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The Cross as a Sign of Reformation and Unity

Keynote address by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit on the 175th anniversary of the reformation of the Mar Thoma Church.

20 August 2011

Keynote Address on the 175th Anniversary of the Reformation of the Mar Thoma Church

20 August 2011

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary


Your Eminence Most Rev. Dr Philipose Mar Chrisostem Valiaya Metropolitan,
Your Eminence Most Rev. Dr Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan,
Honorable Bishops, Clergy,
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

1.    I bring greetings to you from the World Council of Churches. I greet you on behalf of the millions of Christian brothers and sisters who belong to the 349 member churches of the WCC in more than 100 countries across the world.

I am truly delighted to be here with you this afternoon and it is a great joy to visit your country, especially this beautiful land Kerala which you call "God’s own country". Moreover, it is a great joy and privilege for me to be at this historic event of the 175th anniversary celebrations of the Reformation in the Malankara Church. This is my first visit to India, and this is a marvelous occasion to come to India and to this particular part of the country.

As the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, I thank God for what you have done for the fellowship of churches of the WCC, and I thank you for the invitation to offer this valedictory address. By this invitation you have indicated that participation in the WCC common vision to work for Christian unity, and for the justice and peace for one humanity, is at the heart of how you understand the ongoing impact and challenges arising from the reformation 175 years ago. You also signal that you understand the common search for unity as your rich heritage of the ancient tradition of St Thomas. You also relate through your participation in the WCC to the reality of the world as it is today and might be tomorrow, as a church in India in partnership with churches in other places today. Connecting to the world fellowship of Christian on the occasion of your anniversary brings all this into focus at the centre of your identity.

The Mar Thoma Church is a founding member of the WCC and has been actively participating in the global ecumenical movement over many decades. I do recollect on this occasion the contributions of the Mar Thoma church to the global ecumenical movement over the past. Several of your church leaders have provided leadership to the WCC. Dr Juhanon Mar Thoma Metropolitan was a President of the WCC in the 1950s and chaired sessions of the 3rd Assembly at New Delhi in 1961. Dr. M.M Thomas was Moderator of the Central Committee from 1968 to 1975. Your present-day leaders such as Dr Philipose Mar Chrysostem Metropolitan, Dr Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan and Bishop Zacharias Mar Theophilus served on WCC committees in different times in the past and provided leadership at various levels. Currently, Bishop Isaac Mar Philexinos serves on the Central Committee, and a lay member of the church, Dr Mathews George Chunakara, is serving as director of the Churches’ Commission of International Affairs of the WCC.

The Mar Thoma Church traces its historic roots and tradition from A.D. 52. India had the great fortune of receiving the gospel of Christ in the first century through the Apostle Thomas himself. You belong to an ancient Christian church, and your rich tradition and heritage has very deep roots. I am delighted to find that this ancient tradition continues to be affirmed by you Christians in this area.

The ancient roots of your church always remind us of how the church must go back to basics, to the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, for the sake of which St Thomas went to India to share and finally to die. All reformation and renewal in the church starts where we go back to basics, and from there make the changes required to fulfil our calling to be the disciples and witnesses of Jesus Christ in our time. I understand that this also guided the reformation of the Malankara Church.

The reformation of the Malankara (Kerala) Church was initiated in 1836 and continued as a movement within the historic indigenous church in Malankara. It has been recorded that the reformation in the Malankara church brought powerful currents of change in church and society, and it helped the church disown practices that needed to be corrected and break off the fetters of spiritual and moral bankruptcy. Those efforts helped your church to be resuscitated once again and adopt a prominent place, from which to study seriously Holy Scripture, to uphold the purity and simplicity of the apostolic faith, to maintain the right of self-governance and to continue in India the life and witness of the St. Thomas Christians in the early period.

2.    Church reformation according to Scripture is a continuous process, going back to what unites the churches, a process needed from the very first days of the church. As we say: “Ecclesia reformata reformanda est” ("The church, having been reformed, is still to be reformed"). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the powerful message that can make a difference in a church where we as failing and imperfect human beings serve Christ, a necessary change even when we try to do our best and be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.

From what I understand, the main ethos and thrust of the reformation in the Malankara church was based on the principle of a return to the purity of the life and practice of the early church. The emphasis on preaching the word of God led to the reformation of thought and revival meetings, which were led both by the clergy and lay people.

These reformation efforts have been widely acknowledged in various levels in your ecclesial and ecumenical lives. This is evident in your church’s unique manner of blending two characteristic traits of the eastern ecclesial tradition and ethos with your reformation ideals corresponding to much of the leading ideas of the Reformation movements in the Western Church in the 16th century. The relevance of this “Back-to-basics” in the minds of the reformers is now widely recognized, including in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the time of Reformation became a time ridden with severe conflicts that unfortunately led to splits in the church that have not yet been overcome.

However, reformation as a critical process may also lead to a potentially wider and deeper unity, when it takes the church back to the origins. The reformation that happened here 175 years ago made your church more independent but also more bound to what unites the One Church of Jesus Christ. In your church, the reformation movement brought an added sense of responsibility for the spiritual and moral welfare of its people, as well as more involvement of the lay people in the life of the church. The blessed result of those efforts at reformation equipped your church, or rejuvenated it.

The spirit of ecumenism also found a place in your church’s journey over all these years. Today, your church has become a global church. The members of your church are scattered in many parts of the world – North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and several Asian/Pacific countries including Australia and New Zealand. In all these places your people are committed to nurturing ecumenism at the local and national levels. The rich traditions of the Malankara Church based on the reformation’s spirit equipped your church to see the wider horizons of ecumenism, whereever your people have been based and placed.

4.    With this background, I would like to reflect further on how the reformation of the church is inseparable from the quest for the unity of the church – and how the unity of the church is inseparable from having the right perspective on ourselves, based on our faith in Jesus Christ, so that we promote the righteousness and the peace that are the core values and content of the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). I would like to bring our reflections into line with your church’s reformation and base them on the reading of an important text from Holy Scripture that shows the need for, the basis for and the character of all true reformation in the church:

1 Cor 1:18-2:5.

The cross is and will forever be the sign of the church. This is the symbol that we have together, the symbol of what we have together, the symbol of what the churches have to give to the world – from the beginning to the end.

Nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Nothing except the cross. Nothing except ...

It doesn’t sound like very diplomatic language. It doesn't sound like an invitation to a dialogue. It does not even sound very ecumenical, open to the many perspectives on and of our faith to be considered in a space open to all. Nor does it sound very open to the many burning issues of the world today.

Nevertheless, there is a deep meaning in these words, offering substance and direction to the ecumenical movement. Why these strong words of St Paul? The context he is referring to is not irrelevant to us. He is addressing divisions in the church of Corinth; divisions due to different opinions and different personal loyalties, due to the lack of willingness to share, due to ignorance of the gifts of others and their contribution, due to impatient critique of the Christian message and its ambassadors.

The temptation to think that we are in the church because we are something better than others, will always be there, as it was in Corinth. This attitude can always undermine the unity of the church. So the answer is clear: To be one, the church must go back to its common basis. Nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Therefore, our basis is this: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

This does not mean that there are no other themes to be discussed, or any other concern to be considered, or any other people to be mentioned. Quite the contrary. St Paul has a lot to say in the same letter about sharing everything in solidarity, recognizing one another as part of one body. In this letter we find the great hymn to and praise of love. Paul goes on to say that there is no meaning in the Christian faith, particularly not in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, if Christ has not been risen from death (chapter 15). Right preaching and correct theology about Jesus Christ have no effect without the power of the Holy Spirit. Still, his message remains: nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The cross is the perspective that must not be missed out. The cross is the reality check of all our talk about God – and about life. With the perspective of the cross our talk about God cannot be just lofty words. For God has through the cross bound himself to reality, to all aspects of reality: to both death and life, and even to the unjust, inhuman and incomprehensible suffering and death in this world. By becoming a human being, by facing and feeling everything that human life involves and implies, we can believe that God is with us. In the perspective of the cross we hear the songs and prayers of the people of Haiti; in the perspective of the cross we can believe that God can be with human beings in all things. Even in death. And therefore the tree of the cross can be a sign of life.

St Paul not only sees the cross as the sign of how God is with us, but also how God is for us. Seen in the perspective of resurrection, the cross is not the ultimate victory of evil over good or good intentions. The cross becomes the sign of God's victory over sin and evil, a victory won through death. It is in this perspective that St Paul can also speak of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, of God who makes the sacrifice so as to break the link between sin and death forever. Sin can be forgiven, by God. The crucified God shows us that sin and death shall not have the last word in this world. Not even when it looks like that. The cross is the sign of God’s unconditional love to all human beings, every one of us, even when we were sinners, as St Paul also writes

This is the revealed mystery of God given to us through Jesus Christ, and him crucified. This is why the cross is the symbol that all Christians have together. The cross is the first and ultimate sign of the gift of God’s gracious being with us and for us. We are one as Christians because we receive the same gift. That is why there is nothing except the cross.

The cross proves the power of giving. The cross proves the power of humility. The cross proves the faithfulness of God. The cross is also the test, the proof of our faithfulness to God and to the cause of good. We just heard in the beautiful words of the Sermon on the Mount what the meaning of following Christ or carrying our cross is: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”  In a world of honour and shame, of love and sin, this call can lead to confrontation with the powers of evil. In Christ’s way through human life there was no escape, only faithfulness to God’s calling to show the meaning of righteousness. Jesus Christ himself experienced the deep meaning of what he said: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The call of the ecumenical movement does not have a meaning only if we succeed. Whether we are heard or not, our call is to carry the cross with one another. Whatever happens, it remains our call to carry the cross in our search for unity, in our witness, in our service. And we shall do it together, never alone. Reminded of what the cross is, we see that the exclusiveness of the cross is precisely that it is inclusive. The gift of the cross binds us together. Our open arms can be a sign of the ecumenical movement of the cross, showing that we need one another, that we want to share God’s gifts in this beloved world with all.

That is why there is nothing except the cross.

5.    Reformation of the church can happen only when it leads to a deeper understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. We must learn what it means to be identified by our relationship to Christ, to be shaped by the values of Christ, to be witnessing to the reality of the crucified and risen Christ in our world.

Reformation of the church can happen only when it leads to a deeper understanding and promotion of what unites us a church, even when we might be living in different, structurally independent, local churches.

Reformation of the church can happen only when it leads us back to the basic facts that we all are equal to God. We are all equal as we carry the image of God, created in the image of God.

As baptized Christians, we also carry –visible or invisible – the sign of the cross. The church is not for one particular group of human beings; either we are divided ethnically, culturally, or divided by class, caste or whatever human beings might use to categorize other human beings. That the less privileged were those who first received the gospel in Corinth does not mean that it was only for them, but it was definitely a sign and a proof that nobody can claim privileges or prerogatives in relationship to Christ or claim privilege as members of the church. We struggle with this all the time.

The church should be in the forefront in struggles for equality, manifesting that we all are of equal value and dignity to God. We are challenged in all parts of the world, in some times places more than others. European Christianity is challenged by immigration today; how to find a proper way of living together, taking into account these challenges, and still not discriminate against anyone because they belong to a group or culture or religion different from yours? You, here in India, have the great challenge of the caste system in your history, and still live with it today. I have learned how some, particularly the Dalits, struggle to have a life based on equal dignity and rights in this part of the world. I am encouraged to hear how your church has become very aware of this discrimination and try to address it, and I would encourage you to do whatever you can to contribute to a more just peace in your region of the world.

6.    True reformation requires true unity. In the church itself we need to address again and again the reality that we are not identified by our different heros, leaders, ancestors, reformers, or by our privileges or our education, but by Jesus Christ. Only in that way can we come to an understanding of our calling and share what we have, as well as through education and welfare, as your church has emphasized.

Reformation requires a unity in which we challenge one another. Mutual accountability is required for any reformation, so that we do not go our own way for our own benefit, but are mutually accountable for the gifts and the decisions of our churches.

Unity requires reformation, to avoid building great structures and powers out of our own ideas, but leave our churches open to receiving the gifts of ourselves and of others, particularly the gifts of those who have to follow Christ and witness with him against injustice and for peace, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. The unity of the church is something the world needs: A sign of the values of the kingdom, a sign of how God cares for each one of us, regardless what we are and how we seem on our own.

7.    May God continue to bless the Mar Thoma Church, your leaders, each one of you. May God bless you in this time and in the coming years, to remain a true witness of the gospel, witnesses of the unity, the justice and peace given in Christ. Thank you for all you give to the worldwide fellowship of churches; and thank you once again for this invitation, a sign of how you also receive from the others.