divinity, became a real person. And it is in Him alone, we too can become real human beings. Arianism left out ... His divinity ... that Jesus is God.
The second heresy, Sabellianism, denied the existence of the Trinity. But the doctrine of the Trinity was taught by Jesus Himself. He clearly taught His disciples that He was the Son of God, that He had a Father in Heaven, and that His Father would send the Holy Spirit.
Both heresies contradicted the revelations of Scripture and Jesus’ own teaching. This is why the Fathers at the Council of Nicea felt it was important and necessary to set down the basic doctrines of the Church in writing, for the ages, in language that could not be misunderstood.
That work is what we today call the Nicene Creed. We can easily imagine Nicholas, Athanasius and the other Fathers repeating in a clear and confident voice, "I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
Today’s Gospel reading does not speak of the creeds or the great church councils, but of Jesus’ last prayer to His Father before His crucifixion, recorded in the Gospel of John, seventeenth chapter. You may well wonder why that particular prayer was chosen for a day when we honor the Fathers of the Council of Nicea.
It was in this prayer that those early Church Fathers found the spiritual courage and strength to stand as devoted and fearless defenders of the truth against raging heresy. And it is from that same prayer that you and I can take courage and strength today.
John tells us that even as Jesus prayed, His betrayer Judas was already leading the Roman soldiers and the police sent by the high priests and Pharisees to the garden. Soon He would be arrested, quickly convicted in a sham trial, and cruelly executed. As He began His prayer, Jesus said, "Father, it’s time. The hour has come." He knew His time was running out. And yet His mind was not on His own fate, but on the future of the Church His Father had given Him to shepherd.
Speaking directly as a Son to His own Father, Jesus gives us precious insights into their relationship. "You gave Me authority over all flesh — put Me in charge of everything human — so that I might give real and eternal life to all in My charge. And this is the real and eternal life — that they would know You, the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You sent. I glorified You on earth by completing what You assigned Me to do down to the last detail. Glorify Me now with Your own glory, the glory I had in Your presence before there was a world."
What a privilege for the disciples, and for us. We hear Him speak to God of their history together. "The glory I had in Your presence before there was a world." He’s speaking of a time before Genesis 1:1 — "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." That had not happened yet. He’s speaking of the time described in John 1:1 — "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That’s what He means. That time.
"I manifested Your Name — spelled out Your character — to the people You gave Me. They were Yours to begin with, then You gave them to Me." He’s speaking of His Disciples, of the later Apostles, of the Fathers at the Council of Nicea, and of you and me here today. "You gave them to Me." Earlier in Capernaum, He had said, "all that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out."
"I gave them Your word," He continued, "and the world hated them for it, because they were not of the world. I’m not asking You to take them out of the world — not yet — but to guard them from the evil one. Bless them with the truth. As You sent Me to this world with a mission, so I send them."
Then He again includes us. "I don’t ask on behalf of these alone" — His disciples, who are there listening as He prays — "but also for those who will believe in them because of their words." That’s us ... you and me ... the later ones who believed through the witness of others. And what does He ask? "That they may all be one ... and that the world would believe that You sent Me."
Finally, He gives us just a glimpse of the wonders in store. He lets us in on the secret — that He asked the Father to give Him glory, not for Himself, but so that He could give it to us. He gives it to us so that we could be one with Him, because He wants us to be with Him where He is. He wants us to know the love that He has known from the Father before the world was created.
The chance to be one with Jesus and with the Father, to actually live with Jesus as His disciples did and experience the love He has known from the Father. To experience what "forever" means — a concept almost too big for us to comprehend. If those are the stakes, is it any wonder the early Church Fathers acted swiftly with courage when men began changing the truth, leaving out the good news that in Jesus, God became fully Man and walked among us? And taking out of the Gospel that special relationship between Jesus and His Father and the Holy Spirit, the relationship He was inviting us to share?
"Keep them from the evil one," He prayed. "Bless them with the truth." And the Father did, nearly 300 years later. He raised up leaders like Nicholas and Spiridon to stand firm against the errors of Arianism and Sabellianism. At the Council of Nicea, they defended truth against untruths that would rob us of that great inheritance Jesus asked His Father to prepare for us. And they gave us the Nicene Creed to help us defend against error for generations to come.
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
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