Gospel reading: John 3:14-21
Dear colleagues in Geneva, in the Ecumenical Family, belonging to the Ecumenical Centre
The peace of God be with you all.
During these days it is one year since many of our countries went into lock down or other measures were taken to address the risk of uncontrolled spread of the covid19 virus. You had to disappear into your homes and home based work; I had to leave Geneva without the opportunity to convey to you all a word of collegial greeting. So let me again express my deep gratitude for the possibility to work together with you over many years in the Ecumenical Centre. It was indeed a very special gift to be called to serve God together with you all.
It has been a tough year for you, with the many restrictions on your daily lives and your ability to get together as a community and as colleagues serving and praying together in the house. My thoughts and prayers are often with you. I admire what you can do and communicate to the whole ecumenical family and the world under these new conditions. You are called to bring the light of God’s love into the world – and you have done so and you continue to do so.
As presiding bishop of the Church of Norway, to which I was called to serve after my terms in the WCC were finished, I do see the significance of the work you are doing, particularly under these conditions. Even if it is not so easy to manifest as before we are doing it together. We are as Church of Norway members of the LWF and WCC. We are a church in a Lutheran communion and a church belonging to the mutually accountable relations of the wider ecumenical fellowship in the WCC. Through the work of Norwegian Church Aid as a member of the ACT Alliance continue to address urgent and increasing needs of the world.
We as churches in the Nordic region are embraced by your prayers and the prayers of the ecumenical family this week. We live with the same pandemic as the whole world, and its many challenges. Our countries have had resources to handle some of the medical and some of the financial dimensions of the crisis. he general moral of the populations to sustain the willingness and ability to live with the long term effects of isolation is under pressure. Particularly youth are suffering a lot. Schools might be closed in Oslo again this week. I talked to one of the student chaplains in Trondheim last week, and she reported very stressful situations for isolated students, particularly for foreign students. There are reports of more domestic violence in our country. I call for you prayers for us and that our churches may be true and credible signs of God’s love under these conditions.
The churches in Norway agreed to make yesterday a Sunday of prayer for all victims of the pandemic and particularly who are suffering more than us. We pray for solidarity among the nations and people of the world in addressing the effects of it.
The last year has proved that the world needs initiatives and structures of justice and peace that can keep us together in this one world. The challenges, the darkness we are facing, is too strong for a divided humanity to handle. We need committed and competent efforts of multi-lateral work to address the problems we have as one humanity and as one creation of God. Governments of nations and local municipalities have a responsibility to take care of all peoples under their jurisdiction, and we see what can happen if they don’t.
The churches need proper and efficient instruments to provide common ground and accountable relations for the sake of our mission in the world. We are called to share how God loves the world, so that we can get out of our self-defined ways of living that might lead to perishing and not to life and light.
I have alluded to the Gospel reading in describing our situation of today as churches and ecumenical movement. The text from John 3 speaks into our lives of today and to the call we have as churches together in times like these.
What strikes me reading it again now is that the most quoted verse 16 does not emphasize the message THAT God loves the world
The text do not focus on THAT God loved the world but on HOW God loved the world, as signs of HOW MUCH God loves the world.
God loves the world in God’s own way, in a way that might be difficult to understand. As it was for the teacher Nicodemus.
We sometimes hear this verse 16 referred to as if the point is that we should be aware of the condition to have access to the reality of God’s love, for example that one have confessed the Christian faith in a special way.
The text emphasizes something else: FOR SO – FOR IN THIS WAY God loved the world that he gave his only son. This changes the message to a strong and maybe provoking message about the sign of God’s unconditional love.
It is even emphasized in the next sentence: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved by him.” (v 17)
The love of God had been made known many times before. The act of creation, of creating everything by his loving Word, is described by the first words of the Gospel of John. Giving the light is a sign of God’s unconditional love to everyone and everything God has created. The sign of the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant of protecting the living creatures on earth from perishing. In chapter 2 we hear about the miracle of generosity to a greedy or poor host of a wedding - or maybe he was just unhappy in very practical but significant matters experiencing shortage of wine for the celebration. Through the transformation of water to wine, becoming the sign of the gift and the feast of the Holy communion with Jesus Christ and one another.
In chapter 3 the rabbinic conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus about the Messianic status of Jesus is illuminated by a story from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible- The very strange story about Moses lifting up – on the command of God – a serpent made of bronze upon a pole in the wilderness as a sign of the power of transformation and healing from the plague of serpents.
Anybody looking to it and trusting, believing in it, was healed. Indeed, it is a story of something not very logical to our minds. However, it is a story of the power of signs, even signs we do not really understand. The story became a sign that could interpret the meaningless death of Jesus at the cross to become a sign of God’s unconditional love. 60 years later, when the Gospel text was written, this became a significant sign for a community under pressure about the meaning of their faith in the crucified and risen Christ. He was – inspite of what was happened to him – the one who was sent from God. The light to make the truth of God known.
We could continue reading the whole Gospel from this perspective: How the light is coming to the world, how God shows by God’s own initiative the reality of God’s love in the presence of Jesus as Christ, the one to come. This sign of love is so powerful that it becomes a contrast, a judgement of anything and anybody not seeking the truth, the light of love.
We live under clouds these days we did not really see coming. We have many reasons to ask straight forward questions about fairness, justice in this increasing darkness: Why shall the most vulnerable, the people living in poverty in many places of the world – be suffering even more. These clouds are making shades that can cover up many of human beings evil thoughts and actions, now and before. What is done to nature is an even darker cloud. The reality of injustice in the world is becoming ugly.
It is not God’s love that is failing. It is our ability, and our willingness to see the signs of God’s love and to make the signs of God’s love known and believed. The signs are not always clear to us. With Jesus, these signs were seen under the cloud of the tragedy and with the suffering of being not accepted, of experiencing the most significant injustice. The clouds of hate and indifference are still very strong in the world.
It is the right time for the WCC to prepare an assembly to reflect on what this means, with the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”.
We are not called to believe in our own faith. We are not even called to believe in the power of our churches or in the success of our own ecumenical movement. We are called to believe in the signs of God’s unconditional love, shown in Jesus Christ. We are called to believe in God. That is why faith matters. That is why faith can make a difference.
We have a unique call to share the clear and pure Gospel about God’s unconditional love, through our words, and through our actions of truth.
What the world needs now is love. The world continues to be surprised by true love.