Sisters and Brothers in Christ, fellow pilgrims on the way of justice and peace: The love of Christ compels us to be part of the mission of God and the work for unity and reconciliation, in the one Church of Christ, in the one world. This is our calling, as it was for those who met here in 1948.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” D.T. Niles, the ecumenical leader from Sri Lanka, preached on this verse in the opening service of the Amsterdam assembly in 1948 here in the Nieuwe Kerk:
How to confront the economic and political powers that be?
How to overcome the divisive forces of racism and nationalism?
How to care for the needs and the dignity of the millions of refugees?
How to build unity among the churches, so that they offer a credible witness to the world, just three years after the horrors of World War II?
These were questions D.T. Niles had in mind, and with him many of the assembly delegates in 1948. These questions could have been overwhelming then. And they still point to an enormous task set out for us also today.
D.T. Niles found the way forward in God’s response to Moses: “I will be with you.” What God’s says about himself in the self-revelation in the burning bush contains the promise that God will be there, because God heard the cry of the enslaved people of Israel.
The assembly message from Amsterdam shows that the delegates were bold in speaking to the reality of the world. They dared to believe together that the promise to Moses was a promise also to them: “I will be with you.” They also remembered the promise of Jesus Christ to his disciples: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” They shared their faith in this promise of God. Their faith was a hope, against the realities of many of their recent experiences. The Bible said that God did not remain untouched by the suffering people of Israel. Jesus, too, was moved by the people he met. They believed that God did not remain untouched by the millions of people who were killed on the battlefields or in concentration camps, or suffered as refugees and migrants on their risky journeys, or as exploited and mistreated workers and even slaves. They believed together that God still loved the world, as God showed when Christ came to liberate this world from the power of evil, sin, and death.
We give thanks for contributions the churches could make together to peace. Today it is proper to honour here the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Dutchman Willem Visser ’t Hooft and to mention his work for peace in Europe. He gathered representatives of the resistance movements against Nazi dictatorship and German occupation from the Netherlands, France, Italy, Greece, and even Germany in Geneva. Even while the fighting was still going on, they discussed a way to reconciliation and peace for when the war would end that paved the way for others.
Thus the delegates of the Amsterdam assembly were united in hope. It was a costly unity. Many of them had experiences of what it meant to be united in hope. One of them was the bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav. During his detention under the Nazi regime in Norway, he struggled also with doubt. On Christmas Eve he received a message through a friend that he had heard on BBC that the Archbishop of Canterbury had prayed for him. This kept him going. This was for him the unity of the Church. A communication of love became a sign that God was with him.
The unity was costly even after Amsterdam 1948. They saw that they—themselves— were called to be a sign of the fulfilment of God’s promise. God’s promise to be with them had to be transformed into a promise from them that “We will be with you,” and “We will be with one another.” Therefore they declared in the message from the assembly: “We intend to stay together.” They knew what it meant to be divided, and they knew what it meant to be united.
They knew that the need for reconciliation was urgent but difficult. Still, it was the core of the ministry of the Church. They knew they were called to be peacemakers. They were convinced that overcoming the forces dividing humanity and also threatening relationships within and among the churches would require that they themselves had to be united in love.
When they were here in this church for the opening service, it was for most of them a festive moment, a new beginning after the horrors of war. But for many of them, there was also a much longer history that had to be addressed in a world fellowship of churches. For example, they knew that the “golden age” of the Netherlands and many other countries represented involved also colonialism and the slave trade. The assembly could not be silent about the dehumanizing forces of racism and greed that so many had experienced around the world. And the delegates did not shy away from addressing them in the work of their sections and in the message itself.
Seventy years have passed since then. We can give thanks to God for the deepening of the fellowship among the churches. There are milestones, like the document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, mission statements, important initiatives for climate justice and greater economic justice.
Of course, there have also been moments when we saw the forces dividing humanity creating mistrust, competition, and deep tensions among the churches themselves. An example that must inspire our actions even today is the Programme to Combat Racism, which gave support to the anti-apartheid struggle in Southern Africa and at the same time faced the traces of racism within the churches. Two years ago the predominantly white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was reinstalled as a member of the WCC, ending their suspension of more than 50 years ago.
Again, not without controversy at the time were the WCC’s efforts to encourage equal treatment of of women, in both church and society. Most conspicuously, thirty years ago the WCC committed to a Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women, a truly pioneering engagement that lifted the silence of the churches on women, encouraged the development of feminist theology, and worked toward a just community of women and men in the churches. Those efforts continue today and are given new breadth and visibility through the revival of Thursdays in Black, a worldwide campaign by the churches to counter the scourge of gender violence and rape.
So we give thanks to God that the vast majority of churches kept the promise of Amsterdam that they would stay together. The WCC member churches resolved in 2013 in the 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea, that “We are committed to move together.” We understand our work as the WCC to be on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. Today we have seen a sign—among many others—of this commitment here in Amsterdam in our peace walk.
There are various ways to look at the WCC as the fellowship of churches and instrument of the one ecumenical movement. On our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, I have come to the conviction that the ecumenical movement is essentially a movement propelled by the love of God. I find this well expressed by the apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. “The love of Christ compels us,” he writes in chapter 5:14. He describes the movement of Christ’s love that surrounds us and motivates us to act. Participating in this movement of love, we are called, as Paul affirms, to the ministry of reconciliation, living and working as ambassadors of Christ.
We can see the love of Christ at work in the Amsterdam assembly in 1948, compelling them toward reconciliation, peace and unity. In our time we again see strong forces dividing us as the human family. We desperately need those who care for the common good, for what brings us together as one humanity living in one and the same world. We see again in this anniversary that the one ecumenical movement among the churches is alive, wider than in 1948, “walking, praying and working together,” as the theme for Pope Francis’s visit to the WCC in June phrased it.
We give thanks for contributions the churches are making together today toward peace, just as they and the WCC assembly here in Amsterdam did 70 years ago. I hope and pray that the World Council of Churches continues to unite us as ambassadors of the love of Christ. We cannot offer anything better to the world and to ourselves.
May all glory be to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC General Secretary