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Sermon at the ecumenical worship and prayer Harare, Zimbabwe, 19 May, 2017

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit General Secretary World Council of Churches Sermon at the ecumenical worship and prayer Harare, Zimbabwe, 19 May, 2017

19 May 2017

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches

 

Sermon at the ecumenical worship and prayer

Harare, Zimbabwe, 19 May, 2017

 

Text: Col 3: 1-15

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (3:1).

 

Up or down?

 

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

 

What do we mean when we say that something is going up or going down? What does Paul mean when he asks us to seek what is up there, above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God?

Indeed, we most often think of what is up as better than what is down. It is better to be on the top than at the bottom of the ranking. We often see the best runners on the top of the list, the best students get notes on the top, the best professionals get the highest salaries. It is attractive to have top health condition. Some are on the top of the society, some have better positions, better economy, better houses, better education.

Some think that they are on the top – in the sense of being above others - because they belong to a certain group, due to the colour of the skin, due to the ethnicity, the tribe, the nationality, their language, their profession, their job.

Already this observation forces us to ask whether it is really best to be above – to be up there? If it leads to a sense of superiority, of unfair privilege, of patronising others, of discrimination based on gender, race, age, economy, profession, is this what we should seek?

On the other hand – it is not good to be rated at the bottom, of the lists of income, of what we have, or where we belong, to be under.

What does it mean to seek what is above? Is it another of these unrealistic, cheating religious ideas of trying to be better than the others; or is it offering something out of this world, something not really connected to the life and the tough realities of this world, a pie in the sky?

Have we not had enough of these images of the power, the images that give power and inspiration to rule over the others, but also to abuse and suppress others even in the name of God? Have we not had enough of those who cheat us with spirituality that does not really help us to deal with real life?

Immediately it sounds as if we should seek the most hierarchical of all positions, the highest honour and glory we can imagine. It might even give us the impression that we should focus on what is outside this world and the harsh realities we face here.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ: Nothing could be more far away from what Paul means. Nothing could be misunderstand more of the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the liberating and promising good news that has come to us, and which has changed our lives when we through our faith and our baptism is united with him. Paul says even that we through our baptism are buried and raised with him.

What does it means that he is “seated at the right hand of God”? The one who humiliated himself, and became a human being, but not only that, the one who was the most humiliated because he shared the good news of the coming kingdom of God, who healed the sick, who gave hope to the poor, who included those who were excluded, who criticised those who were rich and those who abused their religious power or their political power, but who was humiliated till the most dreadful death on the cross because he wanted to show the real will of God, that the love of God is challenging us to turn away from sin – he has been raised to the right hand of God. God has shown what is right and wrong, what is up and down – through what happened to Jesus Christ.

So what does it mean to seek what is above?

There are at least three very significant meanings of this, and they are indicated already in the next verses:

1. Unity

3:12-14: As Gods chosen one, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Paul continues to use the image of the holy court and starts reflecting on what are the proper clothing for those who have been united, chosen, holy – to be with Christ – the one who is “above”.

It is the attitudes of Jesus Christ that are the only proper clothing: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, - in one word: love. These are the only attitudes that really qualify to be “above”. These are not qualities that exclude the others, those who are less privileged, those who are different. Rather to the contrary, these are the attitudes, the “clothes”, that show that some other differences are not really important, they are not counting:  In the renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarbian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!(verse 11).

What really matters, what is the goal of the Christian message, the Gospel, the unity with Christ, is that we are called to be one, to live in fellowship with one another, to pursue the qualities that Christ has given us, to find the new ways of being what God has created us to be: “You have clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” (Verse 10) And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.(verse 14)

Unity is not a luxury, that we could pay some attention to when we have the extra resources and the extra time for it – after solving our basic problems, be it as churches, as families, as communities, as nations, as one world, one humanity. No: Unity is what we are created for and what we are being saved through Christ for. The unity that makes us able to be who we are, what we are in the service of one another. This is not a goal of something outside the world, or something at the courts of power or wealth. The unity of love is something that God has given us in being created and being united with Christ. So that we are able to live and accept ourselves and love ourselves, as God loves us in Christ. So that we are able to love one another as God’s created and beloved peoples. So that we are able to live in harmony with others who are different. So that we are able to live in God’s creation with respect and responsibility for the one creation God has given to us in live in.

The churches are called to be one so that the love of God in Christ can be seen – and more than that, so that the love of God in Christ can rule in a broken reality of this world, whether it is here in Zimbabwe or in Norway, or in any other country and place where the Church of Jesus Christ is present. We are called to be one so that we can show that there are always new possibilities for forgiveness, for new life, for a new start, for a renewed relationship.

Fragmentation is destructive. Differences belong to what God has created. Division and exclusion, not to speak about discrimination and violence, are what not belongs to what is “above”. This leads me to my second point:

 

2. Liberation

Up and down is in the biblical language that is used to describe the relation between what belongs to God, to the good life given in God, to the values of the kingdom of God: Justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).

But this language is also used to say that there is something to which we have to say “no”. There is something that is “down”, something we should leave behind us, something we even have to fight against, with the means of love that are given to us. There is something that God wants to liberate us from. To be united with Christ is to be liberated from bonds that are keeping us “down”, under the weight of evil, sin and death.

Paul put some names on these realities, these attitudes, these acts that God wants to liberate us from. He uses the image of being buried and raised, and says that there is something  - not somebody! - we should “put to death”, something that is within ourselves: “…fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (verse 5). He continues: “… get rid of such things anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another. (verse 8)

Dear sisters and brothers, we could continue ourselves, and name even more of what are threatening our life in unity together in our time and in our lives:

Colonization, occupation, militarization, terror, discrimination, ignorance, exclusion, economic inequalities, economic injustice, social injustice, violence and abuse of children, gender based violence, racism, tribalism, sectarianism, legitimisation of violence in the name of religion…. We should not cheat ourselves; we live in a time when the lists of sins are long as in the time of Paul – maybe even longer than ever before.

You have a history of liberation from colonisation and from the regime of racism. You have a history of the churches and the council of churches as pivotal in these processes of liberation. The whole ecumenical family in the world was inspired by your brave witness and work, and stood in solidarity with you, as the acts of liberation that were seeking what is “above”, what belongs to the will of God. We need to continue our journey together, seeking together what is “above”. That is way we are here today with you. That is why we need with us in the global ecumenical movement.

In your country as in every country in the world, there are many visible and less visible bonds that keep us down, that create injustice and conflict, that are cutting the bonds of love. The church is always called to preach and to work for the liberation from sin and the liberation to the fellowship of unity, where we are not discriminating or excluding one another, but embracing one another in the unity of Christ – in the one body of Christ.

Some of us were in Namibia, in Windhoek, last week, at the Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation. The theme was: “Liberated by God’s grace”. This is the summary of the best legacy from what we call Reformation, the rediscovery of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the essence of what it means to be united with the crucified and risen Christ. It is to live in the grace of God, the liberating grace of God; the grace that is addressing sin and not ignoring it or excusing it or let it continue as an open wound. This is the grace of God that can lead to liberation, to justice, to peace, to joy, to real healing.

 

3.  Solidarity

My dear sisters and brothers, actually the word of God turns upside down what we often think of as up and down. “Above” is actually under; to be with God in the highest is to be with those who are put at the lowest. This is the example of Jesus Christ, this is what it means to be united with Jesus Christ.

To follow Christ is to find the expressions of unity that are real bonds of love. To follow Christ is to say no to the unfair and unjust systems of power and to liberate one another to a life in love – expressed through justice and peace. To follow Christ is to show the real meaning of solidarity, to be with one another where God has called us to be in this world.

The ecumenical movement is a movement seeking unity, what is better, what is “above”; seeking unity through liberation from the evil, from what is “under”; seeking unity through actions of solidarity with one another. We should be mindful but also clear in our accountability to one another, being open, transparent, and reliable.

The church is the movement of pilgrims that are really seeking what is “above”, seeking what belongs to God and which God wants should also belong to us as human beings.

This is the fellowship of those who pray every day that the kingdom of God will come, that the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We do not need the rankings of the world where some are always the loser and some are becoming more and more rich and mighty. We need – however - to say that something is “above”, and that something should be and remain “under” - in the sense that something is right and something is wrong, something is giving life and something leads to death.

First of all, and “above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of  Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.

Let it be so. Here in Zimbabwe and in the whole church of Christ in the world. So that the world may believe. So that we all may live in justice and peace.

Amen.