Sermon at the opening service of the 43rd General Assembly of the Kaiserswerth General Conference on June 14th 2018 in Bielefeld
Bishop Dr. Matti Repo, Diocese of Tampere, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland
Reading from 2. Cor. 5, 14-20 (NRSV)
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus. A few weeks ago, a number of us probably witnessed on TV an American archbishop preach at the Royal wedding in Windsor, UK. It was broadcast all over the world. How many of you saw it? There were many points in his sermon, but let me bring to your mind just one central thought from it. He mentioned fire as a driving force in economic and everyday life. The invention of fire made it possible for the humankind to tread on the way of progress. But fire was not the central point in the sermon. The point was another driving force that can make a difference for the humankind. It only needs to be taken into use as fire was taken. What was that power? It was love. Love can change human beings, love can change the way people behave; love can change the world, said the archbishop.
It makes sense to speak about love at a wedding service, doesn’t it? But it is not less fitting to speak about love at a conference on diaconia. There is a power in love that can transform the world. Love is not just a sentiment or a human emotion. Love is a force that motivates human deeds. It differs from any fuel that gives power to machines. Love is a driving force that propels people into action.
St Paul writes: The love of Christ urges us on. The love of Christ is another kind of love than the one spoken about in romantic stories, books and films. “All you need is love”, true, and so beautifully simple, but there is even more to that: the love of Christ is not in need of anything. It does not seek to find something it would be lacking; it does not strive to own something that it were missing. Love of Christ is contrarious to a sentimental or wanting type of love, a type of love that is constantly paying attention to anything that is lovable or something the one who loves would want to have. Love of Christ focuses not on what is good, beautiful, valuable, successful and desirable. It focuses on what is miserable, poor, unhappy, troubled and failed. Love of Christ is not interested in winners but losers; instead of saints, it is focused on sinners.
The love of Christ urges us. It urges us to look at the world and the humankind from a different angle. The love of Christ turns our attention to the world just as it is, miserable, poor, and tainted with sin. However, we are not to take the world as it is in its present condition and to believe that this is all there is to expect. A one-sided and overemphasized realism that only sees the world as it is, deprives us from hope and courage. Being open to the world, we see too much of misery, too much of poverty, too much hunger and neglect. We see countless people suffering under inhuman conditions caused by war and conflict, violence and crime, abuse and oppression.
Millions of people in Syria wait for an end to the desperate civil war. Uprooted people are longing for a future with peace and prosperity, risking their lives in boats on the Mediterranean Sea, or having been stuck in tents and huts at the outer fences of the EU. Thousands of young men, detached from their loved ones, are waiting for their case for an asylum to be resolved after having wandered to the ends of the world. The flow of refugees we have seen so far in Europe is only a miniature compared to the millions living in camps in Middle East and Africa, which, on its part, might only be a prelude to what will be seen as the climate change gradually hits in. And we don’t have to look at the global picture to realise that the world needs hope. There are countless quiet and almost invisible people in need of help in our own cities and towns and neighbourhoods, people with hunger or social and economic problems.
Yes, when we look at the world as it is in its present condition, we are tempted to lose our courage and give up our commitment. But the love Christ urges us on, because the love of Christ is different. The love of Christ has already made a difference. It has already changed the world. That is why we look at the world with new eyes and see it from a different angle. In Christ, we see a world with hope, a reconciled world. As St Paul wrote, from now on we regard no one from a human point of view. Instead, in Christ we see a reconciled humanity, a new creation.
In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. Because of Christ, God is not counting the trespasses of the people against them. We are already part of a reconciled world and we need to look at the world as it is reconciled in Christ. We need to see the world through the eyes of Christ’s love.
This is the mystery of the death of Christ: through his death, all have died. Christ died for all, and being the Son of God, his death has meant a cosmic change: all have died. How can it be? In Christ, the eternal Word of God assumed human nature and became flesh. The Word of God, the word of reconciliation has become human. In the humanity of Christ is all humanity gathered. Thus, the death of Christ for all people has brought a drastic change for the world: all have died.
This is an unusual way to speak about life and death. It is not a normal way to look at the world and to consider its condition and its future. It is another way, a spiritual way to consider what is valuable and meaningful in life. From now on, writes St Paul, we regard no one from a human point of view.
A human point of view – is that not something we should always take as our vantage point, if we are to practise diaconia, service to the world? Should we not bear in mind the sufferings and needs of others and let them motivate us to service? Of course, we should. As long as we are human beings, we shall always take our neighbours’ needs as our own. Exactly because Christ has become human and has assumed our nature, we all share in his sufferings. The death of Christ takes us along. We cannot close our eyes from the sufferings of his fellow human beings if we are to follow him in his way of love.
But in Christ we do look at the world with new eyes, with eyes of hope. We no longer consider the world in its perishable form but in its reconciled and renewing form. In Christ, God has reconciled the world, and whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The new, reconciled world is a world transforming into a world where justice and peace prevail, a world characterized by love and compassion. It is not yet a world without suffering, not a paradise on earth, but it is a world where reconciliation takes shape in the lives of people and their communities, churches and countries. It is a world we already know in Christ through faith in the reconciliation that makes all things new. It is a world where the love of Christ transforms people.
God sends us out as ambassadors of the reconciled world. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, says St Paul, using the Greek word diakonia, ministry. A ministry of reconciliation is not just a diaconal task, not only a church function or a social service, but a divine vocation. It means participating in God’s plan of love for transforming the world. God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us, says St Paul – the message of Christ that evolves into loving deeds of Christ. May God the Holy Spirit empower us as ambassadors for Christ into a diaconia of reconciliation.