The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned. When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apol′los on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful. All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.
Titus 3:8-15(Epistle of the Sunday of the Holy Fathers)
The Sunday that falls between October 11 and October 17 each year commemorates the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which was held in Nicea in the year 787. The main issue that the Council dealt with was the use of icons in the churches. There had been controversy over whether icons were graven images from about the year 726 up until the 7th Ecumenical Council. The icons were finally restored to the churches in 843. We commemorate their restoration to the churches on the First Sunday of Great Lent, which has been called the “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” a day on which we make elaborate processions with icons.
The Epistle lesson of today, the 7th Ecumenical Council, was also the same as the Sunday in July when we commemorated the 4th Ecumenical Council. (The Gospel lesson is different, however.) In this selection from St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus, St. Paul exhorts us to “avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” (Titus 3:9) I can’t remember a year in my life that has been more controversial than this one. Most everyone, it seems, has a strong opinion about everything related to the coronavirus, social justice and the presidential election. And these opinions are costing us friendships. I know several people who have lost friends this year because of differing opinions. This embodies St. Paul’s warning about avoiding controversies and dissensions because they are unprofitable and futile. I can’t imagine losing a long-term friend over a political disagreement.
Controversy has found its way into the church on several fronts. There are people who think we haven’t put in enough safety precautions and there are people who think we’ve gone too far with them. There are people who are leaving the church over masks. There are people who no longer believe Holy Communion is safe. Others wonder when will we be able to venerate an icon. And some, including me, really worry what the church will look like on the other side of the pandemic. Will it ever return to normal?
This is why the Epistle and the Gospel lesson of this week (we’ll discuss the Gospel tomorrow) fall at a perfect time. Because they call our attention to the basic foundation of our faith, Jesus Christ. Hindsight is always 20/20. There are certain things I wish we had done differently, or been allowed to do differently. However, things happened as they happened. There is no manual for how to run a church in the midst of a global health crisis.
Every time controversy swells this year, I try to remember three very important things. First, nothing can take away our faith. I’ve had my faith in some people shaken this year, and even at times, my faith in the church as an institution has been shaken. But my faith in God has never wavered. Second, my purpose in life has not changed. How I’m living out that purpose may have changed a little bit, but my overall purpose has not changed. Because my purpose is to love God and to love my neighbor. My neighbor may change, or how I love my neighbor may change, but the charge to love my neighbor will never change. I see my neighbor more on zoom than in person this year, but that doesn’t mean I love my neighbor less. Third, the most important thing we do in our church is receiving the Holy Eucharist. Even in the times when only a handful of people were allowed to attend the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist was always available. And even now, for those who are still uncomfortable attending the Divine Liturgy, you can come privately to receive (for this time period) or Holy Communion can be brought to you. The centrality of the Eucharist to the Orthodox practice of Christianity has not changed.
I choose to not be vocal about politics, not because I don’t have an opinion but because any opinion on politics is divisive, as St. Paul says, it is “unprofitable and futile.” (Titus 3:9) The reality in our world is that many of us are filled with anxiety and fear, which clouds reason and clear thinking. Rather than creating controversy, it is better to lead with love and encouragement, two things that are needed more than ever. In the words of Saint Paul, let’s avoid what is unprofitable and futile and look for those that are in need, seeing “that they lack nothing.” (3:13) He continues, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need and not to be unfruitful.” (3:14) These are the things that are most needed in our world right now.
Supremely blessed are You, O Christ our God. You established the holy Fathers upon the earth as beacons, and through them You have guided us all to the true Faith, O greatly merciful One, glory be to You. (Apolytikion of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Plagal 4th Tone, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Avoid controversy, stick with good deeds, helping others and serving God!