St Gregory Palamas, wishing to teach us about faith says, “Believing in God is different from believing God. To believe God is to regard His promises to us as sure and true, but to believe in Him is to have a right understanding of Him. Both are necessary for us and we must speak correctly in both respect, in such a way that people with correct understanding can be confident that we are faithful before the God to whom our faith is directed and that, being faithful, we shall be justified by Him.”
Because we believe God, we follow His instruction to us – that is His commandments – on how to live a righteous life. Because of our faith in God – because we believe Him – we have confidence that these commandments that He gives will lead us on the path of salvation and will enable us to be filled with His grace and to be transformed by that grace into His image and likeness. If we did not believe God, then all of the self-denial, the fasting, the charitable acts, abstaining from certain sinful actions and choosing instead certain righteous actions – all of these things – would be foolishness. But because we believe God they all become no longer foolish but a wise course of action because of the end to which He leads us. That end is not some worldly or earthly paradise where we will all live in ease and have all of our passions sated, rather that end is to be united to Him and to live in eternity in union and communion with Him. If we wanted to be wealthy and respected in the world; if we wanted to have a life of ease and luxury, then we would follow the advice of those who were successful and wealthy in this world, we would “believe” them. But because we believe God, we know that all these things are transitory and of no value whatsoever. Instead we strive for the life which is rich in the grace of God, which is filled with spiritual wealth that does not pass away; we strive to draw ever nearer to God Himself and to make Him the object of all our desire and love. And so we follow the advice of those who are successful and wealthy in the Kingdom of God – those who have shown by their lives that they have indeed entered into that union and communion with God which we also desire – that is, we follow the advice and example of the saints. The saints acted in faith – believing God without question and doubt – and because they followed the path that God revealed to them. Therefore, to follow the saints is to believe God.
It is not enough, however, to simply believe God. As St Gregory said, one must also believe in God – that is we must know about God so that we can distinguish between the one true God and the many counterfeits and deceivers that would lead us away from Him. When a person is being trained to recognize counterfeit money or other valuables, he is not schooled to recognize the fakes, but rather is rigorously taught to know the real thing so that the fake will stand out because of what it is not. This is also the way that we should prepare ourselves as Christians, as believers of the one true God, to recognize and avoid the false spiritual paths that are all around us. It is necessary to know about God, to be educated in Who God truly is and to immerse ourselves in His self-revelation to the world so that when we encounter that which is false – it will be recognizable as a counterfeit by what it is not.
On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate not only those who believed God (as we heard in the epistle) but also all those who proclaimed and taught the truth about God. That is why we call this Sunday, the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” or the “Sunday of True Belief”. Many times, even from the infancy of the Christian Church in the times of the Apostles, there have been false beliefs – heresies – that have tried to intrude upon the Church. The Seven Ecumenical councils all addressed themselves to great heresies which distorted the truth about the incarnation: Arius’ teaching that Jesus Christ was not truly God; the teaching of Nestorius that Jesus Christ was merely a man possessed by God; the monophysite and monothelite teachings that Jesus Christ was not fully God and fully man but that the human nature and will of Christ were swallowed up by the divine nature and will and so no longer active; the iconoclast teaching denying that God had truly appeared in the flesh and therefore could be depicted in icons and many others. By denying the truth about the incarnation of the God/man Jesus Christ these heretical beliefs caused our salvation to be an unattainable dream (for if God did not become man then how can man be united with God?). But the false beliefs about God that attack the Church do not stop with the incarnation. The nature of the Trinity was distorted in the change made to the Nicene Creed by the Roman Church and the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ is distorted by the teaching of the “invisible Church” and the denial of the sacraments put forth by the various protestant groups. There are many pseudo Christian spiritual teachings that even deny the existence of a personal and man-loving God altogether, making Him out to be an impersonal or distant and disinterested power or force. There are those who teach that man is capable of his own salvation and that God is simply a judge who decides the winners and losers and merely hands out rewards that men earned themselves. It would be impossible to enumerate all the various heretical beliefs that thrive in our world today. It is better and much easier to learn not about that which is false, but to devote ourselves to learning about He Who Is Truth.
Today we celebrate those who declared the True God and verified that Truth by their actions and very lives. Today we confess the one true faith in the one true God. Today, when in a few moments we recite together the Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed let us truly attend to all that we say after the first: “I believe …”. Let us confess our true belief with our whole hearts, with our whole mind, with our whole strength so that there is no doubt Who this God is in Whom we believe. And as we believe in the one true God, let us validate that faith by believing God and following the path that He sets before us to lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven.