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Sermon given at morning prayer

Sermon given at the morning prayer of the WCC Central Committee meeting 2006

06 September 2006

Sermon given at the morning prayer of the WCC Central Committee meeting

Bible text: Mark 10: 35-45
Preacher: Rev. Dr Walter Altmann, moderator

Peace with you from the one who is, who was and shall be, our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ!

"It is not so among you!", says Jesus.

You, members of the central committee, have been elected and invested at the closing worship of the 9thAssembly in Porto Alegre, with a mandate which will last until the next WCC assembly. We are all fully aware of the importance of this highest deliberative body in the WCC in between assemblies. And therefore we are also fully aware of the significance of this moment, when we begin the first full business meeting of this central committee. Which word from the Bible can help to guide us as we exercise this responsibility? Perhaps the text we just have heard. It contains the narrative of a particular moment in the fellowship of Jesus with the twelve. It contains wise and significant exhortations from Jesus and words full of promise. It is the text I chose for this moment.

"It is not so among you!" What is it that is not so among us? Well, Jesus makes a comparison. Those who govern this world dominate over the peoples. The great ones among them are tyrants. This is a reality which we know from our days, as well, and know it all too well. How much those who govern and those who aspire to govern think that they can impose their will upon the others, even with terror and massive use of the weapons of war?!

"It is not so among you!" But then a doubt arises and haunts us. Is that true? Can we rely on that? If we consider the history of Christianity, hasn't it become all too often a part of structures and mechanisms of domination? Coming from a church from the South, how did Christianity come to us? Through solidarity? Through fellowship? Through the witness of good examples to be followed? Through the word of persuasion spoken to free consciences?

For sure, we too have experienced all of that in our history. And give thanks to God for it. But we all know that there were so often impositions, forced baptisms and catechism methods that did not aim at a free consent. There has been cultural violence, disrespect towards others' convictions and practices.

"It is not so among you?"

As we look closer to our own reality, yes to ourselves - to ourselves as members of the central committee, why not? -, can we in good conscience and in a loud voice proclaim that among us it is not so? Don't we ever fall into the temptation of trying to impose our own views, our style, and our own convictions? Is there never any power struggle in our meetings? The one among us, who is without sin, may throw the first stone!

And yet, Jesus said -yes, Jesus, not one of twelve: "It is not so among you!" How in the world can he say that? Jesus - is he that naïve? Didn't he recognize the reality of dispute among his closest followers, right under his eyes?

That's what we might think. But that's not what it is. Jesus spoke these words precisely at the moment in which a rupture in the collegiality and in the fraternal relations among the twelve occurred. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, wished to sit one at Jesus' right hand, the other at his left, in his glory. A quite understandable wish. Shouldn't we all wish to be as close to Jesus as possible?

However, they were not only two, but twelve. (How many are we here? Just the central committee has more than 150 members.) Well, let's go back to that time. They were not only two, but twelve. And the other ten got angry at James and John. Way deep in their hearts they had the same wish! They just did not want James and John to occupy the places they themselves wished to have.

Am I reading something into Scripture? Well, at least Jesus did not tell James and John that the other ten were a wonderful example they should follow. Jesus speaks to all of them without making any distinction. And then what does he say? Surprisingly: "It is not so among you!" That is: he says these words precisely at a moment in which everything seems to indicate that "among you it is just the same". "You are in no way different from those who govern and rule in this world."

But beware: something must be different, because if nothing is different, how in the world would Jesus say precisely at this moment "it is not so among you"? Well, the difference certainly lies not in the supposedly higher moral quality and exceptional aptitude of the twelve. The difference, the fundamental difference, lies in the simple fact that Jesus himself is with them. And they are his disciples.

Note that Jesus did not say: "Among you it should not be so!" Rather, he proclaims: "It is not so among you!" That is: he is not giving a command, he is making a promise.

That is a tremendous and fundamental difference. Jesus does not simply make a difference; he is different and acts differently. To start, there is a difference in the way how he deals with a complicated situation among his closest followers. The seed of discord had been sown; the sour fruit of division was immediately being picked. What does Jesus say in this situation? He does not reproach them; at best he does it indirectly, so that they themselves can come to recognize their sin. Well, he does not reproach them. (Recrimination is what the ten wanted from Jesus towards James and John.) Jesus, like "the best pedagogue the world has ever seen" (I think I have seen at airport book shops a series of books with titles like "Jesus, the best teacher the world has ever seen", "the best psychologist", "the best administrator" and so on. Some people are smart enough to make good money out of Jesus!)

Irony apart, Jesus, like best teacher the world has ever seen, deals with them with compassion, with mercy, with grace. "God, in your grace, transform the world!" "It is not so among you!" "I am with you, every day, to the end of the age." To the end of the age! "Of course, I am with you also to the end of your mandate, you people of little faith". "I am with you in the moments of doubt, in the moments of weakness, in the moments of temptation. I am with you always, and therefore: it is not so among you."

And that is the reason why Jesus does not say: "It should not be so among you." But rather says: "Among you it is not so." Of course, it should not be so among the followers of Jesus. It should not be like it is among those who govern this world. But the difference lies not in a most doubtful superiority of the followers of Jesus, much less in the mere wish and will of his disciples. Certainly, they will have to pray for the best gifts; they will have to have the desire of following his footsteps and living out God's commandments. For sure, as well, they will have to make efforts in their discipleship. But the new reality will never depend on their unreliable intimate desires, on the fickle will of their minds or the fragile efforts of their arms. Everything will depend from the presence of Jesus himself in their midst.

Therefore: also in this central committee, in its deliberations and decision-making we will certainly have to dedicate time and energy, we will have to read many documents, engage in many studies and debates, and always be deeply rooted in our churches. There will have to be our very personal dedication, with our minds and our hearts. But everything decisive will depend from the Jesus' presence in our midst, from God's guidance through the Holy Spirit.

But we are assured of this presence and this guidance. Once more: we will be tempted to forget that this is the most fundamental element, tempted to leave Jesus aside, tempted not to listen to the Holy Spirit, and substitute all this by our own preconceived plans, by our open or hidden prejudices, by our paltry disputes. That is what was happening among the twelve. Should we take it that we are better than they were? Are we immune to temptations of this sort? Certainly not. Only with the presence of Christ and his word of grace, only by the power of the Holy Spirit, constantly renewed for us, are we then immunized again and again. It is God's action. It is grace.

Again: "It is not so among you, because I am with you." In this promise we can trust. And as we trust, transformation occurs. "God, in your grace, transform the world." Transform us, transform me. "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." Of all, of all. Not only of those who are like me, but all. Not only those who give me support, but also those who think differently. Of all, of all.

Let us come to a conclusion: we have work ahead of us. The challenges are not small. We are called to give expression to unity in the midst of diversity and also in the midst of unavoidable tensions among us. There is much to do. But let us trust that Jesus is among us and with us. He is the "greatest servant the world has ever seen". "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

For the marvellous dignity of being his disciples, let us give thanks and glory to God.