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Address to the Synod of the Maohi Protestant Church, 29 July 2017

Tahiti, 29 July 2017 Address to the Synod of the Maohi Protestant Church Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary WCC

31 July 2017

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary WCC

Tahiti, 29 July 2017

 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ here in Maohi Nui,

President of the Maohi Protestant Church, Rev. Taaroanui Maraea

General Secretary, Mrs Celine Horore,

 

I. Greetings and Introduction

I greet you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a great blessing for me to be here together with you today, representing the World Council of Churches (WCC), together with Rev. Taaroanui Maraea, the member of the Executive Committee of the WCC from this region, as well as Rev. Dr Katalina Tahaafe Williams, program executive for Mission in the WCC. She has a special responsibility for the connections to the churches here in the Pacific region.

You have belonged to the fellowship of the WCC for many decades. Your relationship to the global ecumenical movement has been connected to how your country has developed its relative but still not full independence. Your region has led in the processes of decolonization that has unfolded in many parts of the world after World War II.

And of course you are particularly known in the WCC for your brave and consistent fight for the life of all creation in your area and against the testing of nuclear arms that has caused so much suffering and worries for you here. You have been leading in the global ecumenical protest against developing, testing and use of nuclear arms.  These have been concerns I have been involved in for several years myself, and I understand that they are high on your agenda for this Synod meeting as well.

I met with the former president of your country, H.E. Oscar Tenmaru, in Samoa during the 50th anniversary of the PCC in 2011, and after that the WCC raised the issue through a public statement and through our office in New York with the UN offices there. You are in a process of discussing the relationship to France again, and I am here to listen carefully to what you say today about your decision last year to call what happened and is still happening to your people after the nuclear tests a “crime against humanity.”

I also remember well the visits in 1995 of the late Papa John to the churches in Europe, including my own Norwegian church, calling for a reaction to the still-ongoing French nuclear testing in your area, and how the church called for boycott of French wine to express our support for you. Papa John was a tireless advocate for a world free from nuclear weapons. He gave all of us an example to follow as a true ecumenist and advocate for just peace. The WCC has made many efforts in that regard, the latest having been the strong support for the process that led to the remarkable decision a month ago in the UN General Assembly to ban nuclear arms.

You live in a very special environment in a very special part of the world, in the great Pacific Ocean, filled with so many vital resources of food and with islands offering space and livelihood for your peoples. These are vulnerable and limited resources, and your lives on these islands and  your harvesting of these resources are under threat from the negative effects of human interventions and exploitation of nature. This hurts you, it poses severe challenges for the survival of people in this region. It also augurs severe effects for the whole world.

As you live on islands, you know how important communication is. The capacity to travel and to share your lives in different ways is crucial for you. Likewise it is also important for me and for the worldwide fellowship of churches to employ this visit to strengthen our fellowship by improving and maintaining our communication.

We want to communicate to the whole fellowship about you and your lives as churches in this part of the world, and we want you to feel and to know that you are part of a global ecumenical fellowship. I have been longing to be here with you, sharing what unites us in Christ, and what should be the signs of the unity that also can make the world believe. This is what the ecumenical movement is all about. This is what St Paul claimed as the pillars of any church fellowship when it is challenged by division and tensions: faith, hope and love. And greatest among them is love (1 Corinithians 13).

I would like to see some of the challenges you are dealing with in light of this call to be united in faith, hope and love. And I would like to share some reflections about what that means in our time for the fellowship of the World Council of Churches and our common witness.

II. A Fellowship of Faith in the Triune God

This year Protestant churches, and particularly the Lutheran churches, mark the 500 years since the events that started what we call Reformation. This became a significant change in the history of the church, not only for the churches that have been named after these events and their leading figures (Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinist, Protestant, etc), as it led to a new recognition of the Gospel as the basis of being church. It also led to the division of the church, in a way that has not been possible to heal fully until today.

Through the ecumenical movement and ecumenical dialogues, it has been possible over the last 50 years – in particular – to build trust, by going back to our common resources in the Bible and in the traditions and confessions of the early church. We have been able to see how much we have in common in our Christian faith. It has also been possible to find new ways forward together by expressing our common faith in common service and witness in the world.

This has also been a remarkable feature of the role of the WCC, as our basic call is to call one another to visible unity. We have pursued the theological reflection on our common basis in the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the Church, and we have explored how we together can make a difference with a common witness to Jesus Christ in a suffering, unjust and divided world.

We see today a revitalized commitment to the common service and witness in the world. I believe this can also lead to more unity in how we focus in our expressions of faith together.

The Reformation brought a new focus on faith. Luther discovered - and the other reformers affirmed – the deep meaning of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly in the first chapter, where he proclaimed the essence of the letter: “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). This was the faith in the unlimited and undeserved grace of God, the God who makes us righteous in spite of our - shared - sinfulness. This is the faith that says yes to what God brings to the world and to us human beings through Jesus Christ, and particularly the righteousness that we receive by God’s grace in faith.

The churches established in and after the Reformation era and who identified themselves as such have often been called Protestants (as you call your church). The label is sometimes misleading, because the core theological point that characterizes these churches should be the yes to God’s gifts and the shared yes expressed in the common confessions of faith from the early church. I am happy to affirm - in this year of the Reformation anniversary - that the ecumenical commitment in many of the Protestant churches is strong. There is a new willingness to say yes to what we share and what have in common with the Orthodox and Catholic parts of Christianity. The commemoration of the Reformation has in many countries been focusing on the confession of sin and the reconciliation between the churches. This has happened in different events in Germany; one of them was the recent signing on to the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification at the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (in Leipzig earlier this month).

Nevertheless, the Protestant churches are still also identified as saying no, and their “protest” is still vital. This protest has been recognized as relevant by the wider ecumenical family insofar as it was a no to deviation from the proper preaching of the Gospel in the church practices of the 16th century. Catholic theologians – including Pope Francis - have clearly recognized the validity and pertinence of the critique of Martin Luther in 1517. Furthermore, we have developed many common expressions of faith-based protests, such as no to war, division, oppression, discrimination, violence, exploitation of nature.

In the work of the WCC during the last 70 years—next year we will mark this anniversary— we have learnedto say no together in a new way. Some of these expressions have been particularly important to say together with you. No to war, no to nuclear weapons, no to  colonization, no to the domination and oppression by the acts of empire, and no to unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources. Sometimes it is important to say no as Protestants, but also more broadly as Christians together in the wider ecumenical movement.

Our no cannot be the primary word and the basis of our faith, our churches, and our fellowship of churches. It is always a consequence of the yes of our faith in God, the creator, the saviour, the life giver. But for the importance of this yes we have to say no sometimes. Sometimes our no does not meet with general approval, even of our fellow Christians. This is not by itself destroying the basis of our common yes to the grace of God, received in faith. But we have to seriously work together on the differences and the divisions among us.

 

III. A Fellowship of Hope in the Triune God

I would like to address you and these issues from a wider perspective of what it means to be a fellowship of churches as we claim to be in the WCC.

The churches here in the Pacific are known worldwide for their spirituality and worship life; even in the tourist guides the vital spiritual life of the churches expressed in worship and singing and dancing is seen as some of the most remarkable things to experience while visiting here. You will never forget that experience, they write. I could not agree more, and that is also one of the great expectations I have for our visit here. You make us all more able to recognize that the church is called to bear witness to and share the joy of life with God, life in God. It foreshadows the eternal life that is we are created for by the Spirit of God, through the salvation offered in Jesus Christ and through the daily care of the fellowship given to us by God, the Father and Mother of all.

The unity we share in the WCC is significant although not perfect. It is a sign of the life in fellowship and unity that God has planned for the whole of humanity, as well as the whole of creation. This is a fellowship where we share in the signs and the reality of the eternal life that is given to us already now, and that is a fellowship of love, which is a reality even beyond our death. The love of God, also expressed in our relationships, is not limited or made obsolete by the realities of sin, injustice, conflicts, or even death. The fellowship in faith, from its very beginning  in Christ, is expressed in hope, in what we do not see but still believe in and know can be. This hope makes us believers into agents of transformation, people who do not give up or give in, people who continue our lives together sometimes in struggle and conflict.

We do not know, just because we are Christians, all the answers to how everything should and could be organized in this world. But we have a lot to contribute in our fellowship as we give account of our hope to one another. We are in a global ecumenical fellowship where our accountability to one another is nurtured through sharing and learning. But we must also exhibit the openness for critique that can lead to improvement of our lives and of our one world. Therefore, it has been so important that we through the church fellowship have been able to work together for justice and peace for this region, and through that for improving many things for the whole of humanity.

It was critical that the UN General Assembly adopted the ban on nuclear testing, that it was called for and brought forward. It is critical for the world that the negative effects of climate change have been shared from this region long before others noticed. The WCC was the arena and the agent for both, even before many of the other international instruments like the UN were taking it on. Maybe we have rung the bell early enough to make the changes on time, but they have to happen now. As people of faith we are sharing a living hope. We do not give in to fatalism or apocalyptic scenarios. We hope, we pray, we act together.

And those who have the most severe challenges – like you – are often the strongest voices in the prophetic call to change and the strongest call to prayer and action. Therefore, the fellowship of the churches needs you as witnesses of our faith and as agents of hope and joy.

 

IV. A Fellowship of Love for God, for Nature, and for Our Neighbour as Ourselves

I am proud of how the WCC through ecumenical sharing and mutual accountability has created higher and common awareness among ourselves and in the world about the challenges we have to address together. Because we have been sharing our faith traditions, but also our cultural traditions, we have become so much richer in our understanding of how we can live as part of nature and how we can find ways forward to take care of this one planet as our shared home now and for generations to come after us. Industrialization, technological development, the globalization of knowledge and economy, and the urbanization of human life – these have not made us less dependent on nature and the care for the resources available for our lives on this planet. As human beings have developed more efficient and more sophisticated ways of making a living with high standards of living possible for many – we need even more the wisdom and ability to understand the balances of nature and how connected we are to nature. We have to realize what it means that even we, ourselves, are nature.

We are greatly inspired by the leadership Pope Francis has taken among faith leaders in the care for “our common home” and his call to transformative action by the church in Laudato Si. This is a strong affirmation of the perspectives raised already in the WCC-initiated conciliar processof Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in the 1980s and in later follow-up initiatives. Now it is organized under the work for ecology and economy.

In the overall theme for the whole work of the WCC – given at the Busan assembly in 2013 - the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace” is also addressing how just peace must be pursued with nature and how that is interconnected to just peace among us human beings. The proper use – or misuse, e.g., for testing of nuclear arms—of nature is indeed aninjustice to those directly affected by the testing. But it is also a threat to nature itself and to all coming generations as children are born with defects. Why should they pay the price for these many tests?

Many different relevant theological and philosophical models motivate for the proper care for nature and its sustainability. We need a strong theological and ethical approach that can express our faith on these issues, as well as our love and our hope, all in an integrated way.

Our relationship to God the creator and giver of life, who every day grants us the ability to live, and our relationship to one another as human beings, is in a significant way defined by how we deal with the nature that God has given us to live in. The great commandment, the double commandment, is clearly linking the two basic dimensions of love: To love God, and to love the neighbour as ourselves. The love of God must be expressed in the reverence, respect and careful love for God’s creation. The love for our fellow human beings must include respect for, care for, love for nature, expressed in how we use the resources of food, fresh water and clean air. To make life possible or impossible for others is the most basic expression of love—or of the opposite, if it does not happen.

In this perspective, we cannot really understand what it means to love God and our neighbour as ourselves if are not including nature in the perspective. I think it is time to call for the love of God, the love of nature, and the love of our neighbour as ourselves.

I also believe that this is particularly relevant from the experiences you have had here in Tahiti and in the Pacific region. To love is more than having an emotional reaction – it is that as well, but it is to do what expresses love through our mind, our heart, our will.

V. The WCC Together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

This is our common journey of faith, with hope, in love. We are exploring day by day what it means. That is also why we are together here today.

This pilgrimage is new way of expressing the call to unity and the call to prophetic witness and service, continuing what we have done before together yet opening up for new expressions of faith, hope and love in our time.

We have to explore together with you how your sense of justice for the victims of the long-term effects of the nuclear testing can be taken seriously in the international community. This is indeed a matter of justice for the victims and a matter of peace for the whole world. This is another clear reason why nuclear arms should be banned.

Your church has also raised significant issues about how your self-determination and democratic rights can be pursued by now being reintroduced to the UN list of countries that should be decolonized.  We have, as WCC, strongly supported your case, and we will continue this work together.

For freedom Christ has liberated us. This is the message of St Paul in the letter to the Galatians. When I listen to you, I see more meanings in this freedom brought forth by your situation. It is about freedom from the power of sin. Our sins, but also the sins of others. Justice can be restored if there is a proper sharing and acknowledgment of the truth, but also of the damage done to the population here from the nuclear testing. Both you and the French need the freedom that can come from speaking the truth about what happened and the effects it has on the coming generations.

St Paul also speaks about a freedom to be yourself –tin Christ –nwith your culture, your wonderful music, your language. It is a freedom to choose the good direction, to search for the wisdom and the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

I find that the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace has many important dimensions from your life as churches and peoples here. The attempt to find a language for our relationship to nature that is not a language of power, nor a language of romanticism, but a language of equilibrium, of respect, and of love can find strong expressions in your life as churches here – and you can continue to contribute profoundly to our common journey in this respect.

As the late Papa John Doom did, and your President Taaroanui Maraea does today, we need many, hopefully also many young people, from your region involved in this Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. It is not a matter of travelling away from home, but of finding the ways together to express our faith, hope and love in specific words and actions. This is about giving account of the hope that is within us to the world, where you live, and in mutual accountability to the whole ecumenical fellowship.This pilgrimage is also a journey together to find our common self-respect. You should not underestimate how significant it is that you are contributing to the visibility of the kingdom of God in this world. We can speak the truth for the sake of justice and peace in the world through the practice of our Christian faith, hope and love.

So let us do so, together.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.