INTRODUCTION #1: ROGATION SUNDAY
Rogation Sunday is today’s nickname due to the Rogation Days that follow: tomorrow through Wednesday. These are days in the Church calendar for especial prayer for the agricultural year now underway, prayer against the many calamities that can befall a man, a parish, or an entire country. We prayed the Great Litany this morning, which is customary to be prayed on every such day of fasting and entreaty like the Rogation Days ahead.
My intention had been to preach a sermon concerning the lessons of generosity and attendance to one’s community that the Rogation Days teach, and model for us, but another matter caught my attention instead, and we did have a call to generosity, at least, just two weeks ago. So instead it will be Wednesday’s devotional that will explore the Rogation Day themes. Stay tuned for that.
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INTRODUCTION #2: THE TRUTH
Instead, the subject matter that invaded my heart in mind this past week is the question of truth. At the trial of our Lord, Pontius Pilate famously asked, or perhaps scoffed, “What is truth?” The previous evening, Jesus had already told his disciples that he is the Truth. This is something that did explore somewhat last week, but now I would like to narrow in on the subject more pointedly: what is the truth?
We are a people who are called to be committed to truth, committed to the truth – what is more worthy of the name of Truth than God himself?
- There are so many issues of “truth” that get thrown around in the world today: Do vaccines work? Is socialism evil? Is capitalism evil? Does mass media misrepresent the news? Who can we trust to tell us the truth?
- There are so many issues of “truth” that gets thrown around today in the church: Is evolution real? Is the Old Testament historically accurate? Do the New Testament Epistles accurately depict the teachings of Jesus?
- But at the foundation of all things, is the ultimate question of Truth himself: who is God? Knowing the truth is knowing God. The book that is perhaps J. I. Packer’s masterpiece is on this very concept: Knowing God.
- The greatest saints of the early church, too, were concerned with the right knowledge of God, and the Church has stood on their theological work ever since.
INTRODUCTION #3: SAINT GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS
One such Saint is Gregory of Nazianzus; one-time Archbishop of Constantinople but his epithet honors his final See in the diocese of Nazianzus. He was one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. He’s on the short list of both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Saints when it comes to the significance of his teaching, and he is revered in every Christian denomination that keeps a calendar of commemorations. He lived through the 300’s AD and his great works were on the doctrine of the Trinity.
He emphasized that Jesus did not cease to be God when he became a man, nor did Jesus lose any of his divine attributes when he took on human nature. Becoming human did make Jesus less than he was before. Furthermore, Gregory asserted that Christ was also indeed fully human, including a human soul. Thirdly, he also proclaimed the eternality of the Holy Spirit, saying that the Holy Spirit’s actions were somewhat hidden in the Old Testament but much clearer since the ascension of Jesus into Heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost.
He went on to be a major voice at the second ecumenical council (Constantinople, 381) which revised the Nicene Creed to the form we have and use today, and eased into retirement thereafter.
THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
In the generation before him, the Church had champions like Saint Athanasius, standing against what seemed like the entire Christian world falling to the heresy of Arianism, which twisted the Scriptures to proclaim that God the Son is inferior to the Father, for there was a time in eternity past when the Son did not exist, but only the Father. Jesus, therefore, was not fully God, and it took decades of Athanasius’ resilient teaching to hold even the smallest line against the devil’s lies. Saint Gregory grew up in this battleground, and he became one of a trio of famous teachers – the Cappadocian Fathers – named after the region in which they all lived and ministered. Together they brought clarity to the Church’s language about the divinity of Christ and went on to proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity afresh. Regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit, for example, here is a loose quote from St. Gregory in English, “Look at these facts: Christ is born, the Holy Spirit is His Forerunner. Christ is baptized, the Spirit bears witness to this … Christ works miracles, the Spirit accompanies them. Christ ascends, the Spirit takes His place. What great things are there in the idea of God which are not in His power?”
He, with others in his generation, put forth the Trinitarian formula that has remained a pillar of trinitarian orthodoxy to this day: “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)”. These terms and concepts came from existing philosophical language: any three human beings are each individual persons, yet all share a common universal: their humanity. The formulation explicitly acknowledged a distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but at the same time insisting on their essential unity.
This was not the Church’s last word on the matter, though, as more heresies about the Trinity and the person and natures of Christ continued to pop up for another two centuries, necessitating more ecumenical councils to address them.
But the primary language we have employed to describe God – the Trinity in Unity – came from teachers like St. Gregory. For so great and significant a doctrine as this, no true Christian theologian has dared to replace these terms: one being or substance, and three persons or subsistences.
THE CENTRAL TRUTH OF ALL
Is this hair-splitting? No!
The highest truth is not politics, nor economics nor sociology, nor even ordinary matters of Christian doctrine. No, the highest truth is God himself. The greatest pursuit of knowledge and truth centers on discovering precisely what and who God is.
- Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of the incarnation will be skewed.
- Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of the Cross will be skewed.
- Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your understanding of our salvation will be skewed.
- Get the doctrine of the Trinity wrong, and your knowledge of all God’s creation will be skewed.
If you would be a contender for truth, immerse yourself in the doctrine of God himself. There are many good and honorable causes out there, but the highest of truths is the One who is himself the Truth: the Lord God Almighty.
If you would call yourself a Christian, get to know who and what Christ is – not just the son of Mary from two thousand years ago, but the eternal Son of the Father, begotten before all worlds, of one substance, will, and being with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Pay heed to what the Scriptures say, for they are God’s self-revelation to us precisely so that we might know him and love him and honor him. At its best, our liturgy highlights and summarizes what the Scriptures have taught us these past few thousand years, helping us to see in brief what the Bible details at length. These are not just fancy words for people in fancy vestments; these are words of truth to bring the fullness of the Truth – God himself – into the hearts and minds of everyone who hears them.
Is someone that you know deceived? Is he or she deceived about human sexuality, or human politics, or human economics? Is he or she deceived in philosophy or doctrine? The greatest deception of all is idolatry, believing a vision of God other than the one he has provided for us in his written Word. If you weep for the one who has chosen the wrong political party or chases after a life of sin, but give no thought to their ignorance of God, then it is you who must first repent. One God in three Persons; the perfect and eternal unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the fullness of divinity expressed in three coexistent subsistences – this is the root of all truth where all sacred knowledge begins. People don’t go to hell because they’re republicans or democrats, fornicators or misers, Pentecostals or papists; people go to hell because they don’t believe in God the Father Almighty, His only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.
All too often it is we who distract ourselves with matters that are important but secondary. What is your commitment to the Truth that is God? What is your commitment to knowing God? Remember how the Ten Commandments start: “I AM the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt” – it begins with theology, not ethics. We cannot stand with integrity on the teachings of God if we do not first hold fast the truth of God himself.
This is what makes Saints like Gregory of Nazianzus so great – not because he was smart, or clever with words, or very skilled with fine-tooth combs, but because he was passionate about The Truth. If there is only one thing I ever teach here, let it be this: believe in God.
- Believe in God the Father.
- Believe in God the Son.
- Believe in God the Holy Spirit.
- Believe in the Trinity, three Persons and one God.
- Believe in him with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
If anything else surpasses your faith in God, you have gone astray. In an act of repentance, therefore, let us stand and recite the great summary of the truth which St. Gregory of Nazianzus helped revise: the Nicene Creed.