Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary, World Council of Churches
Sermon at St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Sydney, 16 October 2016.
Ecumenical Multicultural Worship Service
Text: Luke 24
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Dear friends and people of Sydney and of Australia,
Dear fellow pilgrims in the changing realities of this world,
Thank you for the welcome to this land of the aboriginal peoples who have taken care of it for generations. Thank you for the welcome to this city and to this church!
There are moments in life when we understand what is known to us in a totally new way. There are moments when we turn pages in our lives. Sometimes these moments come to us through dramatic changes or events, forced upon us by others or even by ourselves. Sometimes these moments come to us through the ordinary lives we live, when we walk together, when we talk together, when we eat together.
Sometimes these moments come when we are together like tonight to pray, to sing like you do with joy and candor, and when we are together to listen to the word of God. These are important expressions of our faith in our fellowship. These moments come when we are talking to one another about what is in our hearts, sorrow or gladness, despair or hope, doubt or trust. In the presence of God, we might be surprised. It might be moments when we are seeing more than before, understanding something differently, because our hearts are opened by the loving presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
There is something called the ecumenical movement. It is not something for some specialists and professionals, or for those with some special interests. It is by its very nature the people of faith, or even of doubt, that get together, walking, talking, working, eating together – experiencing that God has something more for us to understand, to see, and to love – so our hearts might be burning. It is that movement we make together as followers of Jesus Christ, as churches, to show that we are given something new and something so valuable and important, that we have to share it with one another, and with those who live in this world with us. We are in this movement sharing the joy, the justice, and the peace of God.
We often need the presence of the other - also the unknown other - to see the truth. And we are called to share the truth. The truth is something we owe each other, the truth about ourselves and about God. We talk not only about the facts, but also the true perspective, and most of all the true response to it, the true attitude to the truth. For that to happen, we have to see and hear one another, and the others who need to see and hear the truth as a message of hope.
For the two who walked away from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, it was both something ordinary and something extraordinary that opened their eyes and their minds. They had experienced that their highest dreams almost became true, and they had experienced that these dreams had been crashed by the ugliest use of human power, through attitudes of cowards and evil acts. Now they were back to the most ordinary activities: walking, talking, and eating. And then the enormous change happens. Their eyes were opened, their minds were enlightened, their heart were burning.
As general secretary of the WCC I have the privilege to have many of these experiences of seeing more and learning more from what God is doing among us. I have the privilege to share that among the people of faith, or of doubt, in the many places and with the many people I see. I learn to see that the crucified and the resurrected are present in the world, where we do not expect it and where we do. I learn that all can be changed in the presence of God, whether they are strong or poor, or quite ordinary.
There are moments of the cross and moments of the resurrection everywhere.
I also see the most vulnerable and the powerless, the refugees, the sick, the poor. Sometimes I have moments when I see that the truth is quite the opposite: The poor and the vulnerable, the parents carrying their babies and a few belongings to escape war or hunger, still with eyes of hope and love and faith, they are the strongest of all. They can do what I could not. And sometimes I see that the truth about those in power is that they also do mistakes, even more serious mistakes than many others, because they have so much power.
The ecumenical movement should always be directed by the reality of the cross and the resurrection. We are accompanied by the resurrected Christ. But the ecumenical movement has always been and must always be a movement into the world where the reality of the cross is present in so many ways. It is in those contexts of our lives, whether they are contexts of destructive forces, of death, or of our struggle for the meaning of life in so many ways, places where the crucified can be found.
Luke does not tell us why these disciples set out for Emmaus, of all places, yet there must have been some comfort for them in departing hastily from Jerusalem. They travelled away from Jerusalem and Calvary where their teacher had been crucified. They even had hoped that he should be the one to redeem them according to the excellent and glorious promises of the holy scriptures. It was the time of depression and even diffusion, time to go away, away from the fellowship of the losers, away from the tragedy, away from the victory of injustice, betrayal and violence.
Yet their destination, too, was closely associated with the suffering of terrible injustice. Death on the cross was a distinctively Roman means of punishment. But it was not the only means by which the empire enforced its rule. Luke describes the Emmaus of his day as a village, yet one hundred years before it had been something more substantial. In the first century B.C., the Roman general, Cassius, made a name for himself throughout the region by sacking Emmaus and several other towns, selling all the former inhabitants into slavery. Decades later, around the time of Jesus’s birth, residents of the recovering settlement at Emmaus feared that a new Roman proconsul was planning to follow the example of Cassius. A popular insurrection ensued, and this time Roman forces burned Emmaus to the ground. In heading toward Emmaus, the two disciples had set out for a place that had become a byword for suffering at the hands of Rome. Although they were moving away from Jerusalem, the disciples could not escape the shadow of the cross.
The two did not remain there, in Emmaus. But this is where they met the risen Lord. They had to go back, to the others, not being dispersed, divided, disillusioned by fear and disappointment, but seeing the truth. Christ is risen indeed. Christ is with us, indeed. God has not abandoned him. God has not abandoned us. Christ has not abandoned the world. Rather to the contrary. The truth that we owe each other is the truth that gives hope. Our faith is more than facts, it is also the way we understand what happen as signs of God’s presence and the hope we have. Therefore, the way is not to isolation, but to fellowship, to pilgrimage together.
In the last century, assorted ecumenical Christians walked along the same road into the world, into the reality of the cross, to the reality of brokenness, sin and injustices of our world. Sometimes close together, sometimes at a distance, but within sight of one another – enthusiasts for visible unity, for mission, for education, for justice and peace, for faith and order, for life and work; protestants and Orthodox and Catholics and others who would not be labeled like that; evangelicals and liberals, missionaries and liberation theologians and feminist theologians. All were trying to share the meaning of the cross and the resurrection in our world.
This happened also here in Australia. Today it is time to let it happen again. Today is the time to commit ourselves to be together in the movement, in the pilgrimage of justice and peace. I can promise you, whatever church you belong to or whatever age you are, there are moments ahead of blessings, sometimes what will make you excited, and your heart will burn. And I can promise you as well that there will be moments when you have to show the deep solidarity of being the one body of Christ, carrying the cross together with those who really have to carry the heavy burdens. I got a cross from Metropolitan Bishoy of the Coptic Church in Egypt, to remind me that I am as leader called to carry the cross with the suffering parts of the body of Christ. Therefore, I wear it when I preach tonight.
Australia has so many resources, so many people, so many cultures, so many churches, so many faith communities, so many colours, so much to eat and drink, so much to share, so much to be given to others, so much justice to be restored, so much peace to be built, so many bridges to use, so many roads to walk both to the power and to the powerless, so many days of sunshine, so many drops of rain, so many winds, so many gifts and so many tasks. You need one another as people who have open eyes and burning hearts for the truth, for the love and the hope in the crucified and the resurrected Jesus Christ.
We – the worldwide movement of those who follow Jesus Christ to see and to witness for the others – we need you, we need your love, we need your young people with their strength, we need the wise and experienced, we need the leaders and their power, we need each one of you to be with us as we move together, praying that the kingdom of God might come and that the will of God be done on earth as it is heaven.
My visit to Australia has been moments of seeing signs of the presence of the crucified and the resurrected among you. Sometimes I see it in the paradoxes. I see it among you as church leaders, I saw it in an aboriginal man coming to the cathedral to share the suffering of his people, I saw it in a figure in a play in the Opera house striving for dignity and justice, I saw it among politicians striving to find ways of justice according to the will of God, I see it among you as ecumenical professionals and enthusiasts, in your fellowship as young and old, as people who are here for generations, and among people who are here, but who are not seen, as they are in detention. Christ is with you, sisters and brothers. This is his promise.
I am sure you will experience the surprising presence of our lord Jesus Christ, through the other and through the journey together with him and one another, a journey of hope. So: Let us go, together.