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Unity in love

On 25 November, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit gave a sermon in Chennai, India, on the topic of "Unity in love".

26 November 2015

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC

St George Cathedral, Church of South India
Chennai, India
November 25, 2015
The inauguration worship of the meeting of United and Uniting Churches


“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)


Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear fellow disciples of Christ,

dear representatives of a United or Uniting Church,

dear Moderator and hosts of the Church of South India,


It is a great honour and joy to visit you here in the Church of South India - as a truly united church, one of those who really materialized the vision of visible unity of the ecumenical movement in the post-war and post-colonial period. This was the same time as the World Council of Churches was established as another concrete expression of churches relating to one another and searching visible unity in faith, witness and service to the one humanity for freedom, justice and peace.

We gather in the name of Christ who called his disciples – to what? To unity? Well, there is no text from the Gospels that exactly uses a word to be translated to “unity” as a description of the quality of relationships among the followers of Jesus Christ. The Gospels are not so much reflecting on ideas, theories or something abstract; but speaks about the gifts of God, about human beings, the struggle of life, about attitudes, emotions and convictions – and much more that can bring people together in unity.

Unity can be a beautiful idea to bind us together or a principle of harmony. History shows that this idea easily also can be turned into a tool of power, of demanding uniformity, in terms of opinions, perspectives, identity and behaviour in a hierarchical or forced expression of controlled unity.

I am not making a point of scholarly reading of dictionaries here. When we reflect on what “unity” or “visible unity” means for the Church, we have to pay attention to the Church as a reality of relations. I am pointing to the quality of relations, their thickness, their content and their structure, the dimensions of moral accountability in relationships and the dimension of hope and faith that is expressed in relationships.

The first and most significant content of the unity of the Church, is, as Jesus says: Love. The love between his disciples is the sign of them being one. The long reflection on separation and belonging that is formulated so brilliantly in the Prayer of Jesus in John 17, from where we quote his prayer that “they all may be one”, is a long reflection on what it means to remain in love. The relationship between them is defined by their relationship to God in Christ. Just as the Father and the Son are one, because of the love that is expressed between them, so are also the followers of Christ one in God, in the love of God.

Love is not something abstract, an idea, a principle. Love is not a tool for dominion and abuse of power. If it turns into something like that, then it is not love anymore. Love is a reality shown in what we do, how we turn to one another in respect, in honour, in providing what the other needs, in bringing justice and peace into reality. Love is to bind ourselves to one another in giving and receiving, in mutual relationships of life, also in structures of visible unity.

Therefore, all that we say and write about “unity” in the Church or among the churches, must serve the life given by God in the quality of relationships that is love.

Love is not the sign of perfection or perfectionism, when everything is without obstacles, challenges, wounds, sorrows, conflicts or unrest. Love is what can trespass everything, particularly such obstacles. Love is what makes us really human and really spiritual. There is no true spirituality reflecting the belief in the triune God that is not an expression of the love of God, mirrored in deep human love.

Love is not only the good feelings we can have to one another. Love is the commitment to stay together, as the first Assembly of the WCC said in 1948. Love is also the commitment to move together, as we said in the 10th Assembly in Busan in 2013. This means to go into an unknown future, as disciples of Christ, believing that love can create something more and something else than what we see today. Hope, faith and love belong always together.

Love is first of all and most of all and in the very end the gift of God. Love is that God loved us first. That is why we are called to be disciples, that is why we are called to be Christians, to be Church, to be signs of the one humanity God created us to be, together from all layers of society, of all tribes and nations, of confessions and continents, of different personalities and different.

In the theme of this conference you speak about “Living in tents”. My limited experience of “living in tents” tells me something relevant for what the unity of church in love means. Firstly, living in big tents in the winter of Norway as a chaplain together with the soldiers training, I learned that I had to take my hour during the night to take care of putting wood into the fire. Living in tents requires a life together in discipline in solidarity with one another. Love and unity must be very practical and structural to be real. Secondly, I have, some months ago, together with the Leadership of the Central committee of the WCC, visited some Palestinian families who tried to live peacefully in tents in the Jordan valley, making their living from what they could grow there. The day before our visit, their tents were bulldozed by Israeli military. Living in tents is making life very vulnerable. Living in tents means that you have to depend on the willingness to protect one another as human beings in justice and peace.

We are called to be signs of the hope that comes from the presence of Christ in our world, whose presence is actually described in the beginning if the Gospel of John as God living in a tent among us. The face of the one who needs the basic expressions of love is the face of Christ. The face of the one who brings signs of love is the face of those who become known to be the follower of Christ by the signs of love. In all we are the images of God, all created in the image of God, which we then are called to carry out in our faith, hope and love together as the icon of Christ.

Therefore, the unity of the Church is for the relationship of love among the disciples of Christ. The unity of the Church is there for the world that needs signs of hope, of God’s presence in the world, amidst all signs of the reality of evil. The unity of the Church is for the glory of God.

May God bless you and your unity and your common witness to Christ in love, on a pilgrimage of justice and peace!