(The spoken word applies)
See the human being (Ecce homo, John 19.5)
In the course of a few days, one single image changed discourse in Europe. The photo of the dead body of a child who had drowned, taken on the shore of Bodrum beach in south-west Turkey. Three-year-old Alan’s extinguished life has become the story that cannot be ignored. Through his death, the refugee crisis has gained dimensions that have been lacking in many contexts. It is a matter of fellow human beings, not volumes. It is a matter of help, both here and there, not either there or here. Implementation of effective decisions and measures, such as secure routes to assessment of asylum applications, is taking far too long. The fact that so many people have drowned in the Mediterranean, have suffocated in cargo holds and have suffered in other ways is more about a lack of will than a lack of possibilities. The fact that this has occurred is shameful and it is something that we Europeans must shoulder. We are part of the world’s turning away from the God of life.
How high is our level of civilisation really? How deeply rooted are values such as compassion and human dignity when it comes down to it? How far do a sense of responsibility and hospitality stretch? How are these values cultivated among children and young people who will shape the society of tomorrow? How do people currently in positions of power obtain help to follow the compassionate path, even when they face threats and hate?
There are many questions that come to a head there on the shore in the tourist resort of Bodrum. Bodrum is not far from Ephesus, where today’s epistle reading comes from. A distance of just 174 kilometres separates the two locations. According to the internet, it takes 2 hours and 49 minutes to reach Ephesus from Bodrum, and it is an old and fantastic route.
The text from the Letter to the Ephesians is certainly old. It is also fantastic in its expressive descriptions of the unity: there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope. These words have a fantastic ring to them!
But it may seem longer than 2 hours and 49 minutes between the ongoing refugee crisis and the Letter to the Ephesians’ admonitions calling for unity in an arguing parish. Where do these worlds meet?
To start with, in what is purely human. Live life in a worthy way, states the writer of the letter. A foundation of humility, gentleness and patience goes a long way. On top of that, have patience, bearing with one another in love: that’s where the constant exercise in tolerance and respect starts – to look at least once more (the literal meaning of ’re-spect’), before I turn away from another person.
In the next sentence the writer speaks in more concrete church terms: maintain the unity of the Spirit by means of the bond of peace. It doesn’t say: create peace and unity, fix what is lacking. Instead it says: preserve the gift of fellowship that the Church consists of – one body, one Spirit, one hope; one Christ, one faith, one baptism. Everything is a gift before it becomes a task. This is something that I want to emphasise to both of you who will soon be consecrated as bishops. Everything is a gift before it becomes a task. Remain rooted in this grace when you now start your work as bishops in the Church and in the world.
The Letter to the Ephesians gives us a description of the essence and work of the Church that is also relevant in today’s reality. One single body with the entire worldwide church, united by baptism and bearers of hope. With its foundation in Jesus Christ. The letter writer expresses this beautifully and is maximally inclusive: One God and Father of all, who is above all, through all, and in all.
But that doesn’t mean an end to the questions. Is this just about the parish in Ephesus or also about the shore in Bodrum? Does God work through everything just in the world of the Church, or throughout the world with all its wonderfulness and all of its devastating need?
Bible commentaries do not have a consensus on this point. Some think that this text is only about the Church, like a Song of Songs of ecumenism, as it were. Others think that the writer sweeps much more widely. And that’s exactly what I think, too – wide sweeps. There is movement in this text. It starts by urging all people to live life in a worthy way, in accordance with the best values. Then we come to the Church as fellowship in Christ through baptism and faith, characterised by joint hope. And the movement culminates in what is bigger than the Church in Ephesus, Uppsala, Strängnäs and Västerås Diocese, namely in what is universal: One God and Father of all. Who is above all, through all, and in all.
That’s why we cannot differentiate between people. It is totally clear that baptism creates a special connection between Christians. But the way in which baptism calls us to a life of faith and love also means that our commitment to vulnerable people cannot be limited to those of a certain faith. There is a joint mandate to safeguard people in need and take care of the creation that is the prerequisite for all life. One God and Father of all.
In our Church this is a day of joy, especially for Strängnäs and Västerås Dioceses: here are two people who are prepared to say Yes to receiving a mandate of leadership that will involve both responsibility and hard work. And the sometimes painful experience of never being sufficient, however much you do. Johan and Mikael, you are becoming bishops in a time when trust in our Church has increased significantly, and so, expectations increase even more. You are becoming bishops in a time when the waves of secularisation are breaking on the shore of eternal questions.
In the face of challenges in society 10 years ago people might ask: Why should the Church get involved in this? The same people may today ask: Why doesn’t the Church do anything? That doesn’t mean that one question is easier than the other. But you don’t need to devote time to proving to yourselves and your colleagues that the Church is relevant. Live that relevance instead, with the self-evidence that is part of our joint hope!
You come well prepared through the training and experiences that you have brought with you. You are different and have different profiles; I am pleased about that on behalf of all the bishops. I also think that you complement each other well. Your mottos seem to reveal that. Johan’s motto is the reply that Jesus gives when some people ask him: “Where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see!” (John 1.39) And what is there to see? Well, the fact that “The Word became flesh (= a human being)” (John 1.14) – Mikael’s motto.
“Come and see!” See the human being: Jesus who died on the cross for the sake of the world; the three-year-old child lying dead on the shore, a victim of war, injustice, greed, unwillingness and sluggishness.
Come and see: The Word became flesh (a human being). Jesus Christ is in our midst. As the one who feeds us at the Communion table to satisfy our hunger and as “one of least of these” (Matthew 25.45) who ask us to feed them until they have satisfied their hunger.
And when we grieve there on the shore, when we are torn between hope and despair, when waves of dark dreams wash through the semi-slumber of the small hours of the night, he is there, too. As it says at the end of the Gospel reading from which your mottos are taken: Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore (John 21.4). At that point, the disciples did not understand who he was. Not at that point, but later. He is on the shore. See the human being! See the human being on the shore!