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WCC general secretary sermon in Barbados on the occasion of the service in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the WCC - 4 October 2018

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit delivered the sermon of the ecumenical service of thanksgiving in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, in Bridgetown, Barbados, 8 October 2018.

11 October 2018

Sermon at the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving in Celebration of the 70thAnniversary of the World Council of Churches

The Cathedral Church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Bridgetown, Barbados,
4 October 2018
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary WCC

Bishops, church leaders, your excellency, dear sisters and brothers in Christ.

Thank you for this warm welcome to me as a representative of the World Council of Churches, the fellowship of 350 churches around the world, on this occasion of celebrating the 70 years of the World Council of Churches.

It has been an honor to meet with the Anglican bishops in the Province of the West Indies and with the National Council of Churches here in Barbados. It is a great joy now to celebrate and worship together and to share the word of God in this beautiful cathedral.

When the World Council of Churches was established in 1948 in Amsterdam at the first assembly, the preacher was D T Niles, a young Methodist pastor from Ceylon, another island and another colony of the British empire at that time. His sermon started by quoting words of Moses: “Who am I, that I should go to the Pharao and ask him to set my people free?”

“Who am I?”

This has been a relevant question in the life of the World Council of Churches. Who are we, that we believe that we can change or at least contribute to the changes that our people are longing for, praying for, hoping for?

Let us read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verses 5 to 10.

Jesus uses words that are provoking to the disciples. Luke in these verses calls them the apostles, designing those who are sent, those who are called to witness, to do what Jesus has called them to do. In the history of the New Testament, and later on in the tradition of our churches, they became the leaders and the pillars of faith of the Church. They prayed: “Increase our faith.” They needed more faith. We hear the echo of Moses’s words. We hear also the echo words of those who met in Amsterdam 70 years ago.

The same feeling but also the same words have from time to time come to my mind as I am in this role and this ministry as GS of the WCC.

Together with all of you who are members of the churches in Barbados, we share this mandate: We are called to unity, we are called to be the witnesses of God’s justice and peace, to be praying and working for the kingdom of God in our time. We are facing severe and many challenges as churches and as humanity.

And what are the answers from Jesus? Two very provoking parables. The first almost looks like Jesus is not taking them seriously. If you have faith like a mustard seed, the size of a mustard seed, which is so small that you can hardly see it, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’ But who would ever say that? A tree planted in the sea would die.

What does he say? I hear him saying that faith is not about size. It’s not about how big it is. Faith is about who - in whom - you believe. Faith is faith in God, in the great Creator, the Savior, the Life-giver of all human beings. It is the Lord of our Church. Faith is what God has given to us to trust and believe in this triune God.

The other parable, a story about slaves and masters, is an even more provoking one. Particularly as we read it here, in a region that knows so very well what the history of slavery was, and how some used Biblical texts to legitimize slavery. It is surprising and remarkable also as he is saying this to the apostles of the church, to those who are described as the pillars of the Church, to those after whom we call our creed. Jesus’s critique is never against those who are at the lowest, those who are in the margins. Jesus’s sharpest critique is always against those who have power, even those who have power in the Church. Those should be particularly reminded that they are slaves; they are there to serve.

On this day of St Francis, the 4th of October, we are also reminded of one of saints of the church, who dedicated his life to be a sign of what it means to be a servant, a servant for the church, for the unity of the church, a servant for the peace, and a servant for the justice for those who need it.

There are indeed many who will try to make our faith small, irrelevant, or even take it away.

I come from a part of the world, Europe, that has many gifts, many values that we also celebrate, but also a reality often secularization. This is also a global reality, as we can see that called that the practice of faith and even faith itself is disappearing from many people’s lives. Some are afraid of losing the Christian identity of Europe by politics of exclusion. Some even want to preserve Christian values in Europe by closing the door to those have another faith but who need asylum, compassion or urgent help. That is not a way to preserve and promote the Christian faith and its values.

There are also others who belittle our faith, who make us feel that our faith is not good enough; we should have a much bigger faith. In my teenage years, I was, as many are, trying to find the way of faith as the meaning of life, and I was listening to some strong preachers using great words about their faith. They preached about faith in a way that made me think I had no faith. They said, “If you only believe, you’ll be rich, if you only believe, you’ll be healed. If you only believe you can do anything.

And I said to myself: “Let me leave this faith behind me. Why should I carry with me a sense of failure whenever I reflect about my faith?” For me, the alternative approach came through many experiences of shared faith but also through my studies of theology. The faith of the Church is what carries me; it is not me who alone should be able to carry the faith. Working in the ecumenical movement, I have become more and more confident that the call to unity and faith means being able to share faith and being able to express our faith through the fellowship with one another. The unity in faith is necessary not only for being in consensus, but for the sake of us who shall live with and for our faith. We need the unity of faith to have stronger faith. I have been encouraged and strengthened in my faith by meeting my sisters and brothers in all confessions and contexts sharing their faith in God. Those who have the strongest challenges in life sometimes also have the strongest faith. This sharing and keeping together the faith is really one of the gifts of the ecumenical movement.

We have been able to strengthen one another. In the many conflicts of the world, we see that the faith and the people of faith can make a positive difference, creating hope.

But there are also others who use faith for political interests, who make faith an instrument for national or other interests, in an exclusive way. That is not the faith that carries the hope we share as Christians.

How shall we able to address the issues that will take away our faith and hope? We prayed together: Give us wisdom. Give us courage.

Give us courage. We here the echoes from the challenges of 1948, facing a broken world after two world wars, expressed in Amsterdam, in a divided and destroyed Europe. They lived in a world where a significant part of the world was still colonized. There was a need to build up the new, independent churches and the fellowship among these churches. They acknowledged that they were divided. But they confessed that Christ was not divided. They needed to be able to describe God’s will for this world, God’s will for justice, for peace, for freedom, for love, hope. The theme for the first assembly was: Mans disorder, Gods design.

We give thanks to God, that God made somebody able to be the servants that the time needed, and made them able to do the work God asked them to do. And that is the dimension of faith we should really emphasize as a fellowship: faith must express itself in faithfulness. Faithfulness does not mean that you are able to prove that you do great things, but that you are able to do what you are called to do.

We celebrate that fellowship of faith and faithfulness also in these days. This week we have in Jamaica a global conference on how we can build a just community of women and men. This is a matter of being faithful to God’s will, as a sign to the world, and as an inspiration for the world.

There are many men and even more women, I think, who have been models for me, who have shown to me what leadership is. They have been able to show what it is to serve with the gifts given to us and to empower others to use their gifts so that we can do God’s will together.

In this time we call our ecumenical movement a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of justice and peaceis what we named our work after our 10th Assembly in Korea in 2013. It gives us another dimension of faith, with a focus on the journey of faith. We admit that we are not knowing everything, but that we know something, that we know enough. That we have enough of this small mustard seed faith to move forward in faith. We know that we have a call, to be with those who struggle for justice and peace, in many forms of injustice and conflicts. And we get inspiration from one another to move on.

Let me also this day of St Francis mention that Pope Francis visited the World Council of Churches to participate in our celebrating 70 years on June 21. He addressed us in the prayer service we had as fellow pilgrims. It is a great privilege to be together as people of faith, with leaders who show us what it means to be pilgrims on our faith journey.

My dear sisters and brothers here in this Caribbean region: You have a lot of significant faith expressions, faith commitments, and your faithfulness to the ecumenical movement. I can refer to those we have on many occasions properly named, and we should pay tribute to those we have not named. I’m inspired by your faith, and I will bring this inspiration with me. You should be proud of your own contribution, in the strength of your common witness. We need you. We need your unity. We need your faith. May God bless you and may God bless the churches here in this country and in this region. May God bless the witnesses of faith here, now and forever.

Amen.