Acts 20.16 – 18, 28 – 36

John 17.1 – 13

On this Sunday after the Savior’s Ascension into heaven, we honor the holy fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This Council took place in Nicea, in 325 A.D. It's not hard to see why this Sunday that falls within the Feast of the LORD’ Ascension was chosen for honoring these holy fathers. At issue at that First Council was the biblical teaching of Christ, and of human nature and destiny, which is gloriously revealed in the joy of the LORD’s Ascension.

A deacon named Arius and his followers were teaching that Jesus was not God; He was the first creature God created, and through Him, the world. This was but pagan philosophy in biblical garb. The holy fathers of Nicea rejected it.

If Jesus is a creature, then He is enslaved to death as we are, and He Himself would need a Savior. He would not be, as St Peter calls Him, for example, ‘Our LORD, God and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Pt 1.1). Moreover, we could not be delivered from death, and we could not become one with God, as the LORD Himself prays in our Gospel this morning.

Salvation, according to the heretical teachings of Arius, could not be theosis, becoming a partaker of the divine nature. The ‘work’ Jesus came to finish would simply be to deliver a message, not to destroy death by His death and give life to those in the tombs. Jesus would be nothing more than a prophet, not the Way to the Father, and we would still be in bondage to the evil one who still would hold us in His power through the fear of death.

The biblical Christology that the holy fathers of Nicea defended against Arius is also a high anthropology, even a divine anthropology. Man, created in the image and likeness of God as male and female, is kin to God. For example, Adam, says St Luke, tracing the Christ’s genealogy all the way back, was ‘the son of God’ (Lk 3.38). And the LORD had said to the Psalmist centuries before He was incarnate of the Holy Virgin Theotokos: ‘I said you are gods, sons of the Most High’ (Ps 82.6).

The natural and original destiny of Man according to biblical teaching, going all the way back to the biblical doctrine of creation in Genesis, is to become a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pt 1.4). For the Hebrew word translated as ‘soul’ in Gen 2.7 actually means, ‘throat.’ It says in the Hebrew: ‘God breathed into Adam’s face the Breath of Life (the Holy Spirit), and Man became a ‘living throat’ (Gen 2.7). That is, Man is a creature who lives by eating, drinking, and breathing the uncreated God who desired to give Himself to Man in His own eternal Glory and Virtue as the Fruit of the Tree of Life.

And Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life. For He is the Wisdom of God, and Wisdom is a Tree of Life to all who lay hold of ‘her’ (Prov 3.18). If He is the Wisdom of God, then He is the radiant Effulgence of the Eternal Light (Wisd 7.26, Heb 1.3). This is the biblical vision in the ‘Nicene’ Creed: ‘I believe in one LORD Jesus Christ, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, Light from Light, true God of true God.’

To believe the LORD Jesus Christ, then, is not just to accept His teaching as one would a message. It is to love the LORD God with all our whole being, for He is the Image (Icon) of God in whom we came to be in the image and ‘likeness’ of God. It is natural to us to receive God as our food and drink and air because it is God who makes us to live; and we live in God. If we are outside of God, we live in death.

If Jesus Christ is the One in whom we come to be, and if He is the uncreated effulgence of the Light Who is the Father, and if He is the Beloved Son of the Father, that means that when we partake of Christ’s glorified Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist of His Church, we are partaking of our true Life, we are partaking of Light, we are partaking of the Love of God the Father – and in the knowledge that we receive when we partake of Christ, we come to know that Life, Light, and Love are ‘personal.’ They are not ‘impersonal.’ And that means that to be a ‘person’ is to be a lover who is loved, a beloved who loves. It means that ‘to be’ is to be a partaker of the divine nature, a communicant of the love of God.

Rolling the stone away so that we could come out of ourselves to become partakers of the divine nature, this is the ‘work’ that Jesus, the Son of God, completed as the ‘Son of Man.’ It is the work that is accomplished in us when we are united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection in Holy Baptism. For, when we become ‘partakers’ of Christ in His death and resurrection, the death that makes us to ‘pass away’ out of existence is annihilated. It is emptied of all substance. The eternal, uncreated Light that Jesus Christ is has filled it; the Living Waters of the Fountain of Life that Jesus Christ is (Jer 2.13) have been poured into it (Eze 47.1-12). When we deny ourselves for the sake of Christ, and when we lose our lives in the love of Christ in order to find ourselves with Him in His Tomb, we find ourselves in a Chamber where there is no death or darkness. It is brilliantly illumined with the uncreated Light of God. It is filled with the fragrance of Christ’s Holy Resurrection and eternal Life.

Union with Christ is far more than agreement with His teaching. We know God not intellectively as an abstract religious idea but experientially as our very life. It is no longer I who live, says St Paul; it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God (by loving, by cleaving to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind) who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal 2.20). This is how we come to know God. In the ‘teaching’ of the bible, to know God is to love God; and to love God is to become one with God not by being dissolved into His essence, but by eating, drinking and breathing the divine Light of the LORD Jesus Christ’s uncreated Grace in the eternal love of God the Father in the life-giving communion of the Holy Spirit.

The words of Christ, then, are not the creed of a philosophical or religious school of thought about what it is that makes everything to be what it is. They are divine instruction on how we may come to love God in order to be raised from death to life and to begin living in God’s own eternal life, peace, joy, and love. It begins with denying ourselves in the love of Christ. Do we not gladly deny ourselves for whatever and whomever we love? The LORD, then, is telling us that we begin to live when we begin to love Him, when He becomes our life. If we love Him, we will want to lose our life for Him and to become one with Him. We will long to be placed with His Body in the Tomb of His death; because if we unite ourselves to Him in His death, we are uniting ourselves to that death that destroys death and everything that goes with it. We become, as St Paul says, partakers with the saints in Light. As St Peter says, we are called out of the darkness into His marvelous Light. And as Ezekiel foresaw, we receive the Holy Spirit who raises us from our graves, and we follow the LORD Jesus Christ into the Land of our inheritance – which is Christ God Himself, as the Psalmist says: ‘The LORD is the portion of my inheritance, the LORD is my cup’ (Ps 16.5).

 Jesus Christ is the Name we call the Son of God made flesh as the Son of Man. He was truly Man as He was truly God. He is the True Man precisely because He is the True God. And we become truly ‘man’ – we become true men and true women, made in the image and likeness of God, when we receive the God-Man, Jesus Christ as our food and drink and as the air we breathe.

If Christ God is ascended in glory, it means that the nature of our body and soul is ascended in glory because, just as He was raised in the same Body in which He was crucified, so He was also ascended in it, and it is that Body, which is of the same nature as our body, that is now glorified in its union with Christ.

And that means that our own body and soul may now receive the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit of God, says Wisd (Wisd 1.1f.), will not enter a body that is subject to sin and death, or into a soul that is deceitful and unrighteous. United to Christ in the sacramental mysteries of His Church, which is His Body, our body and soul are cleansed of all evil, all death, all corruption and deceit and unrighteousness, ready to receive the Holy Spirit to become children of God, born from above.

And so we await in prayer and repentance for the Joy of Pentecost when the LORD Jesus, as He promised, will send down upon us His Holy Spirit that we, too, raised from death to life in the God-Man, Jesus Christ, may follow Him through our everyday life as on the ‘better and changeless Path’ that ascends to our Father in Heaven. Amen! Glory to Jesus Christ! Most Holy Theotokos, save us!