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Speech at the University of Hanshin

Speech given by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at the ceremony in which he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hanshin.

08 April 2015

​Honoured Principal, faculty members, students, dear sisters and brothers in Christ!

To receive this honour today is a double encouragement for me personally and for the work of the World Council of Churches. Both dimensions of encouragement are more significant the more we can share them, particularly when we share them with you students who are the future servants of the Church, as researchers, teachers, preachers, ecumenists and peacemakers.

To receive this high recognition for the work the WCC and I am doing for unity, justice and peace is a great encouragement. The knowledge and the formation of your institution give enlightenment we all need in church and society. Your University is known for serving the society and the Church through education and research. You are contributing to solid knowledge and conveying values like serenity in the academic work and a commitment to serve with your knowledge and capacities.

Your church, the PROK, is known to the wider ecumenical movement as a very committed and strong partner and promoter of the Christian contribution to justice and peace in the world. Particularly in your Korean context you resiliently work for justice, peace, reunification and a common future of your people and nation. As you were actively preparing and generously co-hosting the 10th Assembly of the WCC in 2013, your contribution is for ever written into the history of the WCC.

I firmly believe that the work we should do as a WCC requires a solid theological work and reflection. This should be based on studies of the Biblical texts, of the rich Christian traditions and significant theologians past and present, and studies of the context and the time in which we live. This must go on constantly, in a deep sense of accountability. We need to be accountable to the standards of academic work, accountable for the theological traditions and ecumenical legacy on which we stand, and to be accountable for what our contributions in the present time can be used for.

This requires a deep sense also of mutual accountability. We need to be open, to be transparent, to be willing to present our positions openly and to be criticized, and to be committed to respect and learn from our studies together.

We are today also enlightened by the resurrection of Christ. This time of Easter is an encouragement to see again what we are called to be and do in the light of the new reality and the new relations that the resurrection of Christ brings to the world. Let me share with you some reflections in this regard.

The first message of the risen Christ is, according to the Gospel of Mathews (chapter 28:1-15) is: “Do not be afraid!” It is followed by a clear mandate to the two women at the grave. They were shocked first by an earthquake, the presence of an angel, and then of the encounter with risen Jesus Christ himself. The brave and armed soldiers were even more shocked, according to the story. Nevertheless, the two Marys were trusted and commissioned to go and tell what they have seen and heard.

Do not be afraid! This is a word of comfort – but it is also a calling to be what God has meant you to be.

Firstly, it is call to be honest, but not to be paralyzed or cynical. Tell what you have seen and heard. Even if it is a tough or unexpected realty, or something that might disturb ourselves and those we are called to speak to.

The Gospel stories are in a remarkable way honest and realistic, speaking about true life and real human beings and reactions. They really were afraid, as many are afraid in our world today. The more I see the insecurity, the suffering, the brutality, and the fear of human beings in different contexts of the world, the more I understand and feel how real the Good Friday stories are, as they speak about Jesus Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. They are stories about human beings and human actions, their inhumanity and their deeply human reactions of sorrow and fear.

Even the story about the resurrection starts with a realistic description of fear, based on confusion and totally unexpected experiences. In the Gospel of Mark, the resurrection story actually originally ends by saying that they were all afraid.

To be realistic, presenting the truth as it is, has always been according to the Christian faith. The Christian faith is an openness to the truth about ourselves as humanity, with our great, God-given potential and also with our great sins and not imaginable miseries and mistakes. The Christian faith is openness to the word that is spoken to us, the word that comes from outside, the word of truth, which is also the word of liberation.

 

Secondly, the words “Do not be afraid” are a call to be faithful, to do what you are called to do. Be what you are, a human being that Christ can use, a person that Christ needs.

We need to encourage one another to see this calling, and to acknowledge the contributions the others are making.

 

Thirdly, the words “Do not be afraid!” are a call to be courageous, to follow the risen Christ, This is not a call to triumphalism. It is a call to be filled by the courage Christ can give us. Do not be locked into your fear, even if it is reasonable. Do not be hold back by all cold calculations of how much power or how much influence you have.

This is a call to carry the cross of Christ in the world. The cross is a sign of the cruel reality of this world, what we also call sin. In the light of the resurrection the cross is also a sign of a new reality, a reality of peace. This reality has many dimensions, and they correspond to the proper reaction to the new message of the new reality: Do not be afraid!

We are called to be honest, but not to be focused primarily on our fear and challenges, but our potential and our contributions. The value of what we are called to bring, is not diminished by our fear for the realities in this world and the lack of influence we might face.

The Gospel of Matthews speaks into the reality of his contemporary believers, the first and second generation of listeners to this remarkable story of Jesus Christ. They had many reasons to be afraid. They were affected by the many power struggles of those days, experiencing the effect of the empirical rule, the arbitrary use of violence of rulers like Herod, the acts of corruption to cover the truth, the fear of famines, of being driven from their homes. This is reflected in the Gospel of Mathews in many ways.

They knew what it was to be thirsty, hungry, to suffer injustice, to be imprisoned, to be ill and alone (as it is described in chapter 25) because of their faith in Jesus Christ. But they needed to see that whatever they contribute to healing, to justice, to peace – all is of great significance, it is serving Jesus Christ himself.

The cross shows that to be a victim of sin or injustice does not mean that you have lost the meaning of your life. To face problems or challenges, even our own shortcomings, does not mean that we are useless or abandoned.

The cross shows that God have the last word, not sin or injustice or death.

Therefore, when the readers of the Gospel hear that the peacemakers and those who are thirsting for righteousness, are blessed (chapter 5), they get the same message as the women at the Easter morning. There is more than what you experience just now. Go, do what you believe is right, do not be afraid, even if you are persecuted for the sake of Christ.

No wonder that the Gospel emphasizes that the word of the risen Christ is: “Do not be afraid!” It is deeply human to be afraid. Still, we can acknowledge and emphasize other dimensions of our humanity, in the light of the resurrection they get another quality and empowerment: Care, comfort, compassion, companionship, and courage.

We shall not speak in a superficial way of fear. Neither shall we speak in a superficial way of hope. The Gospel does not. But the Gospel gives us courage and resilience to continue the good work. The very last words of the Gospel of Matthews are: “I am with you, to the end of the ages.”

 

Therefore, let me acknowledge your words and acts of encouragement as real gifts to me and the WCC.

Let us together acknowledge that we need to encourage one another to continue responding to the calling we have each one of us and together as one ecumenical movement.

The risen Christ will not only meet us today, but also in the unknown future, with the same words: “Do not be afraid!”