The title of this blog is a quote from a document written in 1948; to be precise, the message written by the founding Assembly of the World Council of Churches, against the background of a war-torn, war-weary world. This sermon was written for the Synod last week of the Nordkirche, at which a new Bishop, Kristina Kühnbaum-Schmidt, was elected; and, while surely of much less import, is also a call to Christian action and prayer across ecumenical boundaries.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
21 And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard….
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
First of all, may I thank you for the great privilege and honour of preaching on such an auspicious occasion. The election of a new Bishop in the Nordkirche is a significant event for you, naturally; but also for those of us who live in Latvia, and who are grateful for your support to us in prayer, in material ways, and – perhaps most of all – in the sense that we know that we are not forgotten. We – particularly the women theologians in our country – know ourselves supported by a matrix of thoughts, works and prayers which has been of supreme importance to us in the last years, which have been something of a struggle.
We live in turbulent times. You don’t need me to tell you that. Our world seems to be shaking and changing, almost day by day, with news of political extremism; and of the existential threat that hangs over us, and our children’s children – global climate change. There is a poem or a hymn by an American clergy person, William Gay, who writes together with his wife, Annabeth, which resonates with many people.
“Each winter as the year grows older,
We each grow older too.
The chill sets in a little colder;
The verities we knew
Seem shaken and untrue.
When race and class cry out for treason,
When sirens call for war,
They overshout the voice of reason
And scream till we ignore
All we held dear before.”
At this time in September, when the equinox has just passed, and our part of the world turns towards darkness and cold, these chilling words are very moving and evocative.
And at a time when our geopolitical world also seems to be turning towards darkness, intolerance, populism and hatred, the lines “The verities we knew seem shaken and untrue” might well be written especially for us. The denial of verity – of truth – by those in power is shocking and disturbing; and the feeling that we are left with is that the world has become less safe, less trusting and trustful. The inimitable Rudi Giuliani recently even said – ‘Truth is not truth’; so we find ourselves in a semi-Orwellian world, where the Ministry of Truth does everything except tell the truth.
And the four horsemen – Death, War, Famine and Conquest – seem to have been set loose again, as people in Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen know and see each day.
So is this a counsel of despair? Do we look at the world around with tears in our eyes and fears in our hearts? What does it mean, in 2018, to say that “all things have been created through Jesus and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” How can it be that once again this world, and we ourselves, the children of God who inhabit it, have made such a mess of things; and yet in Jesus all things hold together?
No! This is not a counsel of despair, but a clear call to action and to prayer.
It is 70 years since the World Council of Churches was founded in 1948; and of course the background to this great ecumenical event was an even darker period of history. As a response to the war, Christians from many countries came together, conscious of a mission to bring light into the darkness; and to send a message to all who were willing to hear.
“When we look to Christ,” that message said,
“When we look to Christ, we see the world as it is – His world, to which he came and for which he died.
It is filled both with great hopes and and also with disillusionment and despair… There are millions who are hungry, millions who have no home, no country and no hope. Over all mankind hangs the peril of total war”.
And the important – the crucial thing – is that in response to this devastation which hung over Europe, Russia, Japan Christians did not despair, did not let their hands and their heads hang down. Instead they chose to reaffirm their essential unity and their belief in God’s word for the world. They spoke strongly of the need to „continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that we heard….“, to slightly paraphrase Paul. For – if it is true that in Christ, the Logos, the image of God, all things hold together, then we must speak out to a world in which things are falling apart. And the most potent witness to this, the ‘Good News’ which carries most integrity, is one where Christians join hands and voices across the ecumenical divides, allowing our hurts and wounds to be healed so that we can reach out to heal the world.
That was the aim of the WCC 1948 message, too. “We have to remind ourselves and all people that God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble and meek. We have to learn afresh together to speak boldly in Christ’s name both to those in power and to the people, to oppose terror, cruelty and race discrimination, to stand by the outcast, the prisoner and the refugee. We have to make of the Church in every place a voice for those who have no voice, and a home where [all] will be at home…. It is not in [human] power to banish sin and death, to create the unity of the Holy Catholic Church, to conquer the hosts of Satan. But it is within the power of God”.
Today, in the maelstrom of 2018, it is still Christ in whom all things hold together. It is still within the power of God “to reconcile to Godself all things”. It is still absolutely vital and crucial that we continue “securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel”. We still, all of us people of faith, have to speak boldly in Christ’s name; and the new Bishop of the Nordkirche will be called to do that, not just in the church and in the congregations of the Nordkirche, but in our fractured and and chilly world. This will demand great integrity, courage and a secure faith on which to draw day by day as he or she takes up calling to be the shepherd of souls here in Northern Germany. May God bless the Bishop with wisdom, strength and a loving, open heart! May God give you all the strength of purpose to continue to tell out the Good News with passion and compassion!
Let me conclude with the last verses of William and Annabeth Gay’s poem, as I pray for each person here today to be transfixed by faith, and to go out into the world, proclaiming the love, reconciliation and salvation brought to us by the grace of Christ.
Yet I believe beyond believing,
That life can spring from death:
That growth can flower from our grieving;
That we can catch our breath
And turn transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning
To journey to the north,
The living flame, in secret burning,
Can kindle on the earth
And bring God’s love to birth.
O Child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
Brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s,
Renew our lives again;
Lord Jesus, come and reign!