“Words of Encouragement”
by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I find it an exciting privilege and personally inspiring to participate in this gathering of believers from so many regions, cultures and expressions of the Christian faith. This is a remarkable opportunity for us to bear witness to the ways in which our own lives have been shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ, and to explore how our communities and ministries relate to one another in our calling as members of Christ’s one body on earth.
The dream of sharing our testimony more directly, and of interacting across traditional boundaries, has arisen in a wide variety of places and circumstances throughout the history of the churches. If these humble beginnings of ours mature, if a renewed relationship bears fruit through conversations such as these, the question may arise as to who deserves credit. The only answer, I think, is that given by the apostle Paul in regard to the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor. 3:6),
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
In verse 9, Paul goes on to say that the one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, “for we are all God’s servants, working together” (3:9).
For some time, I have been engaged as a Methodist minister from Kenya in ecumenical ministries, with the aim of serving churches in their common witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. At this time, I happen to be general secretary of the World Council of Churches. But today I am here first and foremost as a brother in Christ, one who desires to be God’s servant, to plant and water and tend the crop as opportunities present themselves. And I want to tell you something of the faith journey which has brought me here.
Agents of transformation
And so I stand here, not so much because of who I am, or what I am, but because of who those I interact with are. So many brothers and sisters in Christ have touched and impacted my Christian faith. In my ecumenical ministry, I have stood on the shoulders of many giants of faith.
Thus, our journey as fellow Christians has taught us that church unity is like riding a bicycle. We will fall unless we go forward. Church unity was rightly perceived within the context of mission, and this should continue. Called by one God, redeemed through the one Lord, and empowered through the presence of the one Spirit, church-together is not only a dream but also a possibility. There is a potential for spontaneous ecumenicity through loving fellowship and Spirit-led worship. Working together for the cause of God’s kingdom is another viable arena for church-together. We have sufficient experience to further pursue this aim.
Therefore, I am so grateful to the people with whom I have interacted in my life and ministry. To follow Paul’s imagery, some have planted and others have watered – and, providentially, God has given whatever growth I have experienced. Like the faithful people who have influenced each of us on our way, we Christians are called to be agents of transformation in the lives of men and women, and in the life of the world. One of the fourth-century Cappodocian church fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa, recognized the Christian experience in this life as “ever changing for the better and transforming from glory to glory through daily growth… without ever reaching the end of perfection. For true perfection means that one never ceases to grow towards that which is better and never reduces perfection to any limit.”
While perfection must await the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, in God’s good time, the Christian daily continues to serve as an agent for transformation, and to bear witness to that transformation in so many people’s lives, as well as in churches, society and the world as a whole.
Importance of relationships One may plant, and another may water. Transformation and growth rely on interactive relationships.
God has been revealed to us within the context of relationship. The Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit interact as one, joined in the bond of love. The Trinity, “God in communion,” calls us into communion with God and with one another. And this act of salvation is accomplished not in some other-worldly manner but by entering our world, by becoming one with us, as one of us. God incarnate is Emmanuel, “God with us” in the richest relationship any of us may know.
I am called to be with you; you are called to be with me; we are called to learn, through encounter with one another, what it means to be one in Christ. The well-being of the church, the spread of the gospel, depend on meaningful relationships rooted in love and respect. It is only by lowering barriers, by coming fully into each other’s presence and confronting our prejudices, that we may come to understand each other significantly better. And in such growth, we may discern the hand of God.
Hopes and prayers
My purpose in these remarks has been to encourage you as this phase of our conversation begins. Let me conclude by sharing my hopes and my prayer as we risk closer relationships.
First, it is my sincere hope that Christian unity may be strengthened, quite apart from the self-interest of any one institution. In some circles, we speak of “the one ecumenical movement” made up of all who wish to gain insight, support practical steps to unity and express solidarity among the many members of the body of Christ. The World Council of Churches does try to foster coherence within the broader ecumenical landscape, but we do not see ourselves as identical to the movement as a whole, much less as the giver of growth.
Secondly, I am moved to hope by the unprecedented breadth of this event and the potential inherent in the fact that this is a remarkably representative gathering of the body of Christ. Our faith in a common Lord and Saviour brings us to this table – a common table where we pray together, read scripture together, eat together, learn together, and talk of future possibilities. Some would have said that this event was not possible, but here we are – and the world wonders what will come next.
Finally, I hope that we will take the risk of working together – God’s servants, planting, watering, nurturing… and praying for the growth that is God’s gift. In the divine dance of the Trinity – the “choreisis” described by several church fathers – the Holy Spirit seems to have taken the lead in bringing us to Limuru. Now it is my prayer that this same Spirit of loving communion may cause our eyes and ears to open, make us ever more aware of God’s will for us, and challenge us to forge new relations – among ourselves and between our churches – that God may be served, and the good news proclaimed, in word and action. This I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.