“You First!”: The Sunday of the Ecumenical Council(s)

Titus 3:8-15; Romans 12:6-14; Numbers 12:3; Isaiah 66:2; Proverbs 25:27

“You first!” “No, you first!” “No, I insist, you first” “No, indeed, you!”  A crash ensues, as each obeys the other.

We’ve seen this scenario in jokes, books, and comedies. And, like most humor, it has a foundation in reality.  Both can’t go first.  Similarly, those of us who are of a critical mindset might be distracted by our pre-communion prayer, recited in unison: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first [or chief].”  How is that possible, when all of us are confessing it?

Of course, we know that this prayer borrows its language from 1 Tim. 1:15, where the apostle exults in the mercy of God, and types himself as the chief of sinners. Elsewhere he explains his self-estimation, saying that he is unworthy to be called an apostle, since he persecuted the Church (I Cor. 15:9).  It misses the point, however, when I comment to myself, “well, I have never done that!” and then go on to search out other reasons why I might be the worst, the least honorable, the most wretched.  That is an exercise doomed to failure, since I am proceeding on the basis of comparison with others, and not with Christ.

For those of us (like me) who are predisposed to be cantankerous, the Scriptures give us another way to approach this problem.  Rather than dwelling upon our status as the chief of sinners, we are told, in the passage read by many Orthodox for this Sunday (Romans 12:6-14) to “outdo each other” or to “take the lead” in giving honor to the other! To my mind, this practical action (though hard to accomplish for us sinners) is a positive way of inhabiting the stance of humility.  I may not be able to conjure up in my imagination a moral status of being “the worst,” because I am predisposed to self-love, and because I cannot see things as they really are, with the eyes of the all-holy and righteous God—except, perhaps, in glimpses.  Moreover, were I to see myself as I really am, that would be truly alarming: for the wisdom of our faith tells us that we are not yet whole persons, but fragmentary, and still diseased in numerous ways.  That ugliness may be too much for you and me to bear!  I remember, indeed, before I became Orthodox, but when I was seeking the guidance of the one who became my spiritual father, telling him in tears that I could not be quiet in prayer, because in quiet I would be assaulted with the sensation of a looming abyss, a terrible emptiness.  How could God meet with me when there was no one there to meet with Him?  Certainly the despair that followed upon this glimpse of my bankruptcy was a temptation from the enemy, to dissuade me from the practice of quietude (which still mostly eludes me).

However, the glimpse was not completely untruthful, for much of who we are still is under construction, and even some of what little is there needs to be demolished before construction can begin.  This is even true of us as a body, as we see in the passage read by other Orthodox for this Sunday, Titus 3:8-15.  Those who sow dissention and heresy must certainly be corrected, and all of us need to learn to “apply ourselves to good actions” rather than to destructive dissent or quarreling.

One of those good actions is to see the good, the promise of fruit, in each other.  It may seem either unreal or terrifying to acknowledge myself as the chief of sinners.  But in you, I can see God at work, when perhaps you can’t because you are too close to the situation.  Giving honor becomes the positive, the flip side, of self-abasement.  And there is so much to honor in the work of the Holy Spirit among us, as well as so much courage and steadfastness to honor in the cooperation of each of God’s people with Him.  Rather than concentrate upon my weakness and ugliness, then, I can see the riches and the promise in each of my brothers and sisters.

C. S. Lewis wisely recommends “We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves. Even at our sins we should look no longer than necessary to know and to repent of them” (The Four Loves, ch. 4). But to see the good in others—that is a different thing entirely!  Just as God made room for us in Christ, so we have the delight of making room for each other!  Indeed, it may well be that honoring each other serves as one of the best human echoes of the Holy Triune God Himself, whose Persons delight to make room for each other, and glorify each other, in unending, ineffable, and absolutely holy perichōresis.

To honor one another is not to engage in false make-believe, but to believe and to hope all things for that beloved one of God whom we also love—or are learning to love. We are assured that God has promised “more than we can even ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20) when we are fully made. And we see the astonishing glimmerings of this in each other even now —in the character, actions, gifts, and incipient Christ-like-ness of each child of God.

What could be more natural than to take joy in such things?  Besotted parents call attention to every positive detail of their child’s progress.  Grateful children rise up and call their mother and father blessed, as we hear in the last chapter of Proverbs and in the command to honor parents in Deuteronomy and Exodus.  A friend delights in another’s accomplishment—a new book, a new business, a new hobby. Lovers contemplate deeply each detail of the beloved, to such a point that they bore others. Sports-fans even come to blows about whose hero should be most honored for talent, speed, and agility. Only a self-absorbed cad finds it impossible to honor excellence in music, art, or theater. We do know naturally about enjoying the strengths of others.  That remains true even though we are often infected with the base perversion of the Enemy, who destroyed Adam and Eve in paradise because he envied them their special position with the Creator, as they walked with God, and because he envied the ultimate sovereignty of God, wanting it for himself (Wisdom 2:24).  But we are instructed otherwise: “where there is any virtue, or any praise, think on these things” (Phil 4:8).

And so we turn to our two epistle readings for this Sunday, celebrating the holy fathers of either the fourth Ecumenical Council, or the first six Councils, depending upon our jurisdiction.  One reading reminds us to follow in the train of these holy men who safeguarded the faith for us, and to live our daily lives in that light:

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….  And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful (Titus 3:8-15).

Here we are directed to maintain from the apostles and subsequent teachers those things upon which we must insist; here we receive a warning to avoid proud and useless conflict (vaunting our own opinion over others); and here we receive exhortation to apply ourselves instead to good deeds, following the pattern of Jesus, “who went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). The most obvious of these good deeds is to honor others above ourselves, as also Jesus did, when he delighted in faith and love wherever he saw it, and especially when he gave himself wholly for others.

Romans 12:6-14 gives us more detail concerning daily life in the church, offering short bullet points that all cluster around the idea of generous love and honor of others:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

In some ways these teachings are not new.  The Old Testament is replete with examples of humility, and injunctions to honor others. In the narrative of Moses, for example, we see deep humility, and this characteristic is called out for us in Numbers 12:3, where the narrator tells us, at a point when Moses’ leadership is being questioned: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”  God himself ratifies this humble man, who would not claim his own authority at this point, and God tells the people that he talks “mouth-to-mouth” with Moses.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!

The importance of humility is found everywhere throughout the Old Testament, from David and others who were of humble origin, to the proverb that Jesus repeated which tells us it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower” (Prov 25:27), to the injunction of God himself, “This is the one to whom I look:  the one who is humble and contrite in spirit” (Is 66:2).  But what is found in narrative and in occasional precept in the OT has become a foundational characteristic of the Christian Way in the New Testament.

Our father St. John Chrysostom explains it this way: “You should love one another because you are brothers and have been born from the same spiritual womb. . . . There is nothing which makes friends so much as the earnest endeavor to overcome one’s neighbor by honoring him” (Homily 21 on Romans).  Indeed, St. John suggests that we can even draw hostile folks into the fellowship by extending brotherly love to them.  Here it would seem he is remembering the injunction in 1 Peter 2:17 to “honor everyone!”  Perhaps we might complain, “but that person is not honorable.”  Perhaps not in every respect, but at least they are made in the image of God, and so we can honor that.  That person, like us, is one to whom the command has been given, “Become like God.” And God Incarnate honored that one with His death!

If we are told to honor outsiders, how much more should we exult in our brothers and sisters in Christ! I suspect that if each of us takes to heart the injunction “lead the way in giving honor one to another” what seems only a potential would become an astonishing reality.  Delighting in their light, I would reflect back to that brother and sister what is honorable in them, spurring them on to new heights.  They would do the same for me.  There is such a thing as spiritual positive reinforcement:  I know it because I have received it from those who are much further along in the Way than I am, and who have encouraged me to come with them.  He does not quench a smoking flax, but blows it into a flame. “Be aglow with the Spirit” becomes a reality as we give room to each other.  And those outside will see, as well, how we love one another.  We hear a lot about people like Peter, Paul, and James in the NT. They had the gift of apostleship, and of prophecy.  They saw visions, wrote parts of the Scriptures, led the Church.  But there were others, too.  Women like Priscilla who helped Apollos, alongside her husband, to see the truth more clearly.  Men like Barnabas, whose name actually means “son of encouragement,” who stood alongside Paul when other Christians were distrustful that the persecutor had really become a Christian.  To see and celebrate the gifts of another, and to foster these by honoring that one, is an action to which all of us are called—and maybe a strength that some of us have more than others.  Let us learn from our epistle readings this week to say to each other, “You first.”  We do that by generously giving honor to each other, so fulfilling the law of love, and so echoing the One who became least that He might lift us up to the heights together with each other and with Him.

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