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A Fellowship of Love: Transformation for Christ’s Sake

Convocation Address by Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit in Serampore College, Serampore, 4 December 2018

06 December 2018

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
Convocation Address
Serampore College, Serampore
4 December 2018

 

Introduction: The transformative power of love

Your Excellence’s, Graduates, dear Sisters and Brothers,

Thank you for the invitation to address this august gathering. You have passed a significant milestone of 200 years, in the history of this college. We in the ecumenical movement are participating in this history in unity and love.

There is power in love. The World Council of Churches, as a worldwide fellowship of churches, has come to a decisive milestone in its history – 70 years since it was established. In reflecting on the experiences of this time span in which churches have been walking together serving justice and peace, I become more and more convinced that our common journey together has to be read as a story of love. As we celebrate and commemorate the 70th anniversary, the churches realize with thanksgiving to God the many expressions of love and how it is manifested in the sharing of our gifts, sufferings and hopes.

There is power in love. I truly believe that this koinonia, the communion of churches in faith, unity and service cannot be described more appropriately than as a fellowship of love. We have grown closer together and seen more clearly what unites us. We also have experienced what it means to stand together in times of trial and division as the result of different theological and ecclesiological interpretations. We have learned a lot about living together with our diversity. We have encouraged one another to remain faithful to our common calling and mission in the world and to become mutually accountable to one another about how we are grounded in the continuous love of the triune God in seeking to fulfil this calling.

In emphasizing love as the binding force of the ecumenical movement, we should not be tempted to understand it as a sentimental and self-serving notion. Rather, love in the ecumenical movement describes the fundamental commitment to the love of Christ, to all humanity and to the whole of creation. It is this orientation at the core of our faith – this agape love, the unconditional and self-offering love of Christ – that makes us a koinonia, a communion of love. This love is a costly love. It takes the risk of revealing ourselves to one another as we are, both with our gifts and with all our imperfections. It does neither account for failures against the other, nor does it veil the shadows of our experiences. Yet it hopes for the best in our relationships and believes in the possibility of genuinely living as reconciled and reconciling agents in the world and for one another. This love does not appear as triumphalist or self-referential: it derives its power out of vulnerability. In this paradoxical turn lies the whole significance of the cross. It is the sign of God’s love for all. At the same time, it reminds us that we cannot have unity or fellowship of love without the cross and the resurrection of Christ.[1]

There is much we can learn together, as churches and partners in communion. In this sense the ecumenical movement is a fellowship of love and of learning. We are each other’s companions as we seek to be disciples of Christ in his mission of love. In him, and through the renewing Holy Spirit, we are liberated to be agents of transformation in our own lives, churches, societies and communities. Transformation nurtured by love is marked by particular signs through which it becomes visible. Transformation always begins with an inner movement into all human existence, as metanoia, the change of hearts and minds. It then entails the consequence of living this transformation in communion – koinonia – with God, with other humans and with creation. The consequence of this living together as companions for one another unfolds in acts of consideration, as diakonia. Finally, transformation coming through love would be incomplete without consciousness of our need to continuously grow together and learn how we can best serve God and the world. Hence, learning and education remain important marks of the ecumenical movement as a fellowship of love.

 

Transformation – Leading a holy life as an expression of God’s love

In many of my visits to member churches, in the conversations I have led both with church leaders and with people at the grassroots level, one recurrent observation comes to the fore. We have to share more about how the love of God poured into our hearts changes our own very lives, our relationships, our way of engaging with societal challenges. In brief, we must share how this love affects us as people of faith and as people called to live together on a daily basis. It is precisely this transformative power of love, sustaining our existence, which we need to recall. We need to rediscover that the source of our being in the world is God’s continued love for his creation and that we are called holy as an expression of this love from which nothing can separate us (Rom. 8:35; 38-39).

Created in his image and likeness, we are called to carry forth God’s love planted in us. Ours is the task to translate this holiness in our daily lives by leading lives of prayer and thanksgiving but also, and perhaps more importantly, by turning to one another with consideration and in acts of service. The monastic and missionary movements have always held these two strands of prayerful and servant devotion together. Our forbearers in faith, ecumenical pioneers in past and present, have embodied this with their lives and ministries. The recently canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is an example of such a life lived out of faith in God’s continued love and in the courage to serve others, even at the cost of one’s own life. A dedicated life for God means at the same time a life with, and in service to, others. However, this is not an exclusivist lifestyle for a specific group, rather it is an ordinary way of life for everyone. The scriptures speak in powerful and poetic words about the transformational capacity of love in one’s life: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it”, we read in the Song of Solomon 8:6-7.

The whole biblical narrative shows why human beings are in need of divine love, both individually and collectively. The need for lasting, life-affirming and transformational divine grace and love in our times is at least as obvious as before. The fragility of life in all realms of society and with regard to the whole creation becomes even more apparent. Amidst the brokenness of the world, believing in divine love as the transformational power demands that we respond with courage and humility from within our own faith journey. Not in the sense of self-centeredness, but in clothing oneself in Christ (Gal. 3; Rom. 13; Col. 3) we respond to Christ’s gracious gift in his life and ministry and to his call to be ambassadors of reconciliation in all places: we bear responsibility for others.

Responding in faith and by acts of consideration for others to the love of the triune God is not an easy journey. It has to grow out of a lifelong commitment and learning. Sometimes it will have to be part of critical introspection on how our lives and actions are really rooted in this endless divine love. Transformation as an expression of love is therefore an experience of metanoia: an invitation to begin with a personal change of heart and mind and a refocusing on the centre of the gospel story, which in its essence is a love story. Transformation cannot be self-created but flows out of the perseverant and faithful pursuit of a discipleship in Christ that believes in love that can change the world.  Martin Luther King, whose life we celebrate in commemorating the 50th anniversary of his assassination just prior to the date when he was to speak at the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968, poignantly expressed it in the following words: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”[2]

 

Transformation out of love as koinonia

I believe that we are at a unique time in our history as an ecumenical movement to understand our fellowship as koinonia, as shared gift, in which we participate in the love of the triune God of life, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is to comprehend that giving expression to love in our daily lives, in our world that is broken in so many ways, calls us to draw closer to God and to one another.

The story of the encounter with Peter in John 21, read in light of the famous words in John 17, offers us a new perspective for the interpretation of what we are called to as a fellowship of churches. The prayer that they may all be one is fulfilled in a unique expression of love. The way forward to the ministry of unity is reopened in Jesus’ generous invitation to the meal at the shore for the disillusioned fishermen. Jesus Christ’s question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” is not leading to emotional self-preoccupation but to a wider and highly demanding task, namely to share the new sign of fellowship and unity with others in all the dimensions of the meal: “Feed my sheep – tend my sheep.” This story has motivated many – myself included – for ministry in the church and in the ecumenical movement.

And I can see clearly that there is a deep-seated longing for belonging to Christ and to one another. With his life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection, Christ is an embodied and lasting promise that his self-offering for all, out of love, has a future. This is the source and binding cord for all in the fellowship. We do not live by and for ourselves but out of the divine love for others. This provides strength to pursue the pilgrimage of justice and peace together, even in the sight of very different living conditions, deep societal and economic rifts, totalitarian political systems and rising populist tendencies. Belonging together as a fellowship of love means standing in for one another in solidarity, remaining committed to transformation as a foretaste of the kingdom of God and having the capacity to endure weakness in love for Christ’s sake. The responsibility and tasks ahead of us are enormous. Therefore, in order to achieve our ambitious goals of transformation for the common good of all, as churches and Christian institutions, we need to clarify the shared values on which we stand. What are the attitudes that bind us as a koinonia of love?

I would like to highlight three dimensions that have become important in my ministry and in the encounters with churches and partners across the world. First, I have experienced how crucial it is that we define this koinonia from an attitude of mutual accountability[3]. We have to articulate, share and learn from one another in which way we respond to the divine gift of love, how it transforms our relationship to one another and our worldview. This includes the capacity to listen with openness and respect but entails also constructive critique and self-criticism, as well as the articulation of firmly-grounded convictions as a consequence of our shared faith. In fact, I see that in as a much as God’s love has to permeate our individual lives, the quality of our lived fellowship also needs to be reflected in practices of nurturing our relationships. It must be reflected in telling the truth to one another and in together telling truth to power, as well as by establishing reliable and long-lasting relations so that our common efforts for transformation in our midst and in the world can bear fruit. This by far is not only a question of professionalising ecumenical relations but first and foremost, a matter of the credibility of the fellowship whose capacity to practice love and reconciliation within itself will have a decisive impact on dialogues with others.

This leads me to the second dimension. How can we continue and grow in our expression of being a fellowship embracing diversity? One of the most challenging, and at the same time enriching, lessons to learn in the ecumenical movement consists in comprehending more clearly how koinonia as fellowship of love grows out of a double root – the common, universal witness in Christ and the way this witness is translated in particular cultural contexts and faith practices. I believe that genuine transformation can only derive from recognizing this double bind and from embracing diversity as a gift from God in whose image we all have been created. The costly discipleship of the fellowship of love is perhaps most tangible with regard to the struggle of the Christian family on issues that divide churches in their theological and ethical interpretations, for example with regard to human sexuality. I am also reminded of M.M. Thomas’ plea in his book Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake[4] to understand the truly “ecumenical ecumenism” from the new humanity in Christ, which transcends all boundaries and has the capacity to transform from within. True unity in Christ, he emphasized, has to come from inner transformation and must accommodate diversity.

Third, we need an attitude of pilgrims. The pilgrimage of justice and peace, which the World Council of Churches has launched as an overall concept for its current work period and as an invitation to all churches and partners, is developing more and more as an encouraging and uniting symbol for the fellowship. It characterizes the way we shape ecumenical relations as expressed by the motto for the visit of Pope Francis to the World Council of Churches this summer: “Walking, praying and working together.” It is a profound and concrete expression of love in koinonia by way of celebrating the diverse gifts that churches bring into the movement as they accompany each other and are faithful companions in visiting our wounds through “pilgrim visits”, and by developing visions and strategies for transforming injustice. There is much hope in such a koinonia of love.

 

Transformation out of love as diaconia

In the history of the ecumenical movement, love has undoubtedly been expressed most clearly through the movement’s commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Being part of the body of Christ means partaking in the joys and pains of the other and, through lived faith and action, striving to effect transformation. This is so because Christians in India, as Christians in all parts of the world, do not remain indifferent to the sight of suffering humanity and creation.  The call into the ministry of reconciliation is unequivocal: “For the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14). A call that finds a clear orientation in the common Christ-centred discipleship: “And he died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor. 5:15).

The unity of the churches and the unity of humanity are held together by the cross and the resurrection. Following Christ demands concrete action as a consequence of our faith in him and his mission of reconciliation. In many contexts we observe the destructive and long-term effects of violence and armed conflict on the population, particularly the most vulnerable such as women and children. The Decade to Overcome Violence and the related programmatic focus of the World Council of Churches have devoted attention not only to deepening the understanding of “just peace” as a lens through which a culture of peaceful cohabitation and transformation of unjust structures can be promoted. The churches have most importantly joined hands in demonstrating how an ecumenical solidarity around locally embedded initiatives for peace and justice are significant signs of encouragement and empowerment. The ecumenical visits to prioritized countries such as Burundi, Colombia, Egypt, Nigeria and several others during the past years stand for this commitment to contribute to peaceful communities through signs of visible companionship in visits, participation in acts of public witness of the churches, and regular communication in statements on developments in this regard. The unique momentum for peace on the Korean peninsula certainly gives vivid illustration of how the concerted determination of the fellowship for peace bears fruit.

Our service – our diakonia – for justice and peace is also rooted in common rights-based actions alongside our ecumenical partners, particularly specialised ministries and ACT Alliance, and with civil society actors. Many activities of the World Council of Churches in partnership with churches and partner institutions are carried out in the perspective of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals toward 2030. Another very profound historic, theological and strategic reflection process on ecumenical diakonia – the significance of service in the world – was presented earlier this year. However the Central Committee wanted the document to be elaborated further, bringing more contributions from our different faith traditions.

I am also thinking of the example of the Ecumenical Water Network in which representatives of churches worldwide take it as their responsibility to advocate for the universal right to water and thereby for the improvement of living conditions of people and ultimately for their survival. The International Sanitation Convention held in New Delhi in September/October 2018 and its Clean India Mission stand for the diaconal engagement of the Ecumenical Water Network in specific regions. It brings to our attention how we have to also understand the ecumenical movement as a fellowship that revisits its relationship with creation. God’s love, which we share with one another, has to extend to the earth and all that lives in it. Our stewardship and service must be characterized by an increased awareness for the wholeness and togetherness of all in God’s creation.

 

Transformation out of love as didaskalia

Standing before you at this prestigious and historic place of higher education and of theological education in particular, which Serampore College and its many affiliated institutions represent for India and across Asia, is awe-inspiring. It reminds us how transformation in the perspective of love takes a particular meaning. The bi-centenary celebrations in August this year with the international consultation on “Education for Transformation: Challenges and Prospects for Formation and Reformation” have given a rich testimony to this holistic, ecumenical vocation of Serampore.  William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, who laid the foundation for this institution in 1818, left an important legacy that has been carried forth, developed and contextualized since then by generations of eminent Indian scholars and theological educators. They understood education from the outset as holistic mission. Formal instruction alongside spiritual formation bore then, as it does today, the potential for transformation of the whole of existence and of being in the world. The scholarship that Serampore College promotes in India and beyond symbolizes not only a change of individual lives, but more importantly represents a consequent advocating for freedom and justice, which reaches into local communities and churches. This remains an important ecumenical stimulation for societal transformation and for implementing love as part of a comprehensive faith formation.

In the ecumenical movement today, education is the most decisive factor determining the longevity of the vision of unity. Serampore College, as many theological institutions in other parts of the world, serves as a vital model for promoting inclusive, contextual and ecumenical formation that aims at transformation in a holistic sense. We experienced with the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) – the theological education programme for young ecumenists in accompaniment of the World Mission Conference in Tanzania in March this year – that emerging theologians are eager to serve as ambassadors of an ecumenical movement of love in their contexts and on the global level. It is not coincidental that the theme for GETI 2018 was “Translating the Word, Transforming the World.” The World Mission Conference was enriched by the service and learning activity of the young theologians who planted trees in the local community as a sign of their care for creation. In my encounter with them, I heard their questions about how to make their voices more audible and their participation more visible in the fellowship. This is not merely a question of representation, but how much we trust in the future of the ecumenical movement. Young people such as those who participate in the annual Youth in Asia Training for Religious Amity organized by the WCC are already passionately engaged in peacebuilding and transformation of their societies. They do so because they realize that their present and their future will be shaped by the capacity of all to bridge the divides, coming closer to one another and working together.

The next generations will carry the flame and we need to do all that is in our capacity to support and nurture them as they seek to contribute to the fellowship with their own gifts and from within their own experiences. We also need to create more opportunities for intergenerational conversations. Thereby the ecumenical movement can become a learning fellowship of love by listening respectfully to one another, working together for transformation, but also remaining open for transformation through the Holy Spirit.

Another important dimension of transformation is exemplified in the life story of Sarah Chakko, daughter of this soil and member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. She served the World Council of Churches as the Asian regional president in the 1950s. Sarah Chakko’s role in the World Student Christian Federation, the Young Women’s Christian Association and particularly in leading positions in Indian institutions of higher education was instrumental to her sensitivity for building bridges of understanding between different confessional families.

Sarah Chakko was dedicated throughout her short life to the promotion of education for girls and women in India and abroad. In her name, a scholarship fund under the custodianship of the World Council of Churches was created to support postgraduate theological education for Asian women, a fund still disbursed today. A recent international consultation held in Jamaica in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Decade in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998) has highlighted the significance of celebrating achievements since then and of keeping the commitment to continuing improvements. We also learned about the importance of reinvesting all our efforts to build just and inclusive communities. By addressing the pains of women wounded by gender-based and sexual violence, we confront the wounds of the whole fellowship and by empowering them, we are ensuring that through their experiences and gifts, the ecumenical movement as a whole may grow to fuller communion in the witness to the liberating gospel of Christ.

 

Conclusion: The ecumenical movement as living symbol of God’s enduring love

The ecumenical movement has been, and remains, a fellowship of love. Churches moving together and in the Holy Spirit are living symbols of God’s enduring love to, and in, the world. By holding together unity, justice and peace in love, the ecumenical movement can build a strong counter-movement to forces of societal disintegration and to the culture of violence. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith. It is on us to believe in the transformative power of divine love. The strength of the ecumenical movement as a movement of love reposes on its faith that the imperfect realities of this world will not have the last word. God’s word and promise of a new heaven and earth will be the common horizon of hope for all people who believe in the God of life who is leading us to justice and peace.

Therefore, we must persevere in safeguarding the interconnection of the gospel’s call to love God and one another and to be one in Christ. In doing so from within our faith traditions and from our different societal locations, we will contribute to uphold love as the future-oriented paradigm for the transformation for which our world is so desperately longing.


[1] See my reflections in this context. Olav Fykse Tveit. (2012) Christian Solidarity in the Cross of Christ. WCC Publications, Geneva.

[2] Martin Luther King Jr. Loving Your Enemies. Sermon delivered December 25, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, USA.

[3] In my analysis of texts from the ecumenical history, I have identified this as central. Olav Fykse Tveit (2016) The Truth We Owe Each Other: Mutual Accountability in the Ecumenical Movement. Geneva: WCC Publications, Geneva.

[4] M.M. Thomas. (1987) Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake: Towards an Ecumenical Theology of Pluralism. WCC Publications, Geneva.