I am honoured to be able to complement the greeting conveyed by the Acting General Secretary of the World Council of Churches with my own words. Indeed, it is a special pleasure for me to be able to join you for the 70th General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Korea, after the lengthy separation imposed on us all by the COVID-19 pandemic. This forced separation has challenged the ecumenical fellowship in many ways. In my own areas of work, especially in the field of peacebuilding, an already difficult task was made very much harder when we could not have encounters and conversations between representatives of divided communities due to travel bans and the risk of infection.

Nowhere has this been a more serious impediment to our work for peace and justice than on the divided Korean peninsula. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful that last year, despite the constraints of the pandemic, WCC-CCIA, together with the NCCK, launched the “Global Prayer Campaign” for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula as it marked the 70 years since the Korean War. It is an important step in our ecumenical pilgrimage of justice and peace as we invite all Christians to deepen our relationship with God and each other by joining in prayer for the formal end to the Korean War and the replacement of the Armistice Agreement with a permanent peace treaty.

But now, although we are still far from overcoming the challenges posed by the continuing pandemic, there are at least some signs of light at the end of this long tunnel. The fact that I am able to participate physically with you in this important event in the life of the NCCK is itself, for me, a significant sign of hope. It’s also a sign of hope for the WCC’s own Assembly, to take place in Karlsruhe, Germany, on 31 August-8 September 2022. With COVID-19 cases rising again in Europe, some are wondering whether the WCC Assembly might have to be postponed again. But we are confident that it will take place as an in-person or at least hybrid format event, and this in-person meeting of the 70th General Assembly of the NCCK helps increase our confidence. Thank you for your ecumenical commitment and the efforts of the NCCK member churches demonstrated in this gathering.

As far as I know, the theme, “Walk the Path of the New Commandment (John 13:34-35)” has been the theme for three consecutive NCCK assemblies over the past three years. It tells me something important about the ecumenical vision of the churches in Korea and about their strong desire and commitment to the path of transformative discipleship. The WCC is grateful for your steadfast commitment and focus on the love of Christ as the driving and motivating force of our Christian ministry and witness. Indeed, the same focus is expressed in the theme chosen for the WCC’s 11th Assembly – ‘Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity’.

Today, you have gathered together to respond to Jesus’ new commandment to love one another and to reflect on what it means to love one another in times of COVID-19. During the pandemic over the past two years, we have seen the ugly realities of privilege and oppression, of economic, social, and ethnic injustices, of vaccine inequity, and lack of solidarity and cooperation. But I believe that the values we promote, as the fellowship of churches in the WCC and NCCK, are an alternative and counter-witness to consumerist Christianity, the prosperity gospel, and xenophobic or racist Christianity. 

Indeed, Christ’s all-encompassing love is and must be at the centre of everything we do. I want to briefly stress three things in this regard.

First, it is Christ’s love, not our love, that moves us to reconciliation and unity – just as we believe that God is the primary agent in mission, not the church. What, then, of the church? The church is missionary by its very nature, as Emil Brunner said, “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” Again, it is Christ’s love not our love that moves us to reconciliation and unity.

Second, I want to ask the following question: “How does the assembly theme position the ministry of reconciliation in the context of ecumenism today? Reconciliation provides a model of twenty-first century mission. The Korean peninsula offers a tragic example of the nation-dividing wounds inflicted by internal conflict, and of the critical necessity of reconciliation to heal those wounds. Last week, the WCC Executive Committee joined in prayer and solidarity with the churches and people of Ethiopia as they face a similarly grave crisis in the life of their ancient and holy nation which holds such great significance for the continent of Africa and for global Christianity. The executive committee underscored concerns regarding the political instrumentalization of ethnic differences, threatening the very fabric of the nation and the security of all its people. We observed how deep the wounds being inflicted in the Ethiopian nation are, calling for an equally deep process of national dialogue and reconciliation to restore the nation, and the leadership role that the churches and religious communities of Ethiopia must play in this restoration. I believe that, based on your own history in Korea, the Korean churches can be powerful sources of support and encouragement to the churches of Ethiopia as they seek to raise their prophetic voice for inclusive dialogue, peace, justice and unity against violence and hate speech.

From a theological point of view, only God can bring about reconciliation; it is based in missio Dei. And the ministry of reconciliation is entrusted to us, as ambassadors for Christ’s sake. Our work for reconciliation, then, is dependent upon God’s action and always occurs through co-operating with God’s grace. True reconciliation does not come about because of what we do. Our effectiveness as messengers and ministers of reconciliation arises out of our co-operation with God. Given this situation, we need to come to see ourselves as mediators (or “ambassadors”, as 2 Cor 5:20 puts it) of God’s action.

Third, assemblies are moments when the churches within the ecumenical fellowship, responding to Christ’s prayer “that they may be one” (John 17:23), call one another to visible unity for the sake of the world that God loves and for the sake of the creation that God declares good. Recent years have seen a turn in the world toward self-centredness and separation rather than unity, toward nationalism rather than the multilateralism, and an increased value placed on difference and identity rather than on the oneness of all humanity. Humankind has failed to take care of creation and now the love of God for all creation, made visible in Christ, calls out for change and repentance. The WCC has a long and faithful history of advocating for action to avert climate change and for justice for those populations most vulnerable to its impacts and least responsible for its causes.

An urgent transition from an extractivist, fossil fuel-based economy to one based on sustainable renewable energy sources is an existential necessity. In particular, there can be no new development of coal-based power and industrial infrastructure, and fossil fuel resources must remain in the ground. The gravity of the climate crisis changes everything, for all of us, and there is no more possibility of ‘business as usual.’ As the WCC executive committee observed last week, in its conclusions on the outcomes of the COP26 Climate Change Conference, we human beings are an integral part of God’s good creation, and are dependent on the divinely created web of life for our well-being. As God’s image-bearers we also carry the responsibility to care for God’s creation. But due to anthropogenic climate change we stand on the verge of fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: “the earth will be desolate because of its inhabitants, for the fruit of their doings” (Micah 7:13). Moreover, love is at the centre of our Christian belief (1 John 4:16), and we acknowledge that if one member of the worldwide body of Christ suffers, all suffer together with that one (1 Corinthians 12:26). But sisters and brothers in poor, vulnerable and marginalized communities are facing the worst impacts of climate change while those responsible for the crisis continue to resist the demands of solidarity and justice.  In this regard, the fellowship of churches in the WCC and NCCK should continue seeking unity in the fight for climate action and climate justice, in the diminishing window of opportunity that still remains for the fundamental changes needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

With these words, I wish you rich blessings in your fellowship and from your discussions during this meeting.