ANZAC Day was yesterday. But it took over much of our service this morning, in a strange kind of well-intentioned way.
It is right – in fact, inevitable – that civic occasions are marked from within the culture of those doing the marking. And so in a country where around half the country still record some census identification as Christian, many ANZAC services yesterday still had a vestigial Christian tone; the occasional traditional memorial hymn, such as “Abide with Me”, a prayer concluding with an invocation of the Holy Trinity, and perhaps even a Bible reading. Those touches are fading, and seem to leave many in the crowd – who have long since slewed off any conscious sense of Christian faith or practice – understandably uncomfortable.
But when the observance of civic, and national, occasions intrudes into our Christian worship services – the sea seeping into the boat, as it were – there is something to be more worried about. Perhaps it is one thing for the community to remember men from our own specific congregation who served, fought and died is one thing. I’m not sure if anyone from our congregation fought and died at Gallipoli, but my grandmother’s cousin, raised in the Baptist Sunday School in our suburb, fought and died, recognise for his heroism with an MC, rather later in the war against Turkey. Memorials to war dead on church walls never bothered me, and often moved me.
But what about our worship services? The pastor this morning moved from an ANZAC theme to the sacrifice of Christ, and the celebration of Communion. And yet the overall effect was probably to leave the congregation – perhaps especially its younger members – with a sense of the similarity of the two. The differences are surely more profound. We remember those who died for our country, aware both of the ambiguous nature of some of the causes that were fought for, and the uncertain fruits of those fights. World War One could be seen as having roots in Serbian state-sponsored terrorism (yes, there are other narratives), and the accidents of great defensive alliances. And while no one can know the counterfactual, the visible fruit of the Gallipoli campaign was little more than a heavy harvest of soldiers. Wars fought not infrequently are fought again in a different guise a little further on in time.
But the sacrifice of Christ is different. It is rooted in God’s love, and in our sin. In dying Jesus made the one perfect complete sacrifice for the sin of the world. In raising Jesus, full and final victory is declared – full and final. The price of sin is paid, once for all. Awful as the death of Christ was, to those who believe there is no ambiguity about its worth or its effects.
And this is a God who transcends all national and cultural boundaries and differences. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Turk nor ANZAC, in Christ. For all our human differences, it often seems more of an aspiration than an experience, but the common liturgy of much of the church is one of those things which enables us to be primarily fellow-Christian worshippers throughout the world – whether in Wellington, London, St Petersburg, and in the tiny remnant of the church in Turkey. And so I’m left me uncomfortable with singing national anthems – even those addressed to God, as ours is – in regular services of worship. It troubled me when it occasionally happened in US churches we attended and it did so here this morning. Here we have no abiding or permanent home – we are aliens and strangers (“resident aliens” in Stanley Hauerwas put it), spread across the earth, but whose home and hope is in the new heaven and new earth that God will, at the last, establish. One church, one bread, one cup, one faith, one Lord – that is our faith. We look to the time when nation goes no more to war against other nations, and all that is provisional and uncertain about the wars of our age is no more. Our worship here and now should prefigure that glorious hope – and perhaps that witness is especially important at times of civic or national moment.