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Homily on the theme of the WCC 11th Assembly

Sermon of the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit during a prayer service ("Andacht") in Karlsruhe, February 2019

28 February 2019

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

Prayer service ("Andacht") in Karlsruhe, 28 February 2019

“Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”


The theme for the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches brings us to the heart of our faith. It particularly challenges our understanding of what it means to be a fellowship of faith, of Christian faith, our faith in Christ. Without Christ there is no church or no faith of the church. Without Christ’s love there is no identity or purpose in being a World Council of Churches together.

The theme will help us to review and maybe redefine the relationship of being both church and world, particularly why we are called to be church in the world. Where else should the church be? But it also raises the question of what does it mean to be part of a movement, a council, a fellowship that per definition is serving the world towards God’s design for reconciliation and unity.

The theme has words – several words – that deserve deep and solid reflection. This will come in many ways in the time ahead of us, it has already started. Instead of discussing these significant words of the theme, one by one, filled by meaning as they are, I would reflect on the theme through a story, a Biblical story, a story, a parable told by Jesus, one of the best known and most referred stories in our churches – which actually says a lot about how Christ’s love moves the world.

Let us read the text and reflect on how this is a story, maybe even the story, that better than anything else express the heart of our faith as it is expressed in the theme for our next Assembly:

Luke 15:11-32.

The parable is about a prodigal son. And most often the parable is named after that most vividly described and understandable part of the story. But it also about the other son, not able to reconcile and join in rejoicing for the move in the first son. Most of all, it is a story about the merciful, gracious, generous, reconciling and uniting father.

The parable is appealing to us in many ways. As Lutherans we recognize in this story what Luther was searching most of all: A gracious God, that offers reconciliation and salvation to the sinner who have the trust in God that makes him or her turn to God in expectation and faith. Even the grain of faith that makes you turn to God is given by God, a memory of what we were created for. And no matter how are conditions or acts are, there is an open way and an open embrace for everybody, even those coming from the most self-destructive, devastating, or dehumanizing condition.

In this parable Jesus shows what the love of God means. It is unconditional, it is reaching out, even at a remote distance. And it is reaching out also beyond all sets of boundaries and practices we might imagine, in our cultures, in our families, in our communities, even in our religions. In Jesus Christ the arms of God are open to absolutely everybody and anybody.

Such radical love is to some extent unfathomable. Still, it is very real. The cross and the resurrection of Christ gave us the proof.

The sting in the parable is – according to how Luke is framing it – directed towards the powerful, educated and pious righteous leaders (“the Pharisees and the scribes”). Therefore, the story is as much about the “elder son” who can neither understand nor accept this radical love. He is not able to understand that the same love, the same generosity, is for him as well, every day. Also this day, when the younger and outrageous brother returns and is celebrated as the one who has turned, who has been through a process of conversion.

The love of the father has a mutual dimension. It remains as a piece of memory in the prodigal son, even at, or precisely at the moment of truth about himself that is the worst. The reminder of the father’s house and care make him dare to move. To move back. The movement in Christ’s love also leads us to move, back to God, to find the deeper and better meaning of life. Christ’s love moves towards us, and pulls us towards God. It is a movement in the life and in the world where we live. The love of God is moving the world as it is, when there is a connection to our response, our wish for transformation, for a new reality.

But Christ’s love is also moving the two brothers towards one another. The younger one is moved back home. But the elder is also met, the father goes out to plead him to be part of the feast, the fellowship, the relationship with the other.

So, where is Christ’s love moving the world? There is a movement in two directions: Towards God and to one another.

The movement towards God is a movement of God’s world, of God’s creation, of God’s beloved human family. It is a movement out of the distances, the divisions, and of the destructiveness we are able to bring ourselves into.  It is a movement towards seeing God’s face in the other, and particularly in those who are often excluded.

The other movement is therefore a continuation of the same movement towards God; it is the movement towards one another. The movement towards reconciliation and unity. It is not a process of covering up mistakes or our failures, or a system of impunity, but a movement towards one another that reflects Christ’s love and its effect on all of us in its radical “no” to the sin and “yes” to the sinner.

Christ’s love has the potential and the power to move us towards God and therefore towards one another, bringing justice and peace in God’s world.

The Christ-centred theme is not in opposition to the inclusive and gracious way to be church together in a post-Christian context. To the contrary. It gives us the authentic and true model of witnessing together in a multi-religious and multi-cultural context.  The focus on Christ’s love also help us to expose and address what is not according to this love, in the churches and in the world where we all live.

This is the way forward for the one ecumenical movement. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on how to be church (and a movement) where we are not bound to “religion” in a way that religious forms and expressions become an obstacle to being moved together in an authentic way by Christ’s love. However, it is not a God-less world we are moving in or into; we are always in God’s world. This is the world that God loved so much that he gave his only begotten son. This is the world that still can be and is moved by love.

Nothing more. Nothing less.