Nine years short of 1700 years ago, bishops representing the whole Christian Church in the Christian Roman Empire gathered to agree the wording by which we still declare our faith, in the Creed proclaimed at the Mass and the Divine Liturgy throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church. This is the faith that Christ is of one substance with the Father - they share the same nature equally; just as any earthly father and son do, so do the Heavenly Father and Son.
It was the first time the bishops had needed to be called together, because an unprecedented controversy between good people threatened to tear the Church apart and even finally undermine it. For the consequences were all or nothing. Could a human be divine in the same way as the Father? Could someone who had been born in time, also be the Son from all eternity, before all ages? A priest called Arius had concluded that Jesus was the first of all God’s creatures ever to be produced, and He was divine only in the sense that His divinity had been given Him by the Father. It was not His own divinity, but someone else’s, lent to Him. Thus the Son may live eternally with the Father and the Spirit now, but He had a beginning, and there was a time when He did not exist. In Arius’ thinking, even though Jesus had a divine nature, he came after His Father. But others argued back – if He was inferior to the Father, how could Jesus be the one who reconciles us with God?
Various theories were proposed, to make sense of the belief that everyone shared, that Christ is both divine and human. From direct memory, He was a real human being who was born, and lived and died, and then rose again, ascended into heaven and sent among us His Holy Spirit. But how could a human being also be God? Is not God a spirit? Is the Father the spirit who inspired a human being, and filled him with His own divine life, making Jesus His Son, so that His sacrifice on the Cross is acceptable and wins our forgiveness and salvation, so that we, just like Him, can be adopted by the Father, and receive a share in God’s nature as His children? The explanations for how this could all add up were many and inventive. Thus, Jesus had a nature that was like the Father’s. But does that mean he was unlike us? Or, He was a human that became divine too, by adoption. But does that mean He was in the end unlike God? Or, He has a human and a divine nature – they are united with the Father by a single will, or energy, or character. But does that mean he was half-God and half-human, unlike any other human being, or unlike God at all? There had even been those who said that the Father and the Son were one and the same Person, but in different forms for different times and reasons. Like a telescope sliding in and out, first there might be the Father, in the Old Testament; then the Father is followed by the Son in the Gospels, and afterwards comes the Holy Spirit.
None of these explanations is adequate. They only go part of the way to explain what we recognise in our life in Christ within the communion of the Holy Spirit in His Church. Or else they lead to distortion, leaving us without Three Persons in the Trinity, or offering us a Christ who is either a human like no other, or a heavenly being who only appears to be human but who isn’t God either.
So we keep coming back to the explanation that was settled upon by the Fathers at Nicaea. First, they agreed that, if the work of the Cross and Resurrection genuinely brings about our forgiveness, our redemption through Christ’s Bloodshed, and our reconciliation with the Father, then it had to happen physically, in our own, real, human flesh. If it did not, it was a mirage, a myth. There are plenty of stories about the interventions of heavenly figures like Hercules or Shiva –these are religious myths, but they do not have any effect – they are not a fact of life in creation. So Jesus had to be a real human being with a completely human nature.
The second thing they considered was, if a real human being died on the Cross and rose again, how did it connect with God? If it was just a miracle visited upon one human being from outside, it may be an inspiring, symbolic story, but where is the effect involving the rest of us? So the Fathers agreed that the incarnation of Christ, and His Cross and Resurrection, to bring about our salvation and our reconciliation with God, was not just a human event. It had to involve God too. Otherwise, how did a human Jesus unite us with God on His Cross?How did His own resurrection take any of the rest of us any nearer God from out of our mortality than we were before? How were the difference and the distance between God and humanity overcome? So, they agreed, Jesus must have been God too, God the Son, united with His Father from all eternity, and united with us – true God, true Man.
Arius still could not bring himself to say this. He saw nothing incomplete in saying that Jesus the Man embodied the Word of God that He had received, so that His sacrifice for us was acceptable, and the resurrection vindicated it. Perhaps he was recalling his own father with honour, and pictured a Divine Son who was lower than God the Father - God as he is in Himself. But the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, said no; this was not enough. If Jesus Christ is not God as He is in Himself in the same way as the Father, then the connection between us and God is not made, and we are not saved. If God did not become man, then man cannot become divine as Christ promised in the Gospel - which we read every year both at the time of the Ascension leading up to Pentecost, and in the days of Holy Week leading up to the Cross – when he said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”
So the Fathers of Nicaea insisted that Jesus did not merely possess a divine kind of nature; he did not have a nature like the Father’s. His nature is the same as the Father’s. This is why, especially in the Christian East, we unequivocally and repeatedly say that Jesus is Our Lord and God and Saviour.
There is still a tendency in the West to think that, because Jesus is Son of God, He is somehow on a lower rung in the hierarchy of heaven. It suits the world we live in to imagine that He belongs in the world of the religious imagination, a mythical heavenly being. Or, He is just the same as other great religious leaders in history. But Christians assert something entirely different, when we stress the full force of what we mean every Christmas when we hail the birth of Emmanuel, the Son of God who is God among us. It is fully God that is born. It is fully in our flesh that Jesus, who is our God, died on the Cross and rose again to buy us back to be one with the Father as He Himself is one. This is not mere spirituality. This is not a religious point of view. It is the Christian understanding of human nature, bearing the full impact of Christ our God. It is the Christian understanding of what human nature has been made into and that we are thus becoming.
In the Lord’s Prayer, of which today’s gospel is an elaboration (John 17.1-13), we ask daily for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We often think of the concept of heaven on earth and how it is realised, or struggled for. It is thus easy to think of heaven in earthly terms, while we pass through the world in expectation of its perfection beyond this life. Yet the hard part is the most demanding. It is not to live in this world as if in the next. It is to realise that where we actually live we are in heaven already. This radically affects our behaviour and our outlook. We do not follow Christ out of duty. We do not keep his commands out of exhortation and obedience. We do not long for the Spirit out of inclination. We live in the Kingdom because we already and permanently face into its blessedness. We follow Christ out of love and because we are caught up in His blessedness. We keep His commands, not out of obedience but because we love nothing else more. We long for the Spirit, not merely as an exercise, but because our entire being is taken up with Him.
The renewal of the Church and its perseverance in the faith is thus not down to our effort, as we constantly imagine, but always down to the action of God, as He unites with humanity in Christ, so that when they ask for a description of God’s identity, His Name and His work, we reply, “God is with us”. He does not just bring heaven down to us on earth, but makes earth penetrate heaven. Thus here in this space we are in no other place than before the Throne to which Christ ascended in glory.
This week, across our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, we pray for our parishes to be vibrant, to be places where human beings may encounter the living Christ, to be bodies of people, individuals, who are themselves encounters with Christ in heaven. Imagine what it would be like if coming to Church was not just about us coming to worship Christ our God. Imagine what it would be like if it was about Christ coming into us, so that He could make himself seen by others in us. Imagine what a change it would make of us.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to explain the faith of Nicaea – about how the Father is like the Son and the Son like the Father. He would say that we get it all the wrong way round. Instead of getting people to think how Jesus was the likeness of God, consider that in God is as He is in Christ, that in God there is no unChristlikeness at all. Now imagine what it would mean if we could say, in David, in Sarah - whatever our names - in me there is no unChristlikeness at all.