BRETHREN, I would have you know that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.
Brethren, I would have you know that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
It is with these words that Paul begins to tell his story to the Gentiles in his letter that he has written to them. The entire message of this letter that Paul has written is to inform them of the false Gospel, and those who would proclaim it, that is around. Paul clearly states what the Orthodox Church teaches, the words that I speak, the theology that I teach, are not my personal ideas these are the ideas of the Church.
These past few weeks, in our weekly study on Monday night’s, we have been spending time studying the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Church. These councils were held many years ago called specifically to reject certain heresies that had sprouted up in the Church. There were those who denied the Divinity of Christ, those who thought the Holy Theotokos was just another woman, and those who thought the Holy Icons were idols. All of these doctrines were discussed and agreed upon at these councils. The very Creed that we will recite at this Liturgy today is a product of those councils and we Orthodox pride ourselves when we say that our theology has not changed since those days. We can say that because we do not have the authority to change what the Church teaches.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is taught by His true apostles, many will and have declared that they are his apostles from the time of Saint Paul right down to today so how are we to know who is the right and who is the false apostle of Jesus Christ?
According to Saint Paul, true Apostles are called by God. They learn the Gospel by revelation, either directly from the Risen Son of God as did the first Apostles and Saint Paul or they learn it by the Apostolic Tradition as found in the Church. God speaks to us through the Church, her history, her liturgy, her traditions, this is how we come to know and understand the great mystery of the Church. When we study Scripture or the doctrines of the Church we look back, back through the lens of Holy Tradition, to see what the Church has said and continues to speak about this. The Church needs to stay current, but we keep current by looking at the past. We need to know where we have come from in order to know where we are going.
When I or any Orthodox priest or bishop, stands here and preaches the Gospel, these are not our own ideas that we have come up with. Sure the way we present the message and the style might be ours, but the message is the same message that has been preached since the days of the Apostles, since the days of the writing of the creed by the Fathers of the councils, this has been our message. Our message does not change with every opinion poll, we do not decide that what the church has celebrated or condemned for thousands of years is now okay because the majority of people say it is, no, we hold fast to what the Church has always taught that is what it means to be Orthodox.
St. Paul continues and says that true apostles are called by grace, not according to any works or the “proper” background, a true apostle brings glory to God and not himself. St. Paul was the great persecutor of the Church. Early on the Book of Acts we read that he was present at the Stoning of the Great Protomartyr Stephen. He was relentless in his persecution of the Church. He tell the Galatians in the passage today that when it pleased God, he was called by grace to preach the Gospel.
For many years in my own life, I dodged the call. I guess I can say that I had my first conscious thought of becoming a priest when I was in the third grade. I was an altar boy and very involved in my church, so it was natural, they say, for a young boy to think this way. The call stayed with me all those years until I finally gave in and went to seminary and was ordained. As St. Paul tells us we are called before we are even born, and in God’s time, He will make you ready. None of us a worthy to stand here and do what we do, but we are made worthy by God’s grace. There is nothing I can do to earn this, I am a sinner like everyone else, but through the grace of God, it is made possible.
St. Paul continues that true Apostles form one Church and govern it with one mind and heart, they hold the same doctrine and work by consensus working in council. This we see time and time again in the Church. Again, in the Book of Acts we read of the first Council that was held in Jerusalem, at the behest of St. Paul, to answer a question about how the Gentiles were to be treated. We have many councils throughout the history of the Church called to answer questions and provide guidance. The Bishops and others come together to discuss and come to consensus about issues. This is done, we hope, in a spirit of charity and love, and we believe that it is accomplished by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. One needs to remember that these are not the doctrines of man, but the teaching of the Church handed down to the Apostles and fathers and mothers of the Church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Again, we do not make it up as we go along, God forbid, but we hope and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us. This is why we pray O Heavenly King, O comforter, O Spirit of Truth, before any meeting that we have in the Church. We are asking that the Holy Spirit come and abide in us and guide us as we discuss Church matters.
True apostles, St. Paul says, stand firm in matters of conscience and are correctable when mistaken. We are to hold fast in what we believe; we are to be the rock the firm foundation of what the Church has taught since the beginning of the Church. Many of the “so called” Christian Churches today have very little in common with the beliefs of the Apostles, and this is what St. Paul is warning us about today. There are many false prophets out there preaching man’s Gospel and not God’s Gospel that we need to be ever vigilant.
True apostles submit to the authority of the Church and do not go off on their own doing their own thing. When Jesus encounters the Roman Soldier who asks him to heal his daughter, the soldier tells Jesus that we are all under authority, and that is true in the Church as well, the Church is under the authority of the Church, not the local church as we see it manifested here, but the universal Church. We belong to something much larger than us, and when we speak we speak for the Church. We need to stand unified as the Church as that beacon of hope in a world gone wild.
Our Church is grounded in the Apostolic Tradition; it has come down to us directly from Jesus Christ through His Apostles. By tradition, I am speaking of theology and practice, not an ethnic identity but an identity as Orthodox. We are inheritors of that tradition as we sit here today, and we need to defend that tradition against those who want to destroy it.
Each week, here at the Divine Liturgy, we recite the Creed. We begin with the words, “I believe” this is a personal statement of belief and we have to mean it. Many have died to protect the words that follow, and we have to be willing to do the same.
In a few moments, we will read those words again. As we recite them together think about the words, about what it is that we say we believe in, commit today to truly believe those words and taken them in your heart.