Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary World Council of Churches
Sermon in Chongwenmen Church, Beijing, 7 January 2018
Theme: Jesus Christ – the Joy of the World
Text: “Be not afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The first word about Jesus Christ was a word about joy. It is indeed a joy to visit you here in Beijing in this season of Christmas, when we celebrate this joy.
In the world of today we need messages and values that can unite us as human beings in a sustainable way across all borders. Can the joy of Christmas be something more than a superficial and commercialized ambiance? Can the message of Christmas offer something in today’s world that can bring people together in joy based on something more significant?
Christmas is a Christian feast. In these days, January 6 and 7, many Orthodox churches that are part of our fellowship in the World Council of Churches, are celebrating Christmas. Other Christian churches around the world have celebrated Christmas December 25. In spite of differences in church calendars, the churches are united in defining Christmas as a feast, as a time to celebrate, because it as a time of joy. Even in difficult times of depressions, wars and persecution, Christmas has still somehow been celebrated as a feast of joy; sometimes even more important then.
The origin of this approach comes from the original message, presented as “Good news of great joy for all the people”. The joy continues to flow from the impact and the meaning of the birth of Jesus – and we are reminded that it is for all the people.
The church in our time and in all continents continues to adore Jesus. We do so together with the first witnesses, the poor parents, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, with the pilgrims “from the East”. We confess and adore Jesus Christ as true human and true God. We do not adore the emperors and the powerful as the link between heaven and earth. We worship the God that identifies with the ordinary, even unprivileged people. That is how it can be for all the people.
This joy is described in many of the hymns sung for this feast. The good news is coming from heaven to earth. The light is coming to the world. But also the receivers of the message are qualified by this birth of Jesus. The dignity of being human is affirmed by God in this newborn child. We have all been created in the image of God. The good message from heaven about God’s love to all human beings is for all the people. The care for human beings should be the same for all of us, because we all have the same needs and rights for protection.
In any newborn child we see the miracle of life, the power of the Creator to bring forward life in all its fullness. Seeing God in the newborn child reminds us that the expression “for all the people” includes the children. As a World Council of Churches we have the last years given more attention to the needs of the children, encouraging all of our member churches to be committed to the care for all children in the world. The children of China also need care, fellowship and protection – and you as church have a lot to offer to them.
This last Christmas I have had the privilege to enjoy this gift and miracle of life, as I could see and hold my newborn grandson this Christmas. Before he even has really opened his eyes, he is a full human being, but totally dependent on the food, the love and care of his parents and of others. The birth of a child is bringing to us the blessings of heaven, the most precious gift of life.
The news about the birth of Jesus was a source of joy for his parents, even as it in many ways was a matter of concern and worry. They were poor, young, driven by the empire to travel at the time to give birth. After Jesus was born, they had to flee from the abuse of power by the present king Herod, as refugees to Egypt. Those who particularly need “a great joy for all the people” in our time are all the refugees of our time. Due to conflicts, violence, and war or for other reasons we live in a time when we have more than 60 million refugees, more than after the Second World War. Many of them come from the same region as where our Lord Jesus Christ was born.
In the World Council of Churches we together confess Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, as we say in the basis of the WCC, referring to the words of the Gospel of Luke. The ecumenical movement is built on the perspective “for all the people”, the whole “oikoumene”. The joy of Christmas is at the heart of the work and the call of the World Council of Churches as we now, in this time of Christmas, and here, in Beijing, China, begin our celebration of the 70th anniversary of the WCC.
The joy of Christmas has inspired the churches the last 70 years, including your own Protestant church in China, to give a common witness for Jesus Christ and a willingness to work for “a joy for all the people” and to promote “peace on earth”. This joy of Christmas can continue to bring us together as churches and as human beings, in a world that is both able to improve and still very divided and fragmented. Even if many have been brought out of poverty, like in your country, many people in the world are still suffering from poverty, from illnesses, they live in armed conflicts, they live with fear, loneliness, even hopelessness.
What “a great joy for all the people” can mean is elaborated in many ways in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells this story of the birth of Jesus and the message to the fearful shepherds at the beginning of the whole story about Jesus Christ. He continues at the end of the Gospel telling the story of how the good news of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ was shared with the fearful disciples.
The Gospel writer, Luke, told the powerful story of Jesus as God and Savior, who was “anointed by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (as we read in Luke 4:18-19, describing how Jesus was reading from the book of the prophet Jesaja). He is the one who chose his apostles and “gave them instructions through the Holy Spirit … to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 2, 8). Luke described how this good news was shared and brought to the world, in the Book of the Acts of Apostles. The disciples were moved by the Holy Spirit to move together, to share the joy.
What the World Council of Churches will celebrate remembering our first 70 years is that we as well are brought into this fellowship as witnesses of the great joy. We are together to serve and to witness. We cannot wait till we have found agreement in everything before we unite in our tasks to bring joy and unity to the world. Our ecumenical service, our diakonia, is needed every day. Here in China and everywhere in the world. The diakonal ministry of the church has become particularly significant for the witness of the church here. We are called to transforming discipleship, to be moved by the Spirit, which is the theme of the WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania, in March 2018. We are called to liberate, to heal the broken, to raise up the oppressed, and to share the salvation from sin that we can receive in Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Luke gives several examples of the joy of the Gospel, what it is - and what it is not. One of the stories in the Gospel is telling how sad a rich young man became when Jesus showed him that his richness, his wealth, all his properties made it impossible for him to participate in the eternal life in all its fullness. He had become too big and too rich to enter into the kingdom of God. He could not share the wealth and move on as a pilgrim and disciple of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke warns particularly the rich several times from building our hope and our joy on something that is perishing and cannot bring us real and eternal joy. We need to fight together to end poverty; but the rich are called to share and warned not to trust in their wealth. They have a greater challenge to hear the Gospel as a liberation and a hope for themselves.
Another dimension of the Gospel of Luke is the emphasis of the significant role of women, and of the true and just relationship between women and men that can be built or restored through the encounter with Jesus. The focus on the mother of Jesus is a clear message about the significant role of women in all human life and also in our relationship to God. The church has through the ages honored Mary as the “mother of God”. Furthermore, the women are encountering Jesus the teacher and healer in many ways in the Gospel, experiencing how Jesus is restoring their health, their dignity, their significant role in family, in society and in the fellowship of the followers of Christ. Women become the first witnesses and the first messengers of the empty tomb of Jesus, and the first to share this reason for joy.
The Gospel tells several stories about how human beings can fail and do the wrong thing; particularly how the privileged, the rich and the powerful can become sinners. But the Gospel of Luke also emphasizes how the most important source of joy is the forgiveness of sins. In heaven the greatest joy is when a sinner repents (Luke 10). There is always an opportunity for a new start in the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Those with important religious roles can be destroying the real joy of fellowship in the relationship to God. Even those with significant positions in the new relationship that Jesus creates are very vulnerable. Luke tells how Peter denied his relationship to Jesus Christ three times.
The resurrected Jesus Christ came to Peter and to all the failing and fearful disciples with the message of “peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). And we read that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (Luke 24:41). The real joy is always given to the real human being with their real human feelings. They had moments of surprising joy. At the table of Emmaus (Luke 24) they realized who he was and how he opened the Scriptures, sharing the truth about himself and about themselves, and they heard again the word with “a great joy”.
The message of Christmas is a word to all who live without peace. In these days you also live with the risk of war in your neighbor countries in the Korean peninsula. The people of Korea have been in our prayers and our attention for a long time and particularly the last months. As a World Council of Churches we share their fear and their faith in the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. This year we will also give special attention to the peoples of Latin-America and their needs for peace, particularly in Colombia.
The message in the Gospel of Christmas - and of Easter is: Be not afraid! We are called to offer hope to the other, but not in a superficial way. This is not the time to say that everything is fine, or that the word “sin” is an obsolete word in the world. Every day we see the opposite, everywhere. This is the time to receive salvation from sin and to go out fighting against all the negative effects of our mistakes and sins. We see them in climate change, in violent conflicts, in economic injustices, in the destruction of life, even in the name of religion – and in many other ways.
Among the very good news in the family of the World Council of Churches the last decades has been the news about the life and the growth of the church in China. Your faithful Christian witness, during and after very difficult times for your church, has given hope to many in the world. You have shown that there is a real joy in the Gospel – and that is for all the people who want to have a share in it.
We are called to share the good news of God’s love and God’s peace for all people, whoever they are, whatever people they belong to. In this time of Christmas we are particularly reminded of the need for a just peace of our sisters and brothers and of all peoples in Bethlehem and in the Middle East.
The greatest joy we can have is to share the best we have received, so that the joy can be owned by others. Real joy grows when it is shared.