Sermon in The Oslo Cathedral
Bishop Gunnar Stålsett
"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them." (From St. Pauls letter to the Ephesians Chapter 5, verses 1-2 and 8-11)
Dear congregation, grace be with you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A leaving sermon touches many strings. With great gratitude and humility I look back at an almost seven year long period as bishop. This bishop’s service time has come to an end. Another will interpret the gospel in the next leg. Bishops come and go. The church endures. It is a part of our church’s confession, that "God has instituted a service with Word and sacrament" so that people will come to faith in Christ.
When a change in bishop stirs up and motivates strong emotions, it is probably because many see that this is a question of "our church". The expression "people’s church" signalises an open and inclusive church. It conveys an experience of belonging to the church that accepted my parents, me and my children in baptism. So the people’s church is not an ideology as some claim, but a theology that is centred on the gospel. The church can do no other than be open and inclusive if it is to live up to its Lord and Master’s example.
It is the gospel and the faith that make up the lifeline in the church’s history. At the same time, it is the reformation’s lasting point that the church must always be formed anew. Hence the church’s struggle about the interpretation of the faith in time. In this struggle some are most concerned with brakes and others with the gas pedal. It doesn’t really matter, as long as the Lord of the church is at the wheel.
In the gospel text, we heard about the driving out of demons. It is a premodern description of reality. We can talk about driving out demons today only metaphorically. But the text does speak meaningfully to current struggles against the powers of death. The call to faith is universal and timeless. Jesus’ polemics against all forms of pharisaism – religious self centeredness – and sectarianism – spiritual elitism in all its forms – is also valid today.
The challenge from today’s sermon text is surprising: be imitators of God!
We live in a time of idols. Pop stars, sports heroes, film divas. Beauties and intellectual leading lights. Successful authors and business giants. A whole industry exists to present us with role models and examples. People we ought to look like, if we want to be something, if we want to be someone. Is it possible to think about God as a role model in such a time? Isn’t God handicapped in our world ruled by the media?
There is no picture of God on glossy paper in the newsagents. No one has seen God. How can we be imitators of God if we do not know God? It is the great challenge to the church to give meaning to God talk and God’s words in the 21st century. What does God mean in the big city? What does God mean outside the sanctuary?
The text gives us a pointer: God is known in the human, in a person, in the Son of Man, in Jesus Christ our brother; Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.
What is it about Jesus that makes him Godlike? His love. To stretch after the imitation of God, or in other words, after following Christ, is not to take black belt in spiritual exercises. It is something simpler and harder than that: it is to allow space for love. Let love have the first and the last word. Let love shine through us and leave its stamp on us.
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, we heard. We know intuitively what that means. But we see both in private and in public that evil shelters under the cover of goodness. That people are hurt in the name of piety. That people are tortured in the name of truth. That there is war for peace.
Be imitators of God. When darkness, or twilight sets in, it’s a matter – for ourselves and our culture – of finding the lost God before we can speak of the meaning of God as our example. That was what the Danish film "Portrait of God" was about.
The filmmaker, Jon Bang Carlsen, is himself the film’s narrator of a search for God. A typical well-to-do Scandinavian who has enough left of his childhood faith that he identifies his existential unease as a longing for God. He is driven by the feeling that life has to be more than a beautiful and well equipped home. As a modern Peer Gynt, he searches for his final definition.
His great project becomes to enquire after God, if anyone has seen God, if anyone can give him a believable description. He travels around the world and asks people on his way if they know anything about God and how God can be found.
Parallel with this story we get a momentary meeting with another one who is searching. He does not choose dialogue as the road to understanding, but the lonely pondering. He sets out on a round the world trip alone in his big sailing boat. At a beautiful sunset he goes overboard and disappears into the sea. Eternally sad is the image of an abandoned ship.
Then the filmmaker takes us to a prison in South Africa. He asks the prisoners: Why are you here? Who is God? Life’s most important questions can be formulated so simply. And prisoners tell of their crimes, of violence and murder, of rape and robbery. A condensed story of the power of evil and humanity’s weakness.
Many of the prisoners also have something else on their heart. Some tell of their faith. Of a simple childlike faith. It keeps hope alive that one day they will be set free. We shall all be free, one day. As the filmaker leaves and the prison door closes behind him, he wonders, are those the ones who are free, and I the one who is imprisoned?
The last words of the film sound: "It is sacrilege to look up to heaven if one is searching after God." God is not to be found first and foremost in the heights; God is hidden in what is low, apparently meaningless. What is closed out, hidden away, rejected by many. God is himself different.
Be imitators of God, says Paul. An unusual saying, even for the Bible.
You will not find God in the clouds, says the filmmaker, look around you, look in the mirror. To be an imitator of God can not mean that we should try to be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient – or however the words of faith try to describe God.
It is sooner a case of letting oneself be shaped by the one, overshadowing definition of God in the Bible: "God is love" (1 John 4,8). Boundary breaking love. Love of enemies.
There is hardly a book that speaks more of love than the Bible does. Love is the interpretive key to understanding the creation. Love is the motive for salvation. Love is the mystery that holds us together. The image of God can be recognised in that love that is raised from death and the cross. Therefore grace is love’s divine name.
The church’s high calling is nothing less than imitating God. Yes, that is actually our task, whoever we are, in whatever situation we find ourselves in. But the task is first and foremost an affirmation and gift: to be who you are in God. Beloved, so that you can love. Thus you may stand upright before God and man.
So the church can not shut out, can not turn against itself, can never be enough for itself. The fellowship of grace is radically open. It is precisely in this fact that the church’s prophetic and critical point lies: it is opposed to everything and everyone that would like to shut people out. For God invites people in. God embraces. God is love. It is the rejected that hold us close to God. Then we see "in a mirror, dimly", as Paul
So this is my prayer and my desire on this day: that we may always recognise Jesus’ love in the life of the church. Then we may receive the courage to believe, the freedom to live, and the grace to love.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and shall be forever.
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