World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

A meditation by Bishop Jonas Jonson

17 November 2005

Presentation at the event marking the 40th anniversary of the Joint Working Group
between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC

1 Peter 1:6-9

The first letter of Peter was probably written in Rome right after emperor Nero's persecution of the Christians. The letter radiates inspiration and enthusiasm, gratitude, hope and joy in spite of all the suffering at the time, which was testing the perseverance of the faithful. At the heart of the text, is the affirmation that although the believers have not seen Christ, they love him; and even though they do not see him now, they believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy in the salvation that is to come.

As we celebrate 40 years of joint work and vision in the ecumenical movement, at a time of organizational self-examination and ecumenical exhaustion, we are reminded of that which is a fundamental condition of our Christian life. Empirically speaking, our belief is without proof, our trust without guarantees, our hope without sensible reason, our commitment without agreed contract and our faith without certainty, because we do not see Christ. We share a conviction and expectation, which may prove futile and empty. Still we rejoice with all who have been baptized into the body of Christ and who, through their faith, have experienced a foretaste of the Kingdom.

The church both as community and as institution, has no other foundation but faith in God through Jesus Christ. The church lives by hope in what we have not yet seen. We organize ourselves and work in this world, anticipating what is to come according to God's promise. We invest our lives in this without certainties, nor forecasts of future profit, and, ultimately without protection for the church and her witness. Hope is what there is, a hope rooted in God and confirmed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There could be no other ground for our salvation than God's unconditional grace, no human effort, no ecclesial structures, no theological doctrines. Salvation is entirely in God's hands, and this is the source and reason for the indescribable joy, which Peter evokes in his letter.

If Christ alone is the foundation of the church and of our hope, the same is certainly true for ecumenical vision and endeavour. What reason do we have to rejoice but the will, guidance, intercession and promise of Christ? A divided church is an imperfect church, but we believe that the Spirit is promoting the visible and invisible unity in church, humanity and all creation. Therefore we rejoice in anticipation of God's gift and the perfection of the church. We are not let down by the trials of the present. The ecumencial vision is genuine and it will not perish.

In our understanding, the early church in Asia Minor addressed by Peter was vibrated with joyful hope and was ready to share in the sufferings of Christ so as to achieve salvation. Many of us present here, recall days when the ecumenical movement was filled with more energy, more solidarity in suffering and also with impatient hope that unity, justice and peace would be made manifest by the church and in the church, locally and worldwide. After forty years of cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, sharing insight and resources for the sake of a common witness, this hope is somewhat tainted by doubt and disappointment. We have reached a point where we need to evaluate anew, reflect together, and map out the course forward. Our obligation to continue our prayer and work together, seeking an ever deeper communion with God and each other, is supported by a vision anticipating what we have not yet seen.

We have been baptized into a life in Christ in his one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The sacramental act of baptism by water and in the name of the Triune God, is mutually recognized by most churches. This is great! We are already one in Christ through baptism. Baptism into the body of Christ is our common identity and point of departure. Our daily life by baptismal grace and our growing into the likeness of Christ, take place in separate communities, but the goal is unity with God and each other as a sign for humanity and all creation. This goal cannot be reached only by fostering friendship and confidence in a culture of dialogue, by participating in councils and doing joint projects and studies. There needs to be a truly spiritual ecumenism, drinking deep from unpolluted sources, as well as an ecumenical spirituality, in which different liturgical traditions are allowed to enrich each other. And there needs to be a firmly shared mission in the world.

At present, postmodern relativism, diversity and fragmentation is a challenge to the very concept of visible unity. Increasing ecclesial and confessional re-assertion leads to decreasing commitment to ecumenical organisations and contributes to the impasse of the ecumenical movement. This is obvious also in World Council - Roman Catholic relations, and calls for a strengthening of a common vision and for new initiatives.

With reference to the insistent emphasis in the letter of Peter that a well founded hope and a genuine faith will one day bear fruit, and that the hidden Christ will be revealed to us and to the world, we commit ourselves anew to our pilgrimage together. This is the time to preserve friendship and to wait patiently. We cannot afford disillusion after all these years together. Whatever there is of mutual suspicion and attitudes of self-sufficiency, they must be transformed into constructive relationships. Temporary trials should not overshadow the promise God has given and make us underestimate the historic significance of the Joint Working Group. Today is a time of rejoicing for all that has been achieved in the last 40 years and for all that God in Christ, through the Spirit, is now preparing for us.

Amen