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Sermon of the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit at Epiphany, 7 January 2019

Sermon of the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary at the Morning Prayer in the Ecumenical Centre, Epiphany, 7 January 2019

07 January 2019

Happy New year,
dear sisters and brothers -

Today many of us celebrate the feast of epiphany. Some in our fellowship, in the Orthodox family, celebrate Christmas. Later today I will attend the Christmas celebration of the Russian Orthodox Church here in Geneva. The story of the “magoi”, the astrologists, or the scientists of those days, or the “wise” as we often translate it, unites us all. Those unidentified worshipers of the newborn child, coming “from the East”, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, are representatives of all of us and therefore have the potential to bring us to Jesus Christ, who is the one who can unite us all.

The story not only unites us in the sense that Christmas and Epiphany are so closely connected; we celebrate the same joy and mystery, as “the magoi” belong to what we can see everywhere as “the Nativity scene”. But the story, the strange story we must say, with all its images, and the imaginations we can have as we hear it, unites the family of those who worship Jesus in many ways. And actually, the story has a potential to unite far beyond the Christian family.

What the story brings forward is truly a unity in diversity. Through the ages, and in all cultures and continents there have been developed new colours, names, traditions and interpretations to the story. Here in Switzerland there are some specific traditions related to the cake to be eaten today. In Syria the traditional image is of twelve men. The text does not say how many they were, only mentions three different gifts they brought with them. In churches further East the traditions are many in how this is celebrated. In India at least one of them is seen as coming from their culture and land. In the church in the west the magoi were given names according to where they believed they came from, Arabia, Africa, Persia (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar). There are many fascinating ways of in-culturation of this story. This history of interpretation belongs really to the openness of the Christian tradition. The story is open for that richness of diversity.

In this way the story and how it is interpreted and used is not only a sign of the unity of the Christian family, or the Christian church families or “confessional families” as we might call them here in this house. It is a story about the whole human family and a story for the whole human family. It happens in the context of a real, tangible, basic human family, at a certain time and in a certain place, with the experiences of the ordinary life of ordinary people, but brought into extraordinary pressure and dangerous circumstances – as many were then and are today.

I hear, or rather see, in my imagination,  in the story of the magoi who came to “worship him” (literally: to “fall down on their knees,  before him” – as it is described in the many images of this story) how the whole human family can be united in what really matters in this world: A reverence for the new life born, seen as one born as a coming leader of another culture and people than those who worship him. There is a reverence for how God came into the Jewish people, but with a clear sign that his kingdom is not of this world and for all people. It is not a text that should be used for any anti-Jewish propaganda, either, even if we know the tragic history of how the texts of the Gospels have been used that way to promote racism.

He is born by a woman who has accepted the call from God, supported by a man who also listened to the call from God to protect her and the child from disgrace, from marginalization, from threats and attacks. This is a reverence for the mystery of life, and an honour to the mystery of being human – and being human together in the close relationships we belong to – as we should be together – with all our differences and diversity. The story of Jesus born as a human as anybody else born in this world, is told as a story of being born into a vulnerable, not yet fully established family, but also in to “a house and lineage”, into a line of genealogy, into a people, in a geographical land area – but also received and honoured by representatives of the whole human family, representing all our wisdom, longing, faith, hope – and love. For sure, they could not be classified as Christians in the sense we use the word in our time. Well, not the parents of Jesus, could be so either. Still, they became the models of Christian faith and faithfulness, marked by true love.

This story is then told into the story of the brutality of this world, into the most disgusting and condemnable dimensions of humanity; the envy, the destructive suspicion, the fear of rivalry and losing something, and the worst ways of dealing with fear: Violence. Cruel violence against the most vulnerable, the children. And thereby, violence against their mothers – as it was for Rachel, that Matthew refers to  – weeping for her children. Joseph belongs to the story, but disappeared after these events, however remaining as a father who acts as a father should do: Listening to the call from God to support, to protect, even to give space and honour to others – particularly to the child.

It is not just ecumenical protocol or kind phrases when we call one another “sisters and brothers” in the ecumenical movement. It is a sign of how we see one another as sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ, as part of the family of the Church. The story about “the magoi” – who are actually not identified as “men” in the text of Matthew’s Gospel – helps us to see that as worshippers of Jesus Christ from all parts of the world we express together that we are part of the one human family of God. As we are, women and men, with all our differences and similarities.

The ecumenical family is called to be a sign of the unity of the Church, the one body of Christ. As such, we are true human beings, and we therefore are also called to be the sign of the unity of the one human family, all equally created in the image of God. This image became visible as something real human, and truly divine, in the child born, in Jesus Christ. The human family got something new that changes what it means to be human for ever – and for all.

Today, we need as before, but particularly now, to show the true reverence of the mystery of the gift of life of being human. That God became human is the strongest possible expression of this respect, dignity, even reverence for human life.

The most basic dimension of being human is the need to be loved – and to love. This is also the most basic dimension of our call as followers of Christ: To learn and experience that we are loved through Jesus Christ – and to be called to love as Jesus Christ taught us and compelled us to do.

This is, therefore, the prophetic call of the churches and the churches together in the ecumenical movement: to share the truth about Christ’s love for the world, for the whole of the human family, in our words and our deeds. This is the mission of the Church in every age and in every place. This means to challenge everything and everybody that contradicts his love for humanity – and for the world in which we are living together – as one human family.

This love has to be made visible, as a contradiction to the appeal to fear and the abuse of power in response to fear. This is a contradiction to  the appeal to focus primarily on self-interests against the common good, through the ignorance of the needs of others, even in attacks on human dignity and human rights. The story of “the magoi” shows us the opposite. Their wisdom is the opposite of greed, the lack of generosity; they are known through their generous gifts. They used their wisdom to listen to divine guidance, to not comply with the power that used violence. The story about the reconciliation and unity of the one human family is dismantling the sins of the world, particularly  the cruel, brutal violence, whoever is behind it – individuals, terrorists or heads of states.

This is why we call one another to unite in the worship of Jesus the child, Jesus the true image of God, Jesus our Lord. Christ’s love is what we need, what we all need – whose name says that he came to save us from our sins. Let us worship in truth and spirit, as we move on in our pilgrimage for justice and peace.

I think that we should also interpret the story and apply it on ourselves as we start a new year of work with our different tasks and capacities here in the Ecumenical Centre, but with common calling and objectives. The “magoi” as worshippers are not only worshippers as they kneel before Jesus. They are those who make plans, who set objectives, who work hard to implement them, who listen to wisdom and divine revelations, who change plans when needed, who travel, who move, who communicate, who listen, who do what is needed in practical terms to achieve what they are called to, and who do this together. It is not “magic” – it is real, and sometimes hard work.

This year the WCC has a special focus in our pilgrimage of justice and peace accompanying the churches in Asia, and we have a thematic focus on “racism”. This day of epiphany shows us how God loves the whole family, and how there can be no partiality, no discrimination, no exclusion, no racism in Jesus Christ.

Dear sisters and brothers, let us move together into this new year, with the openness, the courage, the wisdom and the commitment of these “magoi”, seeking Jesus Christ together, wherever he is present today in this world and in this one human family that God loves so much that he sent his only begotten son.