Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
"Death has been swallowed up in victory.""Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.(1 Cor. 15:51-58, NIV)
May you have mercy and peace from God, our Father and Lord Jesus Christ!
The end of chapter 15 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is the Scripture text of this year's week of prayer of ecumenical Christian unity. The apostle speaks about the resurrection of Christ. In the beginning of the chapter, Paul witnesses about the reality and significance of resurrection. Then he explains how our Christian life bears witness of the faith in resurrection. Finally, he speaks of how the dead will be resurrected. The Scripture verse of the week of prayer is linked to this last part. It gives us a glimpse of two important perspectives into the unity of Christians.
Firstly, Christ's life, death and resurrection are the common foundation of the faith of our churches. They join us together as Christians. With His resurrection, Christ has conquered sin and death. Apostle Paul is so certain of this that he mocks death. "Death has been swallowed up in victory.Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"We have reason to be grateful to God for this victory. "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians, in faith we are partakers of this victory already now. And "at the last trumpet"faith becomes seeing.A new reality has broken into the world in Christ's resurrection. It will be finally revealed in the end times in the return of Christ.
Faith in resurrection unites the Christians and the churches. This is evident for example in three significant ecumenical documents.
The joint document of the Papal Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the Lutheran World Federation and of the Roman Catholic Church, "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification", finds a common understanding of how a person is saved. The issue of justification is a core issue in our faith. The document notes that it is the common faith of our churches that justification is the work of the triune God. Christ's becoming man, His death and resurrection are the foundation and prerequisite of justification. The recent Final Report of the Finnish-Swedish Lutheran-Catholic discussion on doctrine, "Justification in the Life of the Church", refers to this same thing.
The Porvoo Common Statement is a joint theological document of Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches as well as the British and Irish Anglican churches. It notes that "the Father sent His Son into the world in order to unite us with Himself. Through Christ's life, death and resurrection, God's love appeared and we were saved from the powers of sin and death (John 3:16-18, NIV)." This passage of the document ends in a Scripture verse of 1 John."We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship (koinonia) with us.And our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3, NIV).
The starting point for the fellowship of Christians and the visible unity of the church is strong. Faith in resurrection unites different Christians and different churches. That is why during the week of prayer of the unity of Christians it is good to remember what Pope John XXIII said already 50 years ago. "What unites us is much more than what separates us." Ecumenism can advance when we work in this spirit.
Secondly, the Scripture verse of the week of prayer has a strong message of encouragement. Christ's resurrection gives motivation and courage to continue the work of Christ in the world. Christians can be hopeful, strong and stand firm. We can work in the Lord confidently, joyfully and eagerly so that faith in God and love toward our neighbours can increase. The urging of the apostle is also a clear assignment:"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
This Scripture verse is one of those that I remember having underlined in my Bible when I was young. It has always been significant to me. Especially significant it has been at those times when work does not progress, when I make mistakes and encounter opposition. At times of failure this promise has given support.
The same is true about the work we do to cherish the unity of the church. Friendship, hospitality and fellowship between churches have increased in the last decades. In spite of many difficult issues, the churches have taken important steps toward each other. Still, there are times when furthering the fellowship advances very slowly. At times there are setbacks. There are situations in which the differences between churches seem irreconcilable. At that point it is good to remember the encouragement of the apostle:"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
Dear sisters and brothers. A concrete sign of the fellowship of Christians is the annual trip of a Finnish Lutheran and Catholic bishop to Rome. Again this year we have celebrated common mass on the day of our national patron saint, Saint Henrik, in Santa Maria sopra Minerva basilica. This was the 27th such occasion. I am also glad that today in this Christ church we can together be served by God.
On the week of prayer of Christian unity we are reminded of the way faith in the resurrected Christ unites us different Christians and Christian churches. Christ's resurrection encourages and emboldens us to continue Christ's work in the world. It also leads us to seek fellowship with each other and to seek the road toward visible unity of the church.