Acts 20: 16-36
The Holy Apostle Paul was on his way to Jerusalem to observe the feast of Pentecost there. Because the feast was near, he did not have time to stop in the city of Ephesus to greet the Church there, however, he did arrange to meet with the bishops and presbyters of the Ephesian Church to encourage them and give them some guidance in their spiritual labors. Among the many things that he said to them, some of which we heard read today in the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Paul warned them to be on guard against the spiritual wolves which would arise from within and without to attack the flock of Christ. These spiritual wolves arose as the heresies which would tempt the faithful to stray from the path of salvation and to embrace some other teaching.
The Apostle Paul also, a short time later, wrote a pastoral letter to the Ephesians, again emphasizing and explaining the true doctrines of the Christian faith and warning against the predations of some of these internal wolves, the Judaizers. We can also see in the Apocalypse of St John, written much later, that the Ephesian Church was to be praised for its fervor for the true faith and its resistance to these wolves, especially the sect of the Nicolaitans.
There was however, a difficulty that arose in the Ephesian Church, for in the Apocalypse, the Ephesians are criticized that they had “lost their first love”. They had focused so much on defining and defending the faith that they lost sight of the most basic element of the faith – to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. They had lost their fervent love of Christ and had let it become replaced by a fervent zeal for correct teaching.
Here, between this charge to the Ephesian elders by the Apostle Paul to beware of the spiritual wolves and the later criticism of the Ephesian Church in the Apocalypse that they had lost their first love, is a necessary balance that must be struck by all of us as we follow Christ. It is true that we must pursue and defend the purity and correctness of our faith, for if we do not we will be in danger of the spiritual wolves of heresy which will lead us off the path of salvation. However we must not allow this zeal for knowledge of the faith to displace our all consuming love of Jesus Christ Himself. In other words we must know about our faith, learning what it is that the Church teaches us and how it is applied to our lives, however at the same time we must also have the deep and passionate love for Christ that envelopes us and drives us like an all consuming fire. We must learn how to be good Christians and we must above all love Christ.
First let us heed the instruction of the Apostle Paul to beware of the spiritual wolves. For this we must know what we believe and in Whom we believe. We should all learn about our faith, read over and over again the catechisms such as the Law of God and other similar books so that the teachings of the Faith are ever fresh in your mind. Read the scriptures along with the Orthodox interpreters of the scripture and the sermons of the saints frequently so that you gain an ever increasing knowledge of the Truth. It is necessary to learn to know the true faith so that when the spiritual wolves arise we can recognize them and defend ourselves against them. The best way to see error is to know and be constantly immersed in the truth.
However our faith must not be all in our minds. God has given us the rational capacity of the mind to see and understand these truths and He has done so in order that the mind might guard the nous – that is the spiritual core of our soul where we commune with God. The purpose of this guarding is to enable us to love God with a pure and holy love, that it might become an intense flame of love for God that burns constantly within us. It is this love that transforms all of our thinking and learning from a cold academic exercise into a warm and fervent living faith.
When we do not love Christ above all, when we lose our first love, then our faith will no longer find a home in our heart, but will be all in our mind – in the rational exercise of learning about Christ rather than being with Him. The Ephesians became great in their knowledge of the true faith and in resisting error, they even became, in later years, the location for one of the great Ecumenical Councils that helped define the true faith against the heresies that arose against the Church, but they lost their first love. All this correct knowledge and learning was without love and focused only in the mind – they loved learning and rational exercise more than they loved Christ. And that was their downfall. Far from being a great city and center of faith, now the light of Christ has been lost in Ephesus and the great city itself no longer exists – it is but a small fishing village. This is the consequence of the zeal for knowledge without the burning love of Christ.
Keep this balance: beware of spiritual wolves and resist them and most important, do not lose your first love. Learn about your faith – this is important so that you do not go astray – but more importantly cultivate within your heart the love of Jesus Christ. Desire Him, not knowledge about Him, with all your heart. Weep when you sin and turn away from Him and lose clear sight of His face and so are separated from Him. Let every waking moment be turned towards Him so that He becomes the love of your life and the essence of every desire is to please Him. My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love the God/man Jesus Christ above all else and let us work to fan the flame of love for Him into a conflagration that consumes our whole being. If you know all things and have all wisdom, but do not have love, you are reduced to nothing more than a noisy clanging cymbal. You must have love – not just any love or not just some undefined love – you must love Jesus Christ above all with a love that consumes you and permeates every part of your being. This flame of love is what defends us from the spiritual wolves and drives them away from us. This flame of love is what leads us into the Kingdom of Heaven. This flame of love is the union and communion with our God which is our destiny and our salvation.