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Sermon by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, Ås Church, Ås, 1 January 2017

World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit preached on New Year’s Day in the Church of Ås in Norway, 1 January 2017

05 January 2017

Olav Fykse Tveit: Sermon, Ås Church, Ås, 1 January 2017

Anniversary of the Reformation, new relationship between church and state in Norway, Ås Church 150 years.

Bible verse: Luke 2: 21


Dear sister and brothers in Christ,

Dear fellow citizens of Ås!

Happy New Year!

There is almost no end to how much we will remember and commemorate in this service. Five hundred years since the Reformation. The new relationship between the state and the Church of Norway. The beautiful and newly renovated Ås Church celebrating 150 years. Today it is Jesus’ name day. And we’re celebrating the start of the new year, the year of our Lord 2017. We still count the years based on what a monk in the 600s thought was the year Jesus was born, even now when it is neutrally described as before or during the “Common Era”. This historical wording, Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, can also be a way of expressing the connection between the many threads that bring us together today.

This holy gospel was written by Luke the Evangelist, Chapter 2, verse 21:

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

It was told as a normal family story. «They call him Jesus». A completely ordinary Jewish name in the family and culture into which he was born. If we had continued to read the Gospel of Luke and the famous Chapter 2 (which begins with the annunciation to the shepherds), we would have heard how Mary and Joseph behaved correctly as parents; they were called “his father and mother” (v. 31). They did what was customary when a child was born in their culture. They waited eight days to have him circumcised and give him a name. And they waited another 33 days before they presented offerings of thanks for him at the temple in Jerusalem, as the firstborn son in a family. This was a time of purification according to Moses’ law; religious customs and health considerations are closely linked. They were poor, so they only offered a pair of doves. And then they made their way home to Nazareth, writes Luke. This fine, little, freshly washed mortal boy, one of the many children on the Earth, was born just as vulnerable and loved by his parents as children of parents in Syria or other countries in this area today. Jesus’ birth took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria; the Bethlehem and Jerusalem area was under Rome.

In other words, he was born into a family that faced challenges, into a cultural and religious context that was in the process of change, in a political landscape with strong and partly oppressive forces in place, into a historical moment of unrest – but also with hope of change, reformation and salvation. Many children are born under such circumstances – in all time periods.

To a great extent it was like that for those born during the Reformation, with major shifts in religion and politics. To some degree it was like that in the latter part of the 1800s in Norway, with the nation being formed during the Era of Union, the transition between the old and the new, when they built a new church here in Ås. And so is it today as society becomes more pluralistic and complex, and church and state have been separated in Norway – in a world where religion and power are fusing together in a dangerous mix in our everyday lives.

At the same time, the unusual stands out in these words from the Gospel of Luke. «They», who were now his mother and father, had not come up with his name themselves. This is supposed to be the right of parents in all families, even if there are many traditions and grandparents and others (such as priests) who are involved in choosing names. His name had come with the message “from on high”, with the angel Gabriel to Mary: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1, verses 31–32). And it continued with a well-known story where a throng of angels told the most ordinary working people in Bethlehem, the shepherds, what had happened and what his birth meant. These are completely unusual things included in the story of the completely ordinary. What did they say? “He is Christ, our Lord.”

“The name the angel had given him.” “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” These few words say it all. These are words that are only used to speak of God, our Lord, that were used about this child. The eternal opposition that is encountered in these few words has made its way into pairs of words such as “high and low” and “heaven and earth”. They still have a certain meaning in figurative language, even when we know that the Earth is spherical and we sometimes fly 10,000 metres above sea level. They express the tension between the usual and the unusual, the known and the unknown, the mortal and the holy, the human and the divine.  And all of this crystallises in the name the boy is given: Jesus. An ordinary name, Jesus, which was a very special name that interprets the entirety. Jesus means God rescues, liberates and saves (his people – human beings).

He can do this because he came down to earth, because he was “ordinary” even if he was a “stranger”, because he is someone who lives among us. He is someone living his life for others, which is why he died for others. Because he sacrificed himself. Because he empties himself for the good of others. Like a child. In the form of a servant.

This is why he is the one who can be raised to the highest and be given a name above all names.

This was also the first Christian creed, as heard in the Epistle to the Philippians: Jesus Christ is Lord.”

This is the faith that has renewed the church, reformed the church, generated new courage and new life, and meant that people have heeded the call to preach the gospel and build churches all over the world.  This is the word about one God for all, who wants to save all, who wants to give hope to all. This is why it is not just a faith in the church. It is a faith that has learned to pray – from Jesus: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In the life that we humans live and shall live on this Earth, in our place and time, sometimes in struggle and injustice, sometimes in celebration and joy, which increases faith in Jesus as Lord of our home.

And it is in this way that we begin this year too in the name of Our Lord Jesus. It is in Jesus’ name that we have come here, and it is in Jesus’ name that we will continue. In change, in reformation, in new buildings, in times to come, accompanied by Jesus, Jesus who is Lord.

When Martin Luther wanted to invite people to discuss what was wrong with the church of his time and should be rectified, he wrote his 95 Theses. Whether he posted them on the door of the Schlosskirche castle church in Wittenberg, is uncertain. But we know the content of his writings, and we know a great deal about the reactions they generated and the changes they led to.

The first thesis puts us on the right track: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, ‘Repent ye, etc.,’ intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.” It is the calling to make Jesus Lord in the lives of individuals that is the point of Luther. This calling must apply to the church as well, not least to the leaders and everyone in positions of power. The theses take issue with the notion that people can deceive themselves. This should not even be possible with the help of the church. The belief that God and his mercy can be bought does not benefit anyone. You will not be liberated from existential fear and guilt about commercial dealings. It is not an alternative to being honest and responsible and therefore acknowledging that sin is sin. You cannot deceive God.

Because it is Jesus who is Lord who also knows what human life is, for better or worse. And it is this Jesus, who is our Lord Jesus Christ, who can also forgive sins. It is Jesus who saves people from situations of evil between sin, guilt, destroyed relationships and injustice, just as in relation to the pollution of nature. It is Jesus who knew when he rose from the dead that life springs from death.  This is how we can experience a lifelong process of change, a life in conversion, away from evil, and towards all the good that God has created us to be for each other. In the calling towards conversion, it is not the powers of darkness that rule; in the calling towards conversion lies the hope that change is possible – for the better. This applies eternally, and therefore also to the present. Because Jesus is Lord.

A church can have many different forms, many types of buildings, many types of organisation, many types of relationships to other church communities, to other religions, to the state, to other institutions. I have seen all varieties of this around the world, and various varieties can be seen throughout history. A great deal is possible, but not everything is equally beneficial to the church in the place and time in which it exists.

For this reason a long, drawn-out process from the 1800s to the present day has led to the Church of Norway continuing to be an Evangelical-Lutheran people’s church, but now independently and as its own legal entity. One of those people who has done a huge amount to get us to where we are today is with us at this service today, Bishop Emeritus Andreas Aarflot.

The same church with a new organisation. As is necessary in our time and in our country. I was involved in writing a committee proposal about this 15 years ago, and a great deal has now become reality. It has been achieved in the faith that the church can best serve the people and the fellowship in this way, in a more pluralistic Norway where everyone has the same rights. The governing powers in parliament and the government have put a lot of things right, and will continue to take their responsibility for helping finance this and other faith communities in Norway. The municipality will still shoulder a great deal of responsibility and do a great deal to make sure the current state of affairs prevails, including ensuring there are funds to keep church buildings like this one in good order.

This is a unique situation and around the world, people are looking on, wondering how we have managed to maintain a national church for so long and how such a beneficial organisation can be voluntarily dissolved in this way. We now hope that they will be able to witness with wonder and joy that it is possible to have an active community open to different views of life in which religion and religious institutions are valued and play an important part in society, with a good economic basis for the work to be done. The Church of Norway has many resources, but also many tasks. Now, we as members must take even more responsibility in order to accomplish the tasks of being a church. This is how it should be.

This could be the time to say that “the church is now lord of its own house”. But it’s precisely the time not to say that. Because the church only has one lord: Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus has been Lord of my church even before this time. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a time for change. We now have a new golden opportunity to think through what it means for the Church of Norway to have Jesus as its Lord. The church can and must show that this change will serve both members of the church and the local community, the nation and human beings as a whole in the best possible way. The church is there for people who need what the church is called to be. Jesus as Lord constantly wishes to challenge us, he who knew that it is precisely by serving others and those who need it most that God’s will can be done.

The old church in Ås from 1170 was patched up and modified, but it was time for something new and bigger here in the Ås district in 1867. The agricultural sector in Norway required new knowledge and new technology for acquiring food for the growing population of Norway. Ås was a district that was making progress, with an expanding population on the farms and people moving in to attend the important agricultural college. It was then necessary to also have a church building that could accommodate a lot of people and clearly signify that everyone was welcome here. This is God’s house and the gateway to heaven.

I got to experience this when I entered this church for the first time 25 years ago, and sat on one of the benches at the back with one of my children in my arms. I was going to serve on the Ecumenical Council, with responsibility for ecumenical, international and interreligious issues. Living in Ås was a positive experience from day one. The only thing that was better was coming in and feeling at home here, in Ås Church, in the large building full of people listening with joy or wonder to the sermon, who sang with power, who prayed, who waited in long lines to take communion.

Those who were present had grown up in Ås or had moved here like me, or were visiting from other parts of the world as students, with translation into English from the gallery available in a black headset on the bench in front of me. It was like entering a new home, a sign that the church here and there and everywhere worships the same Lord Jesus Christ.  I felt an unusual and deep joy, which comes forth and touches me each time I come to a service here. It was also the same on Christmas Eve this year, when I stood with one of my grandchildren on my arm and sang “family shall walk in the footsteps of family in the joyful pilgrimage of the soul”. Here in the church we also gather to mark the major transitions in life: for baptisms, confirmations, celebrating those getting married and saying goodbye to our nearest and dearest on our path through life.

It was precisely this motif with pilgrims following our Lord Jesus that dominated the important joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation in Lund Cathedral on 31 October 2016. I was there on behalf of the World Council of Churches to emphasise that we are an ecumenical movement. We have walked the path together over the past 50 years in the ecumenical pilgrimage from conflict to fellowship. A new milestone was erected along the way. The Pope and the Lutheran Palestinian Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, signed an important declaration stating that the things that unite us in faith in Jesus as Lord shall be the first and most important things when we reach out further. They say: Together we will follow Jesus as Lord in the world we live in together, with the approaches and the message Jesus has given us. We will not be a church for ourselves, or for our own purposes, but for the world God has created and that struggles with all that we humans struggle with: injustice, war, sin and death. Luther has been recognised by everyone as a teacher who wanted to help the church to stand by its faith in Jesus and in God’s mercy.

The World Council of Churches has set being together on a pilgrimage for justice and peace as its theme for this period of work. When I talked to Pope Francis about this just after he was elected, he said: “Yes, that’s how it is. That’s our calling today.” And this is how he has also worded his ecumenical vision in many speeches.  By going forward together, we seek parts that we have in common, tackling the challenges and the tasks that await us both. I was happy to say to both the Pope and my colleague Martin Junge at LWF that the events in Lund will inspire the entire ecumenical fellowship, far beyond the Catholic and Lutheran churches, to continue along this pilgrim’s trail towards unity, towards peace and justice.

It is when we see and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord that we can get the right perspective on ourselves and our own role in the church. We should not make our views absolute, but we should let the confession of the church acknowledge what we have in common. Then we will have the courage to be both critical and self-critical. There is someone higher than all of us. This gives us hope. In the past, in the present and in the future.

In Jesus’ name we start the new year of our Lord with thanks for everything we are commemorating today.

In Jesus’ name we are also beginning the year with an honest soul, with a certain amount of fear of all the problems that many men in this world may cause over the coming year. But we do this also trusting that it is possible to find ways in the future that make this world into a better home for us all. The church believes in the serving and present Jesus as Lord, who challenges everyone with power to use it for the common good. You cannot be a responsible leader and try to eliminate fear by creating more fear.

Our calling is to create hope, justice and peace.

This is what the people of Syria need, what we all need.

The old words from the gospel still apply today but have taken on a new expression. We can and shall create these expressions, here in Ås and wherever we may be, to show that the unusual is in the midst of the ordinary. We can and shall show what Jesus’ name means: God save us, God rescue us, God cares about all of us. Even in the year of our Lord 2017.

The Swedish poet Olof Hartmann puts it thus:

Because you came down to earth for the convicted, for the wounded, for the tormented...

We know who God is.

Therefore all worlds and creatures

Everything that has been, is and will come

Will one day profess it:

Jesus is Lord.

(from Norwegian hymn book, no. 358)


Blessed be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who was, is and shall be one true God, forever and ever. Amen.