Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches
Sermon on Septuagesima Sunday, 26 August 2018
On the occasion of the WCC’s 70th anniversary – ecumenical service and celebration in the Methodist Church at Grünerløkka, Oslo, Norway
Texts: 1 Cor. 3:4-11; Luke 17:3-10
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
This is a good day for highlighting and celebrating how the World Council of Churches (WCC) has fostered unity and community between the churches of the world, kindled people and heard their cries for justice and peace throughout the world for 70 years. On 23 August 1948, the Council was officially founded in Amsterdam at the first assembly. People from 147 churches in the world were gathered there. Both what would later be known as the United Methodist Church as well as the Church of Norway were well-represented and actively helping to prepare and implement this initiative. I want to thank you, along with the Christian Council of Norway and the Norwegian Church Aid, two important partners of WCC today, for taking the initiative for this wonderful celebration of a unique work tool in God’s world garden.
On 23 August, last Thursday, many people were gathered in Neuwe Kerk, Amsterdam to celebrate the anniversary. We marched for peace through the busy streets of the city as we recalled the dramatic war history that was fresh in everyone’s minds in 1948, not least how the Jews were persecuted—and exterminated. We also recalled how the Netherlands and Amsterdam have served as refuge for persecuted Christians for many centuries, as well as the colonial power and its hold on the world. We recalled important ecumenical leaders and initiatives, the fight against apartheid (a Dutch word that became ideology, politics and even theology in South Africa)—and we saw the churches today being used for purposes other than prayer and worship. And we saw what the Salvation Army is doing together with those living there today—including those in the famous Red Light District.
It offered a special opportunity to ponder what thoughts characterised those present in 1948, urging this on. The topic said a whole lot: “Man’s disorder and God’s design!” During the sermon at the opening service, the Methodist priest D. T. Niles from the Ceylon Methodist Conference (as it was known back then) preached about Moses’ call to serve God. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” “Who am I?”
They were facing tremendous challenges, and they set ambitious goals. And they were bold when they addressed the realities they were facing in their time: How to confront the immensely divisive forces and the violent racism and nationalism that had instigated the catastrophe? How to protect human dignity and fulfil the needs of millions of refugees and migrants? How to credibly preach the gospel about a merciful and loving God after everything that had happened—in part, supposedly in the name of God? How to build trust and unity between the churches? Back then, Catholics were prohibited from participating in ecumenical events. It was a call for reconciliation between peoples and churches alike. People were likely unfamiliar with one another—for example, the distance between Orthodox churches in the east and Protestant churches in the west was large.
“Who am I?” This question even resounds through the biblical texts concerning Septuagesima. But the question comes to us in slightly different ways.
“Increase our faith!” said the apostles (as they were called by Luke). They could feel that the mission on which they had been sent demanded more from them than they could give. Increase our courage, our faith in our usefulness!
D. T. Niles found strength in the answer from the God that called him: “I will be with you.” “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” Jesus said.
They dared believe that God was not unaffected by all the world’s distress and cries from concentration camps, victims of war and refugees. They dared believe that God still loved this world. And they dared believe that they, personally, were called to demonstrate it through words and actions.
It was nothing new that people doubted their own strength and faith in the face of the life missions to which God calls us in different ways. Nor was it new that one found comfort and strength in the words of God. What was new in 1948 was them recognising more clearly than ever before that this is something we need to do together; we must dare together; we must share the faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour—together. We cannot muster what we are called to do if we continue to be divided, even working against each other. “We are committed to stay together.” That is the message that sounded from Amsterdam to the churches and the world.
God’s promise, “I am with you”, was further interpreted and understood also as a verse they ought to share and give to each other: “We will be with each other” — “we are committed to standing together.”
They knew what it meant to be separated and what it meant to be united in faith. One of the stories that established this feeling—and certainty—has been told about the bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav. One Christmas, while under house arrest at his cabin in Asker during the Nazi rule of Norway, towards the end of the war, when the future looked darker than ever and he was burdened with doubt, he received a message: On Christmas Eve, the archbishop of Canterbury had prayed for him on BBC. That gave him the courage he needed to continue believing in both peace and justice. He felt in his heart what unity in the church meant. It was faith like a grain of mustard seed.
It cost something to be one, and it had value. The hard times had taught them that. And they, and we, would learn it from the WCC’s work: It is hard work, and one does not always see results—certainly not right away. But that does not lessen the importance of doing it, together. On the contrary, that is exactly what matters. And that might be what Jesus means: When we ask for our faith to be increased, his response tells us to do what we are set to do. That is enough.
That might be what Paul contends with in his exhortations and admonitions to the church of Corinth, the global city and trade city that had become home to a very diverse Christian church—with many disagreements. The ecumenical problem became a reality early on. “What then is Apollos?” “What is Paul?” The church has always been followed by different groupings, leading to conflict and discord.
The ecumenical response is the same: We are called to the same mission, even if we are different and have different gifts and contributions to offer. We must focus on what binds us together in love. The foundation remains the same, and it has been laid: Jesus Christ. There is no one else, and we need no one else. The hostility and evil present in the world, in the church, and potentially in us all—is too strong for a divided church. We need each other, like the limbs of the same body need everything we have and everyone who belongs to the church of Jesus Christ on Earth. And it can only be kept together through love. Not through perfection. That does not exist. But through the good that we can give each other and give together through love. “For the love of Christ urges us on.” (2 Cor. 5:14)
The tasks are there, waiting in front of us. Today as in 1948. A lot has changed, and some things are similar.
In the years following 1945, many important initiatives and declarations were made in response to the call, “Never more, never again.” International cooperation through the UN, declarations of human rights, international laws and cooperation agreements were developed. Today, there are strong forces working against international cooperation and back towards powerful people doing what they want. Democratic nations are turning their backs on multilateral international cooperation, and the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is inciting disunity, racism and contempt for others.
Those who founded the WCC and those who have been involved with the WCC have since helped promote contact and cooperation across all borders. During the Cold War, that became important. Today, it is important when we visit both Seoul and Pyongyang.
Many people in Norway have participated in the WCC’s companion programme for justice and peace in Palestine and Israel. It is a demanding mission, but very important to those concerned.
The WCC’s cooperation has taught one to say both “yes” and “no.” That became very clear in the programme for fighting racism. The fight against apartheid made the cooperation with the WCC active and well-known in this country—to the Church of Norway and other Norwegian affiliates. It was a crossroads that greatly inspired many people’s understanding of the church’s role in the battle against injustice and for peace. Unfortunately, the fight against racism is not over, not on any continent or in any country. Not even in Norway and in Europe.
As early as in 1948, the WCC condemned the use of nuclear weapons, deeming them a sin against humanity and God. Last year, ICAN, of which the WCC is an active member, received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to achieve an international ban on nuclear weapons. The threat posed by such weapons has unfortunately become very real once again.
30 years ago, the WCC initiated a decade of “Churches in solidarity with women.” That had a great ripple effect, including in this country. The first ordained female priest in Norway was a Methodist (1954), and the first female bishop was a Methodist (Jorunn Wendel). Other churches (such as the Church of Norway) have followed suit. This was inspired by the WCC among others. But the efforts to create a fair community for women and men have by no means ended. Women are often the main sufferers during conflicts and after conflicts.
This week, I was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as part of a joint delegation with representatives from the Vatican. Congo needs a fair election with free and reliable procedures. The churches there will now be cooperating towards this objective in this situation before the election in December. The relationship with the Catholic Church is completely different from in 1948. Pope Francis’ visit to the WCC on June 21 on the occasion of its 70th anniversary was a clear celebration of this. The motto was: “Walking, praying, working together.” One of the fruits was our ability to travel to Congo together in the name of peace and justice.
At the tenth assembly in Busan, Korea in 2013, a connection to 1948 was made by establishing: “We are committed to move together.” The WCC has invited its member churches, other churches, and many others to be together as pilgrims for justice and peace. This is a renewal of the connection between our faith and the tasks that await us out there. However, it is also an expression for our need to be together as humans, with hands and senses open to what is needed. We do not have responses and solutions to every question, but we do have ourselves.
Today, it comes down to looking for those who are willing to walk with us on the path of peace and justice.
We will be walking, faith renewed that God will be walking with us.
Let us not forget what God has done. God has created us, saved us, and called us to life in meaningful tasks—together. Today, we thank God for all that has been done in the WCC during these years. Today, we give our thanks for everyone who has worked for unity, peace, and justice, having remained steadfast despite faltering motivation, strength and faith. Today, we give our thanks for the “fellowship of grace” in which we may live here in Norway, between the Methodist Church and the Church of Norway.
Today’s service reminds us of our baptism, and we are grateful that the ecumenical conversations have led to our mutual recognition of each other’s baptism. We belong to Christ through our baptism.
Today, we hope and pray that our cooperation may be strengthened, that we may be bolder together, and that we may take new steps together with everyone who wants to walk the path of peace and justice.
We are called to serve. Together. In the name of the God who has shown himself as creator, saviour and giver of life.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.