This sermon was delivered at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church on the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, May 20, 2018.
I think it’s safe to day that the main reason most of us are here today is for life. We hope for eternal life in God’s Kingdom. But we also hope for a better life in this world — fuller, with less stress and more meaning. As we read the Gospels we discover that the kind of life we are looking for is directly related to truth. But we live in a world where truth gets harder and harder to recognize.
Recently Google previewed a new technology called Google Duplex. Duplex is a personal assistant, along the lines of Google Now, or Siri, or Alexa, but with much more to offer. It can make phone calls for you, to book appointments and similar tasks.
During the presentation Google’s CEO showed examples of Duplex making calls to book a hair appointment at a salon, and reservations at a restaurant. If you weren’t aware that it was a robot making those calls, you’d probably not be able to tell that it was a real person talking. Some people are very excited by this new technology. Others are appalled, as the line between real and virtual gets more and more blurry.
We also see that blurring of the line in the world of ideas. It has been said that if you repeat something enough times — even a bold faced lie — people will begin to accept it as truth, simply because they’ve heard it so many times. That’s the power of a popular narrative, and popular narratives have become so much more ubiquitous thanks to the internet.
A good example of one of these popular narratives relates to the saints we are celebrating today, the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. These Holy Fathers gathered in the city of Nicea in 325, and they gave us the first part of the Creed, everything concerning God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The popular narrative of this event is that the Roman Emperor Constantine, in an effort to consolidate power for himself, called his bishops together in council to come up with a statement of belief that he would impose upon the people.
I remember once watching a TV documentary that reenacted this event. Constantine sat on his throne with a stern look on his face, and he was flanked by two burly guard with spears. In front of him, a scribe stood reading from a parchment, presumably the Nicene Creed.
He scene looked very imposing: “This is what you believe!” It certainly made for great television. It also feeds into another popular narrative of our culture, which is that you can’t trust institutions, especially old ones. But the fact of the matter is that the Creed was not created that way.
There are numerous Christian documents that predate the Nicene Creed, including the New Testament itself, that were clearly inspiration for the Fathers of Nicea as they drafted a statement of faith. In some cases, the Creed quotes these earlier texts word-for-word. The Creed emerged from the inner life of the Church, it was not imposed from the top down. But that’s not what the popular cultural narrative says.
We encounter so many ideas, so many narratives. We are bombarded by information, and it’s hard for us to tell what’s real and what’s fake. In the face of these myriad ideas, it’s even hard for people to believe that there could actually be one overarching principle, one absolute truth that has been articulated, defended and passed along from generation to generation. Instead, it’s become easier for us to speak about personal truth. The only thing that matters is “your truth,” and as long as “your truth” doesn’t hurt anyone else, you’re fine.
The thing is, very often, if I dig down a bit, I’ll find that my “truth” is actually my opinion. Many times my opinion is based, not on knowledge, but on what I feel. So, truth gets equated with emotional reactions — things that make me feel good, those must be truth; things that make me feel bad, those are clearly false.
If we’re being honest, we have to say that reaching a conclusion about the veractiy of something based on personal opinions or emotions in no way guarantees that my conclusions are correct. More than that, what guarantees do I have that “my truth” doesn’t hurt someone in ways that I’m unaware of?
There must be more to the world of meaning than personal opinions or emotions. Emotions are fleeting. Opinions change. Even cultural narratives shift over time. We can’t anchor our hearts in something that is adrift.
The Gospel teaches us that there is an objective, stable pillar and ground for our lives. There is an objective measure of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong. Put more accurately, instead of saying “right” and “wrong,” we can frame it this way: In the world we will encounter things that give us life, and we will encounter things that sap the life our of us.
Jesus teach us that truth has a direct connection to life, and growth, and salvation:
“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.'” (John 14:6)
“This is eternal life: that they may know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.” (John 17:3)
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
For Christians, the truth is not a concept, the Truth is a person — Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. And in the letter to the Hebrews, we are reminded that “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” Jesus is our absolute, objective and unchanging truth. He is the anchor of our faith, our hope, and our very life itself.
Life is found in embracing the truth, who is a person, Jesus Christ. Life is also found in embracing the community that Christ has given us — the Church.
Another problem with the idea of “your person truth” is that it feeds into the radical individualism so popular in our culture. We are not made to be “individuals.” Genesis 2:18 reminds us that we are not made to be alone. We are made to live in relationships. Scientific research keeps showing us how people, from infants to the elderly, thrive when they are in meaningful relationships with other people.
So, the life that Jesus offers us is found in a community that embraces, articulates and lives by a common truth. Across ethnicity, race, gender and generations, we are all bound together by that one Truth that is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” We are knitted together as the Body of Christ.
This is why the original text of the Creed didn’t say, “I beleive,” but, “We believe.” “I believe” was the baptismal formula that catechumens would say when they were being received into the Church–it was a personal statement of faith. But when the faithful gathered for worship, they would say, “We believe…”
Truth and community, or better still, truth in community gives us life. The truth can be hard for us to bear sometimes, but we embrace it anyway. Just like living in community with others can be hard sometimes, but we love them anyway.
Lies and isolation suffocate life. Truth and community challenge our egos and break down the echo chambers of our opinions and emotions. They compel us to look at one another, to live for one another. As we encounter one another, in truth, we encounter Christ himself. And in Christ, we have our salvation.
An audio version of this sermon can be found on the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church website.