Epiphany 3C / Australia Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
27 January 2019
[ video ]
At first glance those readings do not have much to do with Australia Day.
Of course, they were not chosen for their relevance to our national day, but are simply the readings set for the third Sunday after the Epiphany.
Each week the liturgy team has the task of seeing how the readings intersect with our lives as a faith community and as a civic community. Robert is selecting anthems and songs that engage with the readings while also expressing our story of faith. And the preacher seeks to tease all this out in a way that provokes us to deeper thought and more faithful action.
The process is the same every week, but this time the focus is on Australia.
This is a more complex challenge than usual because the relationship between religion and the nation is complex and at times contested.
As Anglicans, we have our own history in all this as well, and that complicates the task when we try to think clearly about the intersection of national identity and Christian faith.
There have been times in history when this was an easier matter.
Our first reading comes from when there was no separation between religion and national identity. Nehemiah has summoned the entire population of the province of Yehud in the time of the Persian Empire. They are about to hear a big chunk of the Bible read out in a language they no longer spoke, and then they are obliged to accept those texts as the basis of their national life together.
Religion was closely integrated into public life, and the ruler regulated religion as a tool for staying in power and keeping people in their place.
Fast forward about 400 years and we come to the scene in the Gospel reading as Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth. The public sphere was still regulated by empire, but Jesus was launching a religious reform movement that will eventually subvert the Roman Empire and every other empire that would follow it.
As his most influential interpreter, Paul of Tarsus, would write about 20 years after Easter:
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Like everyone else in the ancient world and up until very recent times even in the West, Jesus lived in a world where your nationality mattered very little. What counted most was the empire that controlled everything.
Allegiance to the empire was expressed in religious terms. The emperor was understood as a manifestation, an epiphany, of the gods. The emperor was your Lord and your saviour.
The ancient Jews were mostly exempted from emperor worship, but the Temple in Jerusalem was required to offer sacrifices for the empire and its emperor every day of the year.
Jesus’ axiom—give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what belongs to God—reflects the complex dynamics of life under the empire.
So, to paraphrase Jesus, what do we give to the nation, and what can we only give to God?
Beyond the wars of religion
140 years before the First Fleet landed in Botany Cove these questions were resolved for many Europeans in the Treaty of Westphalia. That treaty—which remains unknown to most people—has largely shaped our experience of religion in a society that is essentially secular.
Indeed, while we tend to think that we enjoy freedom of religion, in fact the Treaty of Westphalia was about freedom from religion.
After 80 years of war between Catholics and Protestants, Europe was exhausted and the solution was a treaty that limited religion to the personal and private sphere, while insisting that all citizens exercise their rights and their duties without regard to each other’s religion.
So, for example, as an Anglican government official, I could no longer discriminate against my Presbyterian neighbour when he applied for a permit. And the Catholic working in the Post Office could not refuse to accept my mail. In our public life within civil society, religion was banished to the private realm of personal choice and family life.
This mindset was at the heart of the new colonies being established in this ancient land.
The evils of religious wars and sectarian conflicts were to be avoided. There would be no established religion. When the constitution was drafted for the Commonwealth of Australia, the new parliament was banned from making any laws to promote or favour one religion over another.
We live in one of the first explicitly secular societies in human history, and that means we need to rethink the mission of the church to the nation and within the nation.
The Church in the public square
We find ourselves closer to the situation of Jesus than to Nehemiah.
As a Cathedral we seek to serve our local community, whatever people’s religious identity, but we do not endorse our current constitutional arrangements over any other. We do not prefer republics to monarchies. We do not support one political party over another.
Each of us will have our own opinions about all those matters, but as a church we have little to give to Caesar and we do not seek to impose our beliefs on the nation nor its parliament.
As citizens in a democracy we can act individually and collectively to promote particular causes, but as a church we interact with the nation on another level.
So what do we bring to the table this national day?
We do not seek privilege and power.
But we do speak for justice and we do seek to serve.
Again, we find ourselves closer to Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth than to Nehemiah in the square by the Water Gate in Jerusalem:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Our role is not to legislate or even to enforce.
Our role is to be agents of God’s love in every part of Australian life.
The Spirit of the Lord has come upon us (do we really believe that?) … We are anointed to bring good news to the poor … We have been sent to proclaim release for captives (those in detention centres?) … We have been sent to proclaim recovery of sight to those who cannot see the way ahead … We have been sent to let the oppressed go free (welcoming asylum seekers?) … We have been sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour
We are not just to talk about good news, freedom, new vision, liberty and blessing. That would be far too easy.
Our mission is to be a Cathedral community where people find hope, meaning, freedom, acceptance, inclusion, healing, a helping hand, a listening ear, and a caring heart.
That is our gift to the city and to the nation on this Australia Day weekend.
Imagine how we can transform our city and indeed the nation when the churches of this land embrace God’s call to be that kind of community. No longer religious rivals, but colonies of God’s grace and communities of genuine reconciliation.