Sunday of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, October 14, 2018
Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
One of the accusations that certain non-Orthodox Christians level against the Orthodox is that we worship idols. They say that when we bow before an icon or kiss it or cense it or light candles before it, we are worshiping that icon and giving to it what is due to God alone.
Idolatry is one of the most ancient of sins, giving worship to the creation rather than to the Creator. It is condemned in the Holy Scriptures many times, being the most visceral kind of apostasy, a betrayal and abandonment of the one, true God, giving devotion instead to something else. If it is true that the Orthodox are idolaters, then that means that we are not even Christians. You cannot worship both God and something else. You have to choose.
On the Sunday of October that falls either on the 11th or immediately after, we make commemoration of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in the year 787 in the city of Nicea to answer exactly this accusation of idolatry. I won’t give you the full details of the arguments made, but I will summarize:
The accusers, who were called iconoclasts (a word that means “icon-smashers”), made the argument that, because God is invisible, you cannot depict Him except symbolically. So to point to an icon and say, “This is a picture of God,” and especially then to venerate it, is idolatry.
The Fathers of the Council, that is, the Orthodox, instead declared that, because God had become incarnate, that is, because the Son of God became man, He is now visible in Jesus Christ. And because He is visible, then that means that we not only may depict Him, but we must depict Him. Not to depict Him is to deny the Incarnation. Not to depict His saints is to deny that Christ is in them, as well.
And thus, all veneration given to an icon of Christ or to the saints is actually given to the one depicted and not to the material object itself. When you kiss the hand on an icon of Christ, you are kissing Christ.
The Incarnation is a central doctrine for Christians. We must believe in it if we are Christians. We cannot deny that God became man and be Christians.
And we cannot deny the place that material, physical reality has for us and be Christians. What we do with our bodies and with the material world is directly dependent on what we believe about Who Jesus Christ is.
Because the one, true God took on matter for Himself by giving Himself a human body, then that means that all creation becomes the vehicle for the divine presence. And it means that especially where we see that divinity manifest, we give honor. We worship God alone, but we honor and venerate those people and things in which He has shown His presence.
So this has many practical applications for us. We spoke already about icons. Iconography is central to who we are as Orthodox Christians, because it witnesses to the Incarnation and helps to connect us to it. But this truth about God’s presence in materiality is not only about icons.
We can also see how He is present in the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist, which is His body and blood. But this truth about God’s presence in materiality is not only about what we call the sacraments.
One of our problems as Christians living in the twenty-first century is that we have tried to push God into one place or another and leave Him there. We can visit Him, but that is where He remains. For those who do not make and venerate icons, their God basically has no presence in the material world. He may be “felt” or perceived in some sense, but He is not here or there in particular. He may be “everywhere,” but He is not present in this icon or in this saint.
But we as Orthodox Christians are guilty of this, too, though not in the same way. We are happy to welcome God into our temples, onto our altars, into our icons, etc., but when it comes to other elements of materiality, we expect Him not to be present. Instead, we exile Him.
I could mention a number of ways in which we are exiling God, such as when we do not fast, exiling Him from our bodies, or when we do not make our homes sanctified with prayer, exiling Him from our families. But I will mention now probably the worst problem that we have in this regard: When we do not generously return to Him what is already His own, we exile Him from our finances.
Money can be an uncomfortable topic, but that is why we need to discuss it. For many, it is a festering wound that we want to put a band-aid on but not cure. So it’s uncomfortable. But let’s heal it.
Given what we have said about God’s presence in all of material reality, especially in certain people and places, we must also acknowledge that He is present in our possessions, and that includes our most tightly-held possession, our money.
And this presence is especially strong in those things that belong to the people of God. Why? It is because our very presence as baptized and anointed members of the royal priesthood brings the blessing and presence of God wherever we are. Your possessions become holy because you are the one possessing them. Because you belong to God and bring with you the presence of God, then He is more present in the things that you own. The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof (Psalm 24:1), but He is especially manifest in us, His Church.
So it is clear that God is present in our possessions. God is present in our money.
So, knowing that God is present in what we have and knowing also that our task is to offer up the material world to God to ask for His blessing, then that means that we have to get serious about offering our money.
Let’s be frank: Although it is certainly the case that there are those among us who are indeed serious about offering up their money to God, most of us aren’t. No one will judge you but God, but you can also judge yourself: Are you actually serious about offering to God what is His? Is what you’re giving a true sacrifice?
Or are you giving merely a “donation”? Are you paying “dues”? Do you think of what you give to God as somehow contributing toward being eligible for a “membership”?
Consider your income. Consider what you offer back to God. You yourself know whether what you are sacrificing is appropriate to being a member of the royal priesthood.
God is present in the material world, and He is present in us, the royal priesthood. And He is present in what we touch and what we possess and maintain, because we bring His presence with us.
As Orthodox Christians, we do not believe in a theology in which God is separate from the material world and which therefore suggests that our possessions really are ours to do with what we please. What is in your home is sacred. What you wear on your body is sacred. What is in your checking account is sacred. It is sacred because we have been declared by Him to be sacred, and this sacredness is transmitted wherever we go because of our common priesthood.
It is for this reason that in the Holy Scriptures, God called upon His chosen people to tithe—to give 10% of their income to Him. This was the called-upon sacrifice that was proper to the royal priesthood of God. This was the appropriate way for them to show that they understood the sacred presence of God in their possessions by offering them back to Him for His blessing.
I know that some people deny that tithing is appropriate for Christians. But we have to ask why. Do they deny it because they have a true theological argument for it? Do they deny it because they found a place in the New Testament in which the Lord or the Apostles set that aside? I would welcome hearing such arguments.
Alas, I suspect that those who deny this do so because they simply do not believe deep within their souls that God is present in this material world. So that means that the material things they own are really theirs and not God’s. I will not say that it is merely because they are greedy or envious—only God knows that.
It is true that the Holy Fathers of the Church actually did change the teaching on tithing that was received from the Old Covenant. That should not surprise us, as there are many things which were changed in the transition to the New Covenant.
Here is what St. Irenaeus says in the second century: “…[the Jews] had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty [that is, Christians] set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes” (Against Heresies, XVIII, 2).
And here is St. John Chrysostom, speaking about someone who complained about tithing: “What a load of disgrace does this expression imply, since what was not a matter of wonder with the Jews has come to be so in the case of the Christians? If there was danger then in omitting tithes, think how great it must be now” (Homily IV on Ephesians).
And other Fathers essentially say that giving 10% was for the Old Covenant, but because the New Covenant is superior, we give even more.
Let’s be clear: It’s not about a percentage. It’s about a mentality. If your mentality acts as though God’s presence in the material world is either false or doesn’t matter, then your offering will reflect that. But if your mentality is in alignment with Orthodox Christian theology of the Incarnation, then your offerings will reflect that.
It is true that not all of us can afford to offer 10%. Some of us live on the financial edge. I get that. I’ve been there.
But most of us can afford it. And it’s not really about what we can “afford” but rather about what we will offer to God, knowing that He is present within it and within us. 10% is not a law any more, it is true. But that does not mean that we do less. Indeed, as much as we are able, we do more.
So I challenge you. I challenge you to believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God Jesus Christ. I challenge you to believe that His Incarnation affects all the material world. I challenge you to put that belief into practice by keeping and venerating icons. I challenge you to put it into practice by receiving the holy mysteries, especially the Eucharist.
And I challenge you to put it into practice by offering to God what is already His, in which He is already present, in a manner that is truly worthy of us, His creation-blessing royal priesthood. I challenge you to tithe. Will you join me and my family? Let us make this holy offering together.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, Who creates all things and is present in all things, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.