Greeting in the meeting of European ecumenical secretaries for theology in Loppi, 24 September 2019

Your eminences, distinguished colleagues, dear sisters and brothers in Christ.

As a bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and a vice chair of the Finnish Ecumenical Council, it brings be great joy to welcome you to have your meeting in this country of strong ecumenical commitments. There are eleven member churches or religious communities in the Ecumenical Council, together with five observer churches or communities, and twenty-six partner organisations. They represent the Christian faith in its diversity, albeit presently only by churches and communities with a more or less established position or a considerably long history in the country.

Although Finland has recently turned more diverse religiously and ethnically, no migrant churches are yet in the Ecumenical Council. I gather one of the topics for your meeting is to discuss the changes in ecumenical landscape made visible by various ethnic minority churches in the European countries. At a time when we have not yet reached the goal of visible unity and when we stand not yet united in witness and service together with traditional churches in our countries, we get challenged by new communities taking part in shaping the future of Christianity in our countries. How are we to embrace and include these communities? This remains an open question for us in Finland, at least. It nevertheless shall be our calling, if we are to witness to our faith in Christ Jesus.

Speaking in an ecclesiological way, unity and mission belong together. They are inseparably part and parcel of the being of the church, or in the vocabulary of Faith and Order: of the nature of the Church. This can be seen in the ecclesiological project that first produced a document on the Nature and Purpose of the Church (1998) and a succeeding version Nature and Mission of the Church (2005) and finally a document called simply The Church (2013), albeit with a subtitle Towards a Common Vision. One cannot speak about the nature of the Church of Christ without taking into account why she is in the world, and vice versa, one can not discuss what the Church of Christ stands for in the world without reflecting on what she is by her nature. “Why” she is, is evident from “what” she is, and what she is, can be expressed only in why she is.

The mission of the Church in the world is deeply rooted in the unity of the Triune God. The Church is called to reflect the inner-trinitarian unity and to take part in what the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit do in their mission. Being the body of Christ, the Church aims at gathering the whole of humankind into a communion with God in the Holy Spirit. Thus the unity of the Church and that of all humanity are intertwined in the mission of the Church. The F&O document The Church: Towards a Common Vision states this as follows: “It is God’s design to gather humanity and all of creation into communion under the Lordship of Christ. […] The Church, as a reflection of the communion of the Triune God, is meant to serve this goal and is called to achieve the purpose for which they were created and in which their joy ultimately is found: to praise and glorify God together with all the heavenly hosts. This mission of the Church is fulfilled by its members through the witness of their lives and, when possible, through the open proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. The mission of the Church of Christ is to serve this purpose.” (para. 25)

As we see, the phrases “purpose” and “mission”, stemming from the earlier documents in the ecclesiological project, belong together in a certain order. The purpose of human life, given in the creation, is to glorify God, and the mission of the Church is to make it possible for humans to achieve this goal. After reflecting the Church and her mission according to their spiritual nature, the document discusses in the very next paragraph the Church in her historical appearance, as an institution with human organization. But even as an institution in the world, the Church has a spiritual mission which she carries on in her worship. The Eucharistic liturgy aims at an eschatological goal for all humanity:

“The earthly and spiritual dimensions of the Church cannot be separated. The organizational structures of the Christian community need to be seen and evaluated, for good or for ill, in the light of God’s gifts of salvation, celebrated in the liturgy. The Church, embodying in its own life the mystery of salvation and the transfiguration of humanity, participates in the mission of Christ to reconcile all things to God and to one another through Christ […].” (para. 26)

The “transfiguration of humanity” is eschatological language that has its origins in the Gospel narrative of the transfiguration of Christ. The change in the appearance of Christ typifies the goal of eternal salvation for all humans. The Greek word for transfiguration is metamorphosis. It occurs in several places in the New Testament and has translated into Latin in the Vulgate in a number of ways. In only place it is translated as transformation, namely in 2.Cor. 3:18: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as through reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the lord, the Spirit.” (NRSV)

In today’s ecumenical theology of mission, it is not transfiguration but transformation that has become the predominant concept in describing the thorough changes that are hoped for and worked for. Transformation is to take place in human beings, in their attitudes and their lives, in their churches and communities, and in the structures of society. The mission of the Church is transformative because the Gospel of Christ transforms people and their lives. The document on mission adopted by the World Council of Churches in 2013, Together Towards Life, emphasizes the mission of the Triune God as a transformation of the creation in the power in the Holy Spirit:

“Life in the Holy Spirit is the essence of mission, the core of why we do what we do, and how we live our lives. Spirituality gives deepest meaning to our lives and motivates our actions. It is a sacred gift from the Creator, the energy for affirming and caring for life. This mission spirituality has a dynamic of transformation which, through spiritual commitment of people, is capable of transforming the world in God’s grace.” (para. 3)

There are several narratives in the Holy Scriptures on the transforming power of the Spirit. I want to refer to one of them, to an image of the Church as a human institution living out her missionary vocation and celebrating her liturgy. This Eucharistic calling of the Church becomes a transforming power for all people taking part, or just being around the Church in her liturgy. And thus, this narrative becomes not only an image of the Church but also an image of the humankind. It is the story of St. Paul as a captive in his way to Rome on a boat in a storm in the book of Acts, 27. In recent years, it has become customary for European churches to remind their governments and peoples on the friendly reception of St. Paul and others on the island of Malta after their vessel had wrecked on the shore. It has been very important to highlight the compassion and hospitality towards the foreigners in need. But this is not my point now.

There were different groups of people on the ship – St. Paul with his companions together with other convicts, sailors and soldiers. The ship was carrying crops from Egypt to Rome. Even those times superpowers lived from the supplies purchased for a cheap price in Africa! As the storm starts hitting the ship, the sailors do what they can: they bind ropes around the hull to prevent the ship from dissolving in the waves, they drop anchors in order to keep the ship from not drifting, they throw exceed cargo over board to make the ship lighter so that it would not hit on the rocks beneath the surface. In the end, they are completely at the mercy of the sea, not seeing neither sun nor stars for days. On the ship, the soldiers keep order, but in the end of the day, they almost kill the convicts, maybe thinking that their life does not matter anymore.

As a bishop in a majority church in a secularized society, all this looks like an image of what we are living through, how we are desperately trying to keep the church together and to exercise some control over what is happening to it while not knowing where or when or how will all this end. But maybe this is not just an image of the church, maybe it is also a miniature of the humankind, facing the nature that is hitting back in the form of climate change?

What is the mission of St. Paul on the ship? He encourages his fellow voyagers in the common need with the promises from God: all of us will be saved. And in the darkest moment, he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke it and ate in front of everybody. These words echo the Gospel narratives of Jesus feeding miraculously thousands, or him having his last supper with the disciples. Both ways it has a liturgical undertone in repeating the keywords ”took, gave thanks, broke”. Some manuscripts even add the words “gave us” in order to achieve the fourfold pattern of eucharistic action. The situation on the ship is calmed, all people are encouraged and eat, although we are not told, how. Maybe they all took their own bread. Be it as it might, in the end, they are all saved. The wording of the narrative makes it clear that the reader of the book of Acts is to think about the transforming power of the eucharist. It is a sacrament of unity, and the Church in her mission has a calling to celebrate her liturgy in the eyes of all. It has a power to unite people in their common need, facing common challenges.

With these thoughts I wish the consultation lots wisdom in good discussions.