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"Discipleship amidst the unknown"

Sermon on "Discipleship amidst the Unknown"at United Methodist Church, Tampa, US on 1 May

01 May 2012

United Methodist Church General Conference 2012
Ecumenical Service
Worship Service Theme:  “
Discipleship by the Sea“—Encourage
Mark 6: (45)48-51

But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear."And he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Dear fellow disciples! Dear bishops of the church, delegates and participants of this general conference, ecumenical guests, brothers and sisters, I greet you with the ancient greeting of our faith for this Eastertide season, “Christ is Risen!”  This is the time for all disciples of the church to take heart. The risen Jesus is coming to us, even when he sends us in adverse winds and we have to learn more about the mystery of Christ. It is time to follow Jesus Christ into the unknown, even into what might cause fears. There we shall discover that Christ is in our boat.

The symbol of the ecumenical fellowship is a boat, a ship. We are in this together, with the risen Christ. You belong to the fellowship of the World Council of Churches. We are 349 member churches in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world, representing over 560 million Christians, including most of the world's Orthodox churches, scores of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as many United and Independent churches.

Eastertide is a very appropriate season in which to have a general conference.  As you discern your common future and God’s will for this church, you are today reminded that you are not alone in the boat. You are called again to be connected to all disciples, to all who need the word of the mystery of Christ and him calming the sea.

I am honoured by your invitation to come and share the Word of God with you. I have long felt a close connection to Methodists, beginning with my dear sisters and brothers of the Methodist church in my homeland, Norway. The agreement between them and my own Lutheran Church of Norway was my first ecumenical experience and effort as an ecumenical officer more than 20 years ago. Inspired by an important document about the Holy Spirit from this type of gathering, we found the way forward to the “Fellowship of Grace” (the title of the report).

Moreover, this gives me an opportunity to really thank the United Methodist Church for your strong and faithful commitment to the World Council of Churches.  Through your generous and reliable support of the work of the WCC, you have proven that you are a vested member of this fellowship, striving to be the church to bring about grace, justice and peace in a world so desperately in need of them. I must especially name our strong partnership with the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the Women’s Division and the General Board of Global Ministries. The gifts the UMC shares have far-reaching effects. Your gifts make me and many of us able to take heart and move on, with hope and courage.

We need one another to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On this day in the life of the general conference when we recognize the ecumenical commitments of this church, the Gospel according to Mark is giving us one of its many unpolished stories. The disciples are really struggling in their boat. We can hear the wind, feel them being wet; we sense the sore arms and hands at the oars; we are in their darkness and fear. They really struggle also to understand the mystery of Christ, which Jesus is revealing to them bit by bit. These words we have heard are indeed very relevant for disciples at all times, challenging, and encouraging.  Fear often is manifested when we encounter the unknown, and it is to some extent understandable.

The symbol of ecumenism is a boat with the cross as its mast.  The cross is the climax of the mystery of Christ in the Gospel of Mark. We are also sailing or rowing, even, with adverse winds. We are not always strong or fully understand all the mysteries. However, in the light of the resurrection the cross remains forever the symbol showing that God is the one who overcomes evil, sin and death.  Forgiveness and new life is possible. Those powers shall not have the last word. The cross remains a mystery, even today, a way to see and carry what we do not know and do not understand. The cross reveals that the loving God can be with us in any situation of our human experience, even death. Therefore, the cross unites us, in its mystery and in its revelation, and in our struggles in our ministry of discipleship. We belong to the ecumenical movement of the cross.

The ecumenical boat and we who travel within might find ourselves with the wind against us and we make headway painfully. However, we are where we should be: In the reality of life, even when it might be rough or frightening. This is where we will meet Christ.  The disciples were in the boat together, facing the unknown together; then Christ comes into their boat.

We can only be disciples of Christ together. One of the hallmarks of Methodism is its understanding of ecclesiology and commitment to Connectionalism and Mutual accountability.   I was inspired by Methodists in Argentina, USA and Norway to explore what “mutual accountability” means in the life of the World Council of Churches in my doctoral studies. If we define mutual accountability as an ecumenical attitude, we see how this is crucial for our life as disciples together in our local churches and in the ecumenical family. We should be sharing and testing our gifts, our concerns, our visions, our work, even our fear. We are in this together. We need you as Methodists. And I believe; you need us.

Christ asked the disciples to move on, together, not to remain where they were.  You have affirmed that making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is your mission.  You do so amidst many unknowns.  We are compelled by the call of this Saviour who we know, yet who is not fully known to any of us in isolation.  This call to costly discipleship and mutual accountability is an ecumenical call.  Together with other Christians whose theology, worship traditions, and local contexts may be quite different from our own, we are called to discipleship that has transformative potential. We pray together with confidence and courage with you the words of the theme of the upcoming 10th assembly of the WCC to be held in Busan, South Korea next year, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.”

As general secretary of the WCC, I have the privilege of experiencing faithful disciples bearing witness to the transformative power of the gospel.  While in Manila, Philippines a few weeks ago for the WCC conference on mission, I heard a new ecumenical affirmation of mission. We need mission in and from the many margins, where Christ reveals himself, in the reality as it is. I also heard painful and powerful testimonies from women and youth (many of them United Methodists) who faced the contrary winds of oppression and uncertainty, some of their dear ones have disappeared in mysterious ways. As disciples of the church, they offered a prophetic word for justice and peace against their fear, through grassroots advocacy, educational programmes, and common prayer. Last week in India I met people who were HIV positive.  They have been empowered to help others to come out of stigmatization, and to share the reality of the Gospel. This is what I see and hear in so many places, what happens when people are inspired by the visions and involvement of the ecumenical movement.

Christians around the world are called in these days to accompany the Christian minority communities in the Middle East in their particular witness, preciousness, and fragility. Our living faith has its roots in this region, and is nourished and nurtured by the unbroken witness of the local churches who have their own roots from the apostolic times. Without this Christian presence, the conviviality among peoples from different faiths, cultures, civilisations, which is a sign of God’s love for all humanity, will be endangered. In addition, its extinction will be a sign of failure of the ecumenical family to express the Gospel imperative for costly solidarity.

You are also responding to the call for justice and peace in Palestine/Israel. The WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine/Israel offers the ministry of presence to the people and the city in the mundane of the every day.  The witness we as WCC are called to give should not be polished but rather to encourage all in power to see and change what is the reality of so many ordinary people in their daily life: Occupation, fear, harassments, even violence.  We as churches cannot speak about balance where there is no balance, when one part is occupying and another has been occupied. But we shall always try to understand more the complexities, show empathy to all, and therefore call for a just peace.

Jesus who walks on troubled waters would have us to work with him all the more as Christians and also with those of other faiths to calm the seas of the world.  The WCC is engaged with interfaith partners to address these concerns of violence and violations together, for example in Nigeria these days.  The WCC with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Evangelical Alliance produced last year a joint document called, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World:  Recommendations for Conduct. There we say together that we are called to share the Gospel of Christ, meeting everybody with respect and the attitude of Christ.

Discipleship amidst the unknown is at time tedious and even messy work.  In its history, the WCC has come under fire for its engagement for example in the earlier work of the Programme to Combat Racism, particularly the anti-apartheid work, the statements and stances taken by the WCC were made even while not agreeing among all about the ramifications and outcomes, yet knowing only the essential kernels of the gospel—justice, peace, and love.  Now on this side of history, we see that the prophetic witness of our ecumenical forebears was necessary and right to name the racism which ruled that time as sin to be opposed.

Ecumenical discipleship strives to balance seeking to know and making peace without fully knowing all the mystery of Christ.  The common journey causes us to recognize that we can move before knowing everything. Moses sought to fully know God; but, even his partial knowing was enough to lead the people out of oppression. John Wesley made the gospel of justification, as it was rediscovered by Luther, even more a call to face the needs of the world. He taught sanctification and the longing for perfection because the world needs more holiness.

What we do know are the words of our Saviour to us as we struggle in the boat together, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear!"

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General secretary
World Council of Churches