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Sermon of Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit in Uppsala Cathedral

Sermon of Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in Uppsala Cathedral on 4 November 2018

04 November 2018

Sermon in Uppsala Cathedral
4 November, 2018
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General Secretary World Council of Churches

Available also in Swedish

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.—Matthew 5: 13-16

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

On the 4th of July 1968, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. should have entered this pulpit here in Uppsala Cathedral, to preach at the opening service of the 4th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He never came. On April 4 he was assassinated, for being the salt and the light in the world that he was called by our Lord Jesus Christ to be.

At this All Saints Day we remember him as the World Council of Churches executive committee is meeting here, 50 years after a meeting that decisively turned the WCC toward social engagement in the world.

You are the salt of the world. You are the light of the world. These are Jesus’ words to his followers. In a world of destruction and darkness, in a world of discrimination and hate speech, in a world of violence and death, in a world of evil and sin, these words are our guide and goad.

Where things get rotten and tasteless, you are the salt. Where people cannot find their way in the darkness, you are the light.

You are there to be the signs of the love of God. You are there to be the signs of the coming kingdom of God.


“Behold, I make all things new.” This was the theme that gathered and challenged the participants from around the world as they came to Uppsala in July 1968.

We thank the Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of the Church of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, and the churches here in Sweden for inviting the WCC executive committee and many others to celebrate and to be challenged at this 50th anniversary. This is one of many events that also mark the 70 years of the WCC this year. The Uppsala assembly became a milestone, even a turning point on that pilgrimage journey.

They saw that hope means to anticipate, which means to participate in the coming reign of God. It led to a renewed commitment to be salt and light in the world – together, to be signs of this new reality. Together as one fellowship of churches, as one ecumenical movement.

“The Church is bold in speaking of itself as the sign of the coming unity of mankind.” So they even said in the report from the assembly in 1968.

For the small community of disciples in a world where the emperor was the light and the power, Jesus’ words to them might have sounded almost ridiculous. Likewise, the bold words of the assembly in Uppsala might have sounded exaggerated, speaking of the coming unity of humankind when the world in 1968 was divided between East and West in the Cold War, and between South and North for centuries due to the era of colonization that was only then coming to an end.

What made the church delegates boldly announce this new mandate they had discovered? How were they emboldened to be the sign of the unity of all created in the image of God—black and white, rich and poor, from all continents, women and men? What made them so bold as to be salt and light in the world together?

I think there are several answers, and I will mention three of them:

First: Dr Martin Luther King Jr. did not come to the assembly. But it looks like his struggle and his boldness to work for justice were there. The leader of the civil rights movement in the USA was a true witness and prophet of the new things to come, that had to come, but that only would come through hard work and struggle. He proclaimed nonviolent struggle to end racism in legislation, in politics, in practices, in attitudes, in speech, in the media, in the schools. He had become the voice of the growing cries for justice and for peace among the oppressed peoples in many countries in (what we today call) the global south. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. We can well understand that he was invited to give new inspiration and new direction to the churches’ understanding of what it meant to be salt and light in the world – and how to be so together. The unity of the church must be a unity in reconciliation, in justice and peace, between all people of any race, gender, land or continent.

The spirit of his work was very much alive in Uppsala in July 1968. He became a martyr for his faith, his dream, of a new humanity – according to God’s will. He continues to inspire so many around the world today.

On All Saints Day we gather to offer thanks to God and to them for their lives and ministry – for all that bear such fruit among us. I am convinced that the martyrdom of Martin Luther King made the participants in the assembly in 1968 sad but also courageous, even so bold as to see themselves as salt and light, signs of the new unity of humankind. Nothing less.

In the one ecumenical movement we are walking, praying and working together, also with those who are not members of the WCC. There are different ways of honouring the people who have gone before us and left examples to us. Two weeks ago, Pope Francis canonized another church leader in the Roman Catholic Church who has been an inspiration for people in all churches worldwide in my generation, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. He was shot dead as he celebrated mass before the altar in his church in San Salvador in 1980. He did what he was asked and called to do, being a priest and a bishop for his people who experienced military dictatorship, oppression, violence, injustice, and poverty. In his canonization the virtue of courage was emphasized: The courage to tell the truth in love, the courage to care for the people who need the signs of the kingdom of God, the courage to be salt and light.

Here in Sweden you commemorate and give thanks to God – together with people from many other countries – for the life and witness of the Holy Birgitta. She continues to help us to pray: “God, show me your way, and make me ready to follow it.” She too remains salt and light to the world.

We could make the list much longer. Whether we call them saints or not, there are so many people who have been given the grace and the strength and the courage to show us the way. Many of them are unknown to most of us, without names in the history of the church,  women and men. They were human beings like us, not perfect, but real salt and light for our lives. Their names are in God’s eternal memory. I know some I could name in my heart who have given me faith, hope and love. Some are very close to us, some we never met personally. I am sure you can do the same. The communion of saints among us today, which we confess together, is also the communion with those who have gone before us.

Second: However, there was another remarkable dimension to the Uppsala assembly that we should not forget in this respect.  There were many young people and young voices there, and they had a lot to say to the church leaders. The photos from the Uppsala cathedral from 1968 are remarkable. The photos in my mind are those of youth representatives as they were carrying posters here in the aisle saying “end colonization,” “eradicate poverty,” “stop the war,” The world desperately needed new signs of the unity of the humankind: Justice for all, ending oppression, discrimination, colonization and racism. Peace for all, in all continents and nations and communities. We need the new voices again and again to tell the truth. We must give them space and make them visible.

The third reason I see in the reports why they were so bold is that they heard the promise of something new as words to themselves. The Gospel took on new dimensions.

Today the words are for us, here and now. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

Who were they to whom Jesus addressed these words the first time? They were the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek, those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, the peacemakers, those who are clean in their hearts, those who experience difficulties following Jesus Christ.

They were people like you and me, with our limitations and our mistakes, our failures and even sins. But as church, in the fellowship with all the saints, we are called to show the power of the salt and the clarity of the light.

These are big words. I am glad we should not say such things about ourselves. It is Jesus Christ that qualifies us to do so and to be so.


Today we live in a world disfigured by hate speech, polarization, violence, even martyrdom for the faith that people carry in their hearts and profess in words. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths – and people without religious faith – experience the effects of words of hate.

As followers of Jesus Christ, as church, we live not in a closed circle or behind thick walls, but in the world where the salt and light are needed. Our posters today are not on paper but in social media. We live in a time when accountability and love are needed in our communication – more than ever.

The ecumenical movement of love appears with saltiness and clarity. It all began with Christ’s love and Christ’s call to share this love. That is why we seek unity, not for the sake of our own comfort and peacefulness, but because the world needs the true signs of love.

Glory to the Father and to Son and to the Holy Spirit; one God, our Creator, Redeemer and Life-giver; as it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be. Amen.

Read the Opening Sermon: D. T. Niles (from the Ecumenical Review, October 1968)

Read "White Racism or World Community?" by James Baldwin (from the Ecumenical Review, October 1968)