Sermons

Sun, Apr 22, 2018

Identity and image

Series:Sermons

One hundred and three years ago... 

tens of thousands of young Australian men waded ashore in a distant land...

and were engulfed in an eight-month nightmare of bullets, blood, and bodies.

Many of these naive, idealistic young men--

who were not well-trained and experienced soldiers--

had gone seeking adventure;

but, instead, they found themselves knee-deep in death and dysentery...

with all of the associated smells and mess.

Many of these naive, idealistic young men--

who had gone seeking adventure--

would sit in the trenches...

waiting...

quivering in gut-wrenching, bodily-excreting fear...

wondering if, perhaps, today would be their day.

Until, finally, the whole misconceived and poorly-executed campaign was abandoned;

and the survivors-- 

leaving behind over eight thousand of their youthful comrades who had fallen--

were secretly evacuated.

It was Australia's first engagement in the so-called 'Great War'...

and it was a great military defeat--

one that came with an enormous cost to this small, fledgeling nation.

And yet, somehow... 

this event--

and the myths that surround it--

have captured our collective imaginations.

As one historian describes it, the ANZAC legend 

"is now incontrovertibly fundamental to modern Australian national identity".

According to some...

it was on the shores of Gallipoli that we were formed as a nation.

And, while that's not, literally, true--

Federation and all that that entailed had occurred some fourteen years earlier--

they would argue that it was here that the nation's spirit and character was distilled and defined.

It was here, they would say, that the national qualities of resourcefulness...

resilience...

courage...

mateship...

sacrifice...

generosity...

and a fair-go for all...

were forged;

along with the disdain for authority--

and larrikinism--

for which Australians have been recognised.

 

And yet... 

that image of the strong, bronzed Australian--

the lovable larrikin--

displaying the commendable attributes that are now held up as national qualities...

was one that was carefully crafted at the time...

especially by the war correspondent...

Charles Bean...

who understood the power of word and image--

not just to commend and commemorate these naive, idealistic young men...

but to recruit others to the cause.

The image--

the Australian national identity-- 

that was, supposedly, forged at Gallipoli...

was not something neutrally observed and recorded.

It was forged for a purpose.

The Australian national identity--

which we hold up for praise on ANZAC day--

was created, largely, as a propaganda tool.

 

Now, as an historian, one of the first things that we learn... 

is that history is never a simple recording of facts.

It's always a reconstruction...

an interpretation.

It's always a story that is written with a slant or bias or agenda;

one that is written for a particular purpose.

History is never something simple.

It is always contested.

But the same is true for identity.

The idealised ANZAC image...

for example...

conveniently edits out the role of the Aboriginal men who enlisted... 

served...

and died...

despite the fact that they had to lie about their heritage...

because they were not legally allowed to enlist.

It also conveniently ignores the discrimination that they experienced...

not least when they returned:

Indigenous soldiers were excluded from the soldier-settler land grants...

and they were banned from RSL clubs until nineteen-forty-nine.

So much for the ANZAC notions of 'mateship' and a 'fair-go' for all!

And it seems that, today, the people who speak most and at length about the ANZAC image--

and the Australian national identity that it supposedly forged--

tend to be politicians, of all persuasions...

who seek to employ it for their own political ends.

Appeals to identity so often exist as a rhetorical tool...

which somewhat masks the fact that our identity is always contested...

and formed through that contest.

It's constantly being shaped in the interplay between our self-image and how we want to be seen...

and how others see us and treat us.

Identity, like history, is never neutral.

Identity, like history, always enshrines bias and agenda.

 

The author of Acts was writing...

probably...

at the end of the first century--

although some scholars even suggest early in the second century--

some fifty or more years after the events that he creatively crafts.

He was writing at a time when--

albeit locally and sporadically--

Christians were beginning to encounter increased hostility from the world around them.

Many were estranged and alienated from friends and family...

because of their decision to follow Christ...

and leave behind the gods of their ancestors, their cities, and the Empire.

They were increasing treated with suspicion and even contempt.

In response, some...

like the author of First and Second Timothy...

encouraged a form of passivity or quietism--

urging his readers to fit in and conform...

to be good citizens...

and not to draw attention to themselves.

The author of Acts, however, took a different line--

and we see that, in a sense, in our story this morning.

In the early chapters of Acts, the apostles had started going around healing people...

bestowing wholeness in the name of Christ...

helping those in need...

showing kindness to the marginalised and disadvantaged...

offering hope to those in despair.

They were proclaiming that Jesus had been raised to new life...

asserting that God brings life out of death...

and that our hatred and violence does not have the last word.

Many of these stories in Acts have echoes and parallels with stories about Jesus in the Gospel.

The author was suggesting that Jesus' followers continued to do what Jesus did--

that they continued his ministry.

Furthermore, their proclamation was bold...

lacking any sense of shame or embarrassment...

as would have befitted people of their station in life.

They were, after all...

"uneducated and common men";

or, as the Greek implies...

they were uneducated, un-credentialed, "simple folk".

Far from trying to fit in and conform--

to be good citizens and not to draw attention to themselves--

they even dared to stand up to the authorities...

and to challenge the religious powers-that-be...

despite the fact that that landed them in trouble.

And yet, once again, the author implies that...

in so doing...

they were doing what Jesus did...

they were continuing his ministry.

Indeed, the author claims that when the authorities and powers-that-be...

"Saw the boldness of Peter and John...they were amazed and recognised that they had been with Jesus." 

In other words...

according to the author of Acts...

when the powers-that-be looked at Peter and John...

they recognised the same traits...

the same habits and customs...

the same attitudes and values...

and the same behaviour...

as Jesus had displayed.

When the powers-that-be looked at Peter and John... 

they recognised that they had been with Jesus.

They looked at them, and they saw Jesus.

 

Identity is always continually formed and always contested.

That applies just as much to our identity as Christians today.

You and I may disagree about what ought to be our attitudes...

values...

customs...

and characteristics--

as Christians--

and how we ought to live out our faith in the world.

But, as the author of Acts reminds us...

our identity as Christians inescapably boils down to one thing--

one thing that we cannot shirk or skirt around--

when people look at us...

at what we say and what we do...

do they recognise that we have been with Jesus?

Do they see Jesus in us?

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