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The Harvest is Plenty but the Labourers are few

Inaugural Address of the WCC General Secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, during the Inaugural Service of the 16th Synod Meeting of the Church of North India, New Delhi.

04 October 2017

Inaugural Address of the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, during the Inaugural Service of the 16th Synod Meeting of the Church of North India, New Delhi.

30 September, 2017

Biblical text:

Luke 10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): The Mission of the Seventy

After this the Lord appointed seventy[a] others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house! 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.[b] 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.[c] 12 I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it gives me great joy to be here in this historic place at this historic moment in the life of the Church of North India. It is an honour to be invited to give this inaugural speech, and it is a joy to be here with you, representing your fellowship of the World Council of Churches of 347 churches around the world. The WCC is a fellowship based on our shared faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and we are called to make our common witness and service to the glory of the triune God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This we do to make our unity visible. As a united church the CNI is a distinctive model of the ecumenical unity – a special fruit of the ecumenical commitment to visible unity of the churches.

At this time as you gather here for the 16th Synod session, let me greet you with words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 1: 3-5  “I thank my God every time I remember you,  constantly praying with joy … for all of you,  because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”

It seems appropriate at this time that you reflect on the theme ‘The Harvest is Plenty But the Labourers are Few’. If we look at the wider biblical context in which this occurs this passage is a discipleship call – a call to be attentive to God yet be deeply engaged with the world. Choosing this verse as a theme for this synod, is a fresh call to understand a familiar biblical text in a new way in the context of new realities. It is a challenge to align our work and witness to the ‘heartbeat of God’ – as some may understand mission. It is also a fresh call to come and join hands with others and take new steps for ecumenical unity in witness and service for justice and peace. There are many who distract the workers and the believers from joining hands to work for the kingdom of God and the wellbeing and the inclusion of all - in all our diversity.  Today in the context of this assembly I will try to unpack some of the theological riches and practical challenges that this verse holds for us as we move forward in our pilgrimage of justice and peace – together – following Christ today.

The Harvest is plenty but the Labourers are few: A time for gratitude and great urgency:

An appropriate point to begin would be thanksgiving. Since its beginnings in 1970 the CNI has seen the abundance of the fruits of its labour – the harvest has truly been plentiful. Be it the grassroots ecumenism lived out in the life of your churches, the resilient witness of your churches, most of whom are made up of the most marginalized communities, or your reputed educational and health-care institutions which have touched the lives of several of the most marginalized, the fruits of the labours of our missionaries both local and foreign are worthy of thanksgiving.  Therefore, today is truly an occasion to give thanks to God for the abundance of God’s enabling grace that has led us thus far. It is significant that the greek word for thanksgiving Eucharistia has at its heart grace Charis. A response to the recognition of God’s grace at work to which we are drawn.

Today as we remember about the harvest we also probably remember the seeds that led to our harvest. The harvest today is the efforts of the seeds of faith, hope and love that were sown in steadfastness and sincerity. In the context of the vastness of the Church of North India and the remoteness of some of your churches this harvest has been possible through a discipleship that believes that “Unless a grain of falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) It is important at this juncture to also recognise that this harvest that you enjoy are the fruits of a discipleship that was patterned around the life of Jesus Christ – that grain of wheat which fell to the ground so that we may have abundant life – that grain of wheat which has become the bread of life for each one of us through brokenness and self-emptying. That is the witness to which we should raise our hearts in thanksgiving to God.

The Biblical passage in Luke also gives us an indication that this is a time of urgency and need. The labourers are few and there is need for more; especially in a context where the harvest is plenty. But it is also a testing time where the disciples are ‘sent as lambs in the midst of wolves’. The fact that this is a time of great urgency is understood from the fact that the disciples are called to go out in haste without even collecting their purse or bag or sandals and not waiting to complete other formalities. There is a sense of urgency. The call to come and serve, to work, to witness together is urgent. There are so many forces in the world that are polarizing and dividing us as human beings. Some of them also do it in the name of religion, some even in the name of Jesus. We know that there is division and even conflicts among Christians and between us and other people of faith. We are called to show in practice that we seek what can bring signs of unity in diversity, accepting that we are different, but still able to seek the will of God for justice and peace – for all. God creates all of us in God’s image, and God wants that all equally have the opportunity to life together in unity and justice and peace he has created us for. This call to go and serve together is not always easy, but we are still called out to do it.

The disciples are sent ahead in pairs - A renewed call for unity:

The disciples are sent in pairs to undertake their mission. It is theologically significant that unity is at the heart of Jesus’s call to discipleship. As Basil the Great says, “Jesus sends them in pairs so that they will learn not to become too fond of their own opinions”,[4] so that they will come to learn that they need one another to discern what is good, what is right, and what is true.

There is not only a demand for more workers there is also a need for stronger partnerships to witness to the kingdom. Witness in this context is in many senses ‘with-ness’ – a call to renewed unity.

It is significant that we are meeting in New Delhi. New Delhi was the venue of the 3rd Assembly of the WCC held in 1961 in which the historic decision to integrate the International Missionary Council into the WCC as the Division of World Mission and Evangelism was made emphasising that mission is integral to ecumenical witness. What is important about New Delhi is that it recognised that “The unity in Christ in which the churches came together was God’s gift”. In this passage we see a stress on this gift of unity – in the way that the disciples were sent out in pairs.  Jesus’s call to discipleship is also a call to unity in witness and it is to this theme of unity that I want to turn to now. Jesus gives his disciples the gift of unity by sending them not on their own but in pairs. The kingdom is to be proclaimed through united witness.

Taking stock of the historical realities of the 21st Century I firmly believe that the context demands of the churches a new “search for unity.” In my report to the Executive Committee at the beginning of this year I discussed in detail about how the WCC contributes through many dimensions of our work to the unity of the church, and how the unity we are able to express contributes to the unity of humankind.

With regard to our call to unity, I see the picture of a landscape that can be interpreted at least in two different ways. There is, from one perspective, a critical moment in the ecumenical movement as there are polarizing factors and anti-ecumenical dynamics in many of our churches and beyond. There is a struggle about the “soul of Christianity”: Shall we be protective or even exclusive as an alternative to searching to embrace the diversity given by God, pursuing ecumenical openness and common initiatives? Another dominating perspective is that there is a stronger momentum for moving together, as pilgrims working and praying together for the values of justice and peace as signs of the kingdom of God present among us. More than before this is a time for unity in service together for justice and peace.

This is not an alternative between being open to the gospel or the tradition of the church, but rather how we understand the gospel as the basis and corrective to how we interpret and live in our respective traditions today. There is a willingness in the WCC constituencies and beyond, to seek a united witness and a common service, to unite our agendas and resources for those who need our joint attention and support the most.

Today the challenge confronting our churches is: How are we expressing our response to the call to unity in many different ways in our time, and particularly in ways that the next generations will see as their way – a way of dignity, joy, creativity, openness, humility, courage, and hope?

This week we had an important consultation in Geneva about racism, discrimination, xenophobia and afrophobia, focusing on the situation in the USA. Some of the brave church leaders and lay people that stood together in the well-known confrontation with nazis and racists in Charlottesville some weeks ago, spoke to us. The unity they call for, the unity of justice, they also demonstrate in the way they stand up against those who will destroy it. They were sent like “lambs into the midst of wolves”. But they stood, even when some were hurt and one killed. This is the unity of the church we need.

“God unites, the enemy divides.” This was the title of one of the speeches (of the bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav) at the first assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam, August 1948. The speech described how the work for unity belongs to the characteristics of God. The dividing powers of the two world wars were again visible in new divides and an iron curtain. Today, preparing for the 70th anniversary of the WCC next year, we also have to analyse how the polarizing and dividing powers of the world that lead to division, conflict, violence, and war today can be met with another vision of life together in unity. We are created to be a fellowship of life-giving diversity, respecting one another and finding ways towards justice and  peace for all, for all. The WCC is supporting our member churches in many places around the world to be the signs of love and peace so urgently needed. We are called to pray and preach and show that the kingdom of God with its values is coming near.

Called together to proclaim the Kingdom:

The disciples were sent out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. The good news of the kingdom of God is a call not just to Church unity. Rather it is a call to the unity of humankind and the healing and wholeness of all creation.

In a Faith and Order study on the unity of the church and the unity of humankind”[1] one of the clear conclusions was that the unity of the church is a sign and foretaste of the unity of humankind. In another of the significant joint studies between more departments in the WCC in the 1990s, focusing on the connections between unity, justice and peace, the concept of “costly unity” was developed[2]. The call to unity is the basis for all that we do, and we have to remind ourselves again and again what that calling implies in terms of commitment to really overcome our historical divisions, and to work for a unity that represents both justice and peace. This is not an exercise at the surface of the matters; it goes deep into our lives and priorities. It has a price; it is costly—if we are serious.

In the unity statement from the 10th assembly in Busan we concluded that the unity of the church and the unity of humankind are interconnected.

“The unity of the Church, the unity of the human community and the unity of the whole creation are interconnected. Christ who makes us one calls us to live in justice and peace and impels us to work together for justice and peace in God’s world. The plan of God made known to us in Christ is, in the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, “things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10).” (“God’s Gift and Call to Unity – And our Commitment,” Unity Statement adopted by the WCC 10th Assembly on 8 November 2013).

One of the conflicts in our world relates in a special way to both our search for unity as reconciliation and just peace, as well as our theological reflection on unity in faith and in solidarity with one another as churches. What is at stake is our commitment to basic values that can come from a deeper understanding of God’s call to unity for humankind; a call to unity in diversity but in just peace, not only within and for one group, one people, or one religion, but for all. We have to continue to work and pray that faith in one God will bring another type of relations of justice and peace, one day. This day should come soon, before it is too late.

God is calling us to show in new ways in different contexts how the unity as church and as humanity is connected. Some examples: We were invited to have an ecumenical delegation to visit Harare, to strengthen the role of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches in a time of many urgent needs for unity in the country. It was almost 20 years after the 8th assembly, and I was asked to preach at an ecumenical prayer service in the cathedral.

I will always remember from that service the diverse and united expressions of the joy of being together in song, prayer and dance, particularly through the women’s choirs from different churches.

The unity we seek is a unity in joy and celebration, where all can participate, not only something we make statements about or have as a theme for our discussions. We have to take it into our minds, into our hearts, into our hands: we are called to be one, so that the world may believe that Jesus Christ is sent from the One God. We are called to give witness to this revelation of the love of God in this world, so that the world may believe in God’s future. So that the world may have hope. We must search for unity in faith, hope and love. This is not something outside the real world, but in the middle of it. We have a call to seek what is “above”, as we read in Col 3:1ff. This is not to seek something out of our context, but to be sent to show and seek all the attitudes and characteristics of Christ that work for unity. This is what corresponds to the will of God in creation and in salvation, to unite everything in Christ. We are created to be one, we are saved through Christ to be one. This is the deeper meaning of the efforts of our ecumenical organizations and instruments.

St Paul says in that context, and often: This call to unity is a “yes” to one another and what build relations of quality between us; but a clear “no” to what and to those who are driving us apart as human beings through ignorance or discrimination. We have many identities as human beings, many at the same time. As disciples of Christ we are called to show one another and the world that it possible to also have an identity that help us to be one.

Another perspective of the theological dimension to our quest for unity is expressed in the famous reflections of St Paul in 1 Cor: 12-14 on the unity of the body of Christ. The connection between the ecumenical challenge and problem and the ecumenical response and solution is described as “the better way” of love. The ecumenical endeavours cannot be successful without a deep understanding of what it means to live together in the body of Christ, in the love of Christ. This gives us a dimension to fellowship and unity that might appear as obvious, but from experience we also know that this is the key to all efforts to overcome divisions and conflicts. As there is a need to clarify the dividing questions in the church, whether they are theological or practical, there is no way to separate the dialogue of truth and the dialogue of love. They are in all our efforts interrelated. This approach to unity is of course one of the corner stones also in the connection between the efforts for unity of the church and unity of the world. It has to be seen as an expression of the love of God, which is given to us in Christ, to be shared in our fellowship of the church, and in our efforts to unite the broken world.

The expressions of communion are particularly defined through the commitments to common service and witness, as pilgrims seeking the way forward together and not remaining where we are, waiting for everything and all to be settled, but moving and praying that God will lead us to more unity as we move forward. Here the emphasis has been on God’s grace as the basis for all unity in the church, and the expectation that God will lead the churches into more unity.

A call to proclaim peace and receive hospitality:

The call that the disciples receive is to proclaim peace to all and also receive the gift of hospitality from the stranger. The call to proclaim peace and receive the gift of the other speaks profoundly to a multi religious world facing polarization and prejudice. The call to unity in witness and proclaiming the gospel of peace assumes significance in a multi religious world.  The peace we proclaim is related to the wellbeing of our neighbours.

One context where the question of unity has raised new theological reflections on what our faith in God, in one God, means, is in the efforts to address interfaith initiatives for peace, coexistence and unity. One of these significant events in the last months was the international peace conference in Cairo in April – following a round of dialogue between Al Azhar, the Muslim Council of Elders, and the WCC. In my statement at the opening of the conference (which ended by the well-known speeches by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam, Sheikh Al Tayeb), I raised the question of how overcoming violence and terror is a matter of taking the faith in One God seriously. This has to do with the impact of the faith in God as the creator of all and therefore as the protector and loving God to every human being. We are accountable to one another as to how we prevent violence, but this cannot be separated from our accountability to God. We are called to be the guardian of the sister and the brother, as they are created by God. Furthermore, precisely because of the faith in One God, the creator of all that lives, we cannot use this faith as an excuse for exclusion from the fellowship of humanity. The state must express this belonging together in offering shared citizenship, where all have the same rights and duties in relations to one another. Different faiths, different formulations of faith, cannot be a reason for exclusion in the human fellowship. If exclusion becomes a matter of violence, even in the name of God, it becomes a blasphemy against the One God, creator of all. We continue our reflections on how to overcome the tragic and dangerous connections between religion and violence, and we should be ready to claim even stronger the rights to be protected from violence as we speak for our Christian sisters and brothers.

The call to unity is not obsolete, it is more urgent than ever. The call to unity for a common and shared witness to Christ is a key dimension of being the one church of Jesus Christ. The challenges we face to express this unity fully, should not lead us to ignore the call to be one, but to more efforts and more perspectives to what it means to be one.

Conclusion: Called where Christ intends to go

One of the interesting aspects of the call to discipleship that can be found in Luke’s gospel is that the disciples are sent to places where Jesus himself intended to go. As one scholar from India put it “Jesus invites us into the dynamics of God's movement outward into the interiority of people's lives. This may require a willingness to move from the privilege of secure location and reliable routing to the hazard of displacement and redeployment for actualizing and announcing the reign of God anywhere and everywhere”.

As you may be aware the WCC has called upon its member churches to embark on a “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace”. Very often the paths of this pilgrimage will be hard - leading us to places of uncertainty, vulnerability and threat.  The passage helps us understand discipleship as a pilgrimage where the church is called to go to those places where Christ is “always already redemptively present”. Following Christ to those ‘stations of the cross’ where exclusion and exploitation are deeply felt,  where hurt and hate prevail alongside poverty and prejudice is the calling of Christian churches in many parts of the world today. It is to those bleeding points of humanity that we are called to proclaim the ‘kingdom’ of healing, wholeness, hospitality and hope. Even as we wonder how we will proceed on this pilgrim path we need to take confidence in the fact that we are not alone in this pilgrimage. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who have journeyed before us in the struggle for unity in justice and peace.  More importantly as the Unity Statement of the Busan Assembly reminds us in a timely manner  we need to remember that “God is always there ahead of us in our pilgrimage, always surprising us, calling us to repentance, forgiving our failures and offering us the gift of new life” (Assembly Unity Statement para 8).

This is also what we as World Council of Churches want to pursue in the upcoming Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, March 2018. The theme which focuses on “transforming discipleship” is alluding also to the Gospel story of being sent to the contexts Christ wants to be. We are sent to participate in transformation and to be transformed ourselves. The Holy Spirit is sending and working to transform us and the world again and again. So let us be among those who respond to the urgent call to discipleship – to participate in the harvest of God. Here in India, and everywhere God calls us to be, together.

Therefore today as you recommit yourselves as labourers in God’s vineyard of plenitude, in thanksgiving let us join together with Paul and the Church of Ephesians in giving glory only to Jesus Christ the author and perfecter of our faith and say with confidence: ‘Now to the one who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen!’ (Ephesians 3: 20-21).

[1] Faith and Order, “Unity of the Church – Unity of Mankind (1973)”, in G. Gassmann (ed.) Documentary History of Faith and Order 1963-1993. Geneva, WCC, 137-143.

[2] “Costly Unity”, in T.F. Best and W. Granberg-Michaelson (eds), Costly Unity, Geneva, WCC, 1993, 83-104)