Sunday of the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Synod

29 May 2023

‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent’ (Jn. 17, 3).

The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Fathers is part of the high priestly prayer  of the Lord, which he addressed to his Heavenly Father shortly before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Lord refers to the completion of his task on earth and therefore the end of the mission assigned to him by God the Father: the salvation of the human race, which also constitutes the glory of God. These are the words of Christ which lead us to an understanding of his mission and of his nature as God and human being: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent’.

It is, of course, not the first time that the Lord talked about eternal life. He constantly referred to it and, indeed, considered it to have been the aim of the quest of the Jews in the Old Testament. Let’s recall, for example, the occasion when Christ was approached by a teacher of the law who posed precisely this conundrum: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life ?’ (Luke) 10, 25). The question gives Christ the opportunity to tell the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Eternal life, then, is presented as the vision of the Old Testament and also the purpose of the Lord’s mission, as we’re led to understand it by his own words: ‘Father… glorify your Son… for you granted him authority over all flesh that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him’ (Jn. 17, 1-2).

The Lord’s quick to explain what eternal life means. It’s not another life which extends beyond this life here on earth. Much less is it a continuation of this life without an end or death. These ways of understanding are heard and expressed, but they’re misrepresentations, because they prolong the state of being in the sin of this fallen world. And, in particular,  they take absolutely no account of the redemptive action of God, in Christ, in the world and are therefore understandings resulting from unbelief. According to the Lord, eternal life is linked directly to him: it’s knowledge of God on the part of human beings; and of Christ himself as God’s emissary.

This knowledge isn’t of an intellectual nature, that is, it’s not a matter of the brain; it’s not certain information which activates our intellectual abilities. Such knowledge does exist, but only when we’re talking about things in the present world. The knowledge which the Lord’s talking about comes from our personal relationship with him. This means that eternal life is experienced by those who’ve accepted Christ’s invitation to follow him and thus share in his own life. That profound and philosophical theological mind, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, the brother of Saint Basil the Great, said that ‘Knowledge is repentance’. In other words, we have to share in God, commune with him, if we’re to say that we know him. And it’s precisely this communion with God, which  denotes his presence within us, that constitutes eternal life.

This is to say that eternal life is God’s life itself, the action of his grace which people who believe in Christ can experience within the limits of their person, in body and soul. According to the Lord, a necessary condition for this is the observance of his commandments. Those who, in faith, keep his commandments, especially the all-embracing one of love, will see with their own eyes the love of God and he will dwell with them. The Lord revealed this and called upon all believers to ‘experiment’ in themselves in order to confirm it. ‘Anyone who says I know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar’ (1 Jn. 2, 4). ‘Those who love me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and will dwell with them’ (Jn. 14, 23).

From this point of view, knowledge of God, which is a matter for the human heart, enriches us to such an extent that we can experience eternal life even within the suffocating and restricting context of this life, in the here and now. In other words, as we said, we can experience the action of the grace of God himself and become uncreated ourselves. According to the testimony of Saint Paul, ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2, 20). And this is the mystery of the Christian life: Christ takes you, makes you one with him and, while you seem to be living the same life as others are, you’ve become a little God, a God ‘walking about in the flesh’, as one of the Church Fathers puts it. It’s clear, then, that what we call life is something beyond that which is registered by the senses. Life can be eternal life, the life of God within us; but it can also be a necrosis which only seems to be life. As was the case of those who didn’t follow the Lord and concerning whom he said: ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead’ (Matth. 8, 22), meaning that they were living dead.

Of course, it’s self-evident that the life to which the Lord calls us can be lived within his living body, the Church, because there, as members of this body, we’re enabled by Christ to keep his holy commandments. Outside the Church, people not only fail to keep his commandments, but often think they’re nonsense. What ‘reasonable’, non-Christian person would consider it natural, for example, to love your enemy? Didn’t Christ himself say that without him we can do nothing? (cf. Jn, 15, 5). This is not to say that knowledge of God- eternal life itself-  is impossible outside the Church, and that the depth of the life of God is unattainable.

The Fathers of the Church, such as those of the 1st Ecumenical Synod, which we celebrate today, tried to safeguard this: the revelation of Christ, the life of the Church, eternal life within this life and the salvation of the human race as a real relationship with God in Christ. This is why we honor them and rejoice in them. And we ask them to pray for us, so that we may remain in the same grace as them, that is the grace of our Triune God.