Monday, 16 May 2011

The risen Christ calls us to peace not to vengeance - Olav Fykse Tveit preaches at Webster Memorial United Church

Sometimes it's really worth making the effort to get out of bed early on a Sunday morning and yesterday was a good case in point. It was good to begin the 10 days of the IEPC worshiping with local people at their normal Sunday service. The tradition of dressing up to go to church is alive and well in Jamaica. Twenty years in France, where this really isn't the case, had made me almost forget this part of my own tradition of church going.

I was moved by the sermon preached by the WCC's general secretary, Olav Fykse Tveit. He really engaged with the congregation, blending humour about unity in diversity - recognizing the real differences between the Caribbean where tropical fruit juice is drunk and Norway where salt cod tends to the local speciality - with a powerful and heartfelt message about the true Christian values of righteousness, peace and joy.
He began by saying quite meditatively
"We are the church
We are the Kingdom
We are the World Council of Churches ..."
It is a sign of the united church to value righteousness, peace and joy as true fruits of the Spirit

He took Romans 14.11-18 as his text, encouraging the congregation to focus on joy, as this 3rd Sunday after Easter is called Jubilate, Rejoice!
This rejoicing is the gospel of resurrection which comes across locked doors in the person of the risen Christ breathing the words "peace be with you". "This tells us alot about how God calls us to just peace. The theme of just peace is not just something to discuss but it is a sign of the Kingdom of God and that fruit of the Spirit called joy. The risen Christ is present to bring justice and peace to the world as a sign.
Christ's presence brings with it a new reality of joy and peace. Despite the betrayal, humiliation, torture, pain and death that he has endured it is not with revenge that Christ comes back but with a true justice, he returns from death bearing the fruits of the kingdom. This is what he brings to the world through his presence.

Tveit then went on to speak about situations of war and peace in the world, mentioning in particular a visit in January to a minority church in Libya which had at that time particularly been praying for the Coptic martyrs of Alexandria
He continued by saying that the church is called to give witness to what is not seen, like a seed hidden in darkness, God's presence is alive. Pointing out that the WCC was not quite as old as Webster Memorial Church, he also made reference to the speech made by the then bishop of Oslo in the run up to the WCC's founding in 1948 "The Enemy divides, God unites". Reflecting on this Tveit then returned to the Romans 14 passage saying "We are created to be united, to be togehter." The text takes us further even than this towards accepting that God has created nothing that is unclean. It is we who make one another unclean.
We are here to be a signs of righteousness, justice and peace. God justifies us so we can bear witness to a unity of diversity, of difference. All of us are called to accept one another.

Getting to be 70 means we are still young enough to change while building on what those who went before. Change is possible. Another world is possible. To illustrate this Tveit told a favourite story of his mother who spoke of peace coming at the end of the German occupation of Norway. How her story of the day the peace came helped him to see pictures he had never actually seen, like the blackout curtains which had separated people and kept the light out burning in teh streets. The burning curtains were a clear sign of peace, not just a rumour. the story of peace also speaks clearly of the joy of something. People around the world carry such stories of peace and part of the practice of peace is to give and share them as signs to one another.
In any home life can be complicated, we can forget that peace also needs righteousness and joy.
"I believe the Holy Spirit calls churches to do everything we can together to witness to the reality of Christ's presence. There is no way of separating Christ from these values of justice, peace and joy."

Going through my (I should add imperfect) notes to type this up I realise that what moved me about yesterday's sermon was the very gentle but convinced weaving together of favourite themes the WCC's general secretary has preached about over the past 18 months. Tveit is keen to assert that justice joy and peace are the core Christian values. In all our talk about unity we must not separate ourselves from that. There were subtle but very clear messages about inclusivity and I think I am beginning to better understand the statement he sometimes makes when he says he doesn't believe in enemies. Here the idea received a bit more context for me and I was very struck by the idea of Christ coming back from the grave with the fruits of the Spirit. Justice, peace and joy are resurrection values with great capacity to unite us.
During the service yesterday there were also beautiful moments when a woman sitting close to me was more or less finishing the preacher's entences before he did and saying amen with real joy.
Worth getting up early on Sunday for.