Jacobse: Sunday of Orthodoxy sermon

Yup, it’s a bit long and even though I am a believer in short sermons, it held the audience nevertheless. I gave it yesterday at the Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers at St. Paul Antiochian Church in Naples, FL.

Sunday of Orthodoxy
February 21, 2010

On this day we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the commemoration of the defeat of the heresy of iconoclasm. The word “heresy,” as we know, means “false teaching” and the false teaching that was finally vanquished was iconoclasm.

Triumph of Icons

The Triumph of Icons

“Iconclast” comes from the Greek work that means “icon-breaker.” The iconoclasts were those who smashed the icons because they believed that the Orthodox faithful, in venerating icons, were breaking the first commandment that says, “Thou shalt not make unto yourself any graven image.”

Of course the objection ran deeper than that. Look at it closely and you see that the false teaching – the heresy – of iconclasm taught something else too. It taught that Jesus Christ never really existed. The second person of the Trinity, the Word — capital W — of the Father never really became flesh and dwelt among us.

And that is why the Orthodox leaders fought the heresy. If the Word did not become flesh and dwell among us, then we believe a lie. Salvation does not really exist. We are deceivers who are deceived.

The iconoclasts were wrong in this way: When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, you could make an image of Him because He existed just like you and I do – in space and time. Jesus had flesh and blood – just like you and me. He was not a phantom or just a figure in our imagination.

And that is why creating an icon of Jesus Christ is allowed. In fact, St. Paul tells us in scripture that Jesus the Son is the – and I am looking at the English here – “express image” of the Father. Look this up in the Greek and the word is eikon — or “icon.” We are allowed to make an icon of the Eikon, an image of the Image.

So, if you were around two thousand years ago and had your digital camera with you, you could have taken a picture of Jesus and His image could be printed out on paper. He wasn’t an imaginary figure. He wasn’t a concept. He was nothing less than a flesh and blood human being. And, like the faithful of old, you would venerate that image because He was also the Son of God.

This service, the one we celebrated today was first held in 842 in Constantinople. Patriarch Methodios presided and the faithful Empress Theodora was in attendance. It has been held every year on the first Sunday of Lent in every Orthodox Church every year ever since.


But there is a deeper lesson for us too. And the lesson is this: Every generation faces its own heresies – its own false teachings – that require a defense drawn from the faith.

In America we face them too although in different ways. America is a great country. It has grasped some principles about human freedom and liberty that, at their core, are Christian in their origin. But we are not an empire or a monarchy. We are not mono-cultural. We are a nation of immigrants who govern ourselves not as a tribe, but under the rule of law.

So things work differently here. We have no emperor. We have no patriarch — at least not yet. We have the public square to debate and settle our differences, and that public square is often a noisy, raucous, and sometimes unfair place.

Do you wonder why moral questions become political issues sometimes? That’s why. Do you ask yourself why people get so emotionally invested in what otherwise would be private affairs? That’s why too. Do you wish that sometimes the emotional temperature could be lowered a few degrees? I do too but usually it doesn’t happen.

And there are huge questions being debated today. Gay marriage, what constitutes a family, greed in the marketplace, our relationship to the environment, who should live and who should die – all sorts of question that portend a very different society down the road depending on how they are answered.

But here too we have to take a closer look. And if you look closely, past the immediate political posturing on the many sides of these issues, you see that they pose this common question: What does it means to be a human being? From the Christian point of view we would sharpen that question even further: Who did God create us to be?

In theological language — and I am going to throw out a thirty-five dollar theological term here — we call this an “anthropological” question. “Anthropological” comes from the Greek work anthropos which means, “man.” The question behind many of the questions in our culture today is really a question about what it means to be a human being – Who did God create us to be?

From that question flow a thousand others that crystallize around a handful of secondary ones — How do I understand myself? How do I understand others? How do I relate to others? How to I relate to the physical world around me? What is my responsibility to my neighbor?


Let me shift gears. I said earlier that this celebration — the Sunday of Orthodoxy — commemorated the restoration of icons that was really the restoration of the Orthodox faith. I also said that every generation faces the heresies — the false teachings — in its own time and way. I said too that in America, we have these great conflicts but they express themselves in a different way.

With that in mind, in America, the Sunday of Orthodox is also the time we discuss Orthodox unity – the goal of having one unified Orthodox Church in America.

I believe the time has come that if we do not have unity, Orthodoxy in America will never reach its God-given commission to bring the kind of light to this great nation that can heal it – that can answer in intelligent and compelling ways the core questions that frame so many great debates in the public square.

I also believe that the objections we hear to Orthodox unity have become largely irrelevant for this reason: your children and grandchildren are American. If Orthodox Christianity cannot reach them as Americans — which is to say that if it cannot speak to them in the cultural context that the Orthodox of old reached their children in their particular cultures — the Church will not die (it never dies), but Orthodoxy in America will retrench and fade into a cultural and religious oddity much in the same way that we think about the Amish or the Shakers.

Our children and grandchildren are American. Nothing will change that. If the Church will not incorporate the Orthodox faith into American culture, it won’t have anything to say to them and they will look elsewhere for the living water. And God, being a good God who loves mankind – phil-anthropos-translated as “the lover or mankind” or sometimes “the friend of man” — just might find another way to give it to them.

Orthodoxy has always been closely tied to culture. In fact, you can’t have religion with a corresponding cultural expression of it. Put another way, religious faith enervates, vivifies, makes alive, the culture in which we live. Religion is the ground of culture. The tradition is the structure that shapes culture so that culture itself points to and references the deepest truth of all – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So I join my voice with those who — on this day in years past and in many churches all over America today — call for the Orthodox in America to embrace the Gospel commission to go forth unto all nations to preach and baptize. Orthodoxy, which its rich comprehension of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is coming of age in a new, young, and very vibrant country that is being prepared to hear this gospel and thereby have new life breathed into it.

We see Orthodoxy in America coming of age at the same time that America is in a deep cultural crisis. I do not believe this is a historical accident. I believe that God brought the Orthodox faith to America to speak to a nation that needs new life breathed into it at the proper time. That time is now.

And if we respond, then we are faithful to the legacy bequeathed to us that we celebrate today. Then we can stand with the assurance and resolve that we too are meeting the challenge of our generation in the same way that the Orthodox did over 1200 years ago.


  1. George Michalopulos :

    Fr, good sermon. What was the feedback from the other Orthodox priests there?

  2. This was excellent. Did you record it?

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Feedback was good and no, I did not record it. I could though and post it.

  4. Then, dear Father, I must ask: What are you waiting for?

    AFR is calling.

  5. Priest Seraphim Holland :

    This is a negative comment. I say it with respect, and with the understanding and intent that Christians should be able to agreeably disagree about things.

    I do not believe that the Divine Liuturgy is a time for politics, or talking about Orthodox unity, etc. There is so little time to teach our people the Gospel, and many homes in our parishes have dusty bibles. We cannot have Orthodox unity unless our people are Orthodox, and we pastors must inculcate this knowledge and zeal and ability in them. I believe it is my sacred duty to expound about the Gospel, primarily from the Holy Scripture, and tell my people the truth, and inspire them to follow it, and give them “tools” to follow it.

    Your sermon is good as a talk or discussion. I was edified by its content, however, I do not believe that the time it took away from preaching the gospel from the scriptures is a good trade.

    In Christ,
    Priest Seraphim Holland
    St Nicholas, McKinney Texas
    Redeeming the Time Bloghttp://www.orthodox.net/redeemingthetime

  6. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Actually I agree with this, and it is the only time of the year that I ever preach on anything apart from the gospel of the day. Still, in these parts, this is what we talk about on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and since it was a 5pm Vesper Service and not Divine Liturgy, I thought I was within bounds.

  7. Priest Seraphim Holland :

    I did not read carefully, and thought the service this sermon was preached at was liturgy. The “rules” are a little bit different for Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers.

    I am uncomfortable, however, with supporting “Orthodox unity” in America. I am ready to be friends with anyone, and serve readily with other clergy in Dallas, but I think “unity” at this point would be an organizational mess, with little Orthodoxy, and a lot of politics. I personally think that with all the (un-Orthodox) noise the EP is making and the rife corruption and secularism in many areas in Orthodoxy in the Americas, we are not ready for “unity”.

    In God’s time. It took a long time, longer than I thought it should, for ROCOR and the MP to reconcile. Things happen, in time.

    Forcing unity when we need more Orthodoxy in practice and morality and faith first is a bad idea, in my opinion, which I readily accept is not shared by some of my brethren. I hope that some hierarchs will stop trying to be “top dog” and lead their flocks to more of a Christian life – then we will be ready for unity.

    • George Michalopulos :

      Fr Seraphim, I find your words quite apropos. Forcing unity for the sake of unity and not for love (and Orthopraxy) would be disastrous in my opinion. Forgive this analogy, but it would be somewhat like what has happened within Anglicanism. In their effort to prevent disunion at all costs, they have accepted any theology and praxis so long as the bishops in question remain within the Anglican Communion.

      I’ve asked this question before: how can we be united with bishops who don’t share the same moral purpose, adherence to canons, praxis, etc.? As a Christian who is concerned about the sanctity of life, I have much more in common with local clergymen of my acquaintance who have suffered personally and professionally for their Christian witness in this matter. I know I’m pushing the envelope of what constitutes the boundaries of Christianity but doesn’t correct teaching and action lie within it? Or asked a different way, which brother is doing his Father’s will? The one who refused to heed and then did what his Father said or the one who listened but for whatever reason did not do his Father’s will?

  8. Isa Almisry :

    “I personally think that with all the (un-Orthodox) noise the EP is making and the rife corruption and secularism in many areas in Orthodoxy in the Americas, we are not ready for “unity”.”

    Then we are not ready for Orthodoxy, or God.

    Divide and conquer is tried and true. The idea that we have to first have perfect jurisdictions and then unite flies in the face of history. There has not been a perfect Church in 2000 years. What makes one think North America will be the first? Why shold it be the first before it at least has the principle, like the 14 other Churches, of ecclesiastical unity? I don’t recall Fathers laying any canon that the diocese must be perfect before it has only one bishop.

    Ready or not, we should make it come.

    We are not talking about Anglican “unity,” but the same unity any other Orthodox Church has. If we are in communion with bishops who aren’t preaching and living the Gospel, then that has to be dealt with. But going into seclusion, jurisdiction jumping etc. isn’t dealing with it.

    So it will be be little Orthodoxy and a lot of politics. Well, welcome to the Church. Ever read the accounts of what went on at the Ecumenical Councils, besides the finished product?

  9. George Michalopulos :

    Isa, you’ve given us something to think about. If I may, I see the wisdom of your words, you are right, if we’re waiting for the perfect Church we’ll never find it. Speaking for myself, I’m not a purist and I know the foibles that exist in all men (bishops included) because I am the chief of sinners. Having said that, the high-handedness of the Phanar/GOA consortiom (as well as its grasping after worldly powers) gives many pause. Are they serious about unity? Or unity in which only they control? And definitely a unity in which Christian witness is secondary at best?

    Perhaps we should just trust in the Holy Spirit. If the upcoming Episcopal Assembly is nothing but SCOBA: The Next Generation, then like SCOBA, it will fade away. In the meantime, the fact that we belong to The Church should provide us with the necessary grace required for our salvation.


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