Today many people, particularly in New South Wales, are remembering the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. Some people this day as a day for the whole nation to celebrate the good things our country has achieved, the freedoms we enjoy and 226 years of white settlement. Other people are not so enthusiastic and they might remember the day as the European invasion of the land. Some might think of the destruction of the indigenous people and their way of life while others look at the darker side of our history and the damage done to the rivers, soil and seas, the plants and animals over the last two centuries. And there are some people who use the day to shout slogans, to behave badly and to drink too much without any real insight into the significance of the day.
Whichever view you take, January 26th, 1788 changed the course of Australian history for ever.
Today we are also commemorating two other events which changed the course of history, particularly the history of the Christian church. The first event is the conversion of Paul which is described twice in the bible, once by St Luke and once by Paul himself, standing on trial in front of King Agrippa. We know the story. Paul was on his way to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the Christians. His aim was to stamp out the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who, in his mind, were blaspheming against God and the Jewish faith. He had full authority from the chief priests to do this because they saw this movement as a threat to their authority, their religion and the political stability of Jerusalem. The misguided followers of Jesus had to be silenced, either by death or by renouncing their faith. However, Paul had a vision, a blinding light from heaven, and he heard a voice which convinced him to proclaim the Jesus as Lord and Messiah, the salvation of Jews and Gentiles alike. It was under his influence that the followers of Jesus came to be called Christians, first in Antioch and then in other places. Even King Agrippa knew the term and said to Paul, “You’ve almost persuaded me to become a Christian!”
For twenty centuries the church has seen Paul’s conversion as a most positive event. Paul might have been able to kill off Christianity. Without Paul’s missionary journeys the churches in Rome, Galatia, Macedonia, Syria and Lebanon might not have been founded. Without Paul’s letters we would not have insights into the life of the early church. We would not have Paul’s deep understanding and reflection on the person and work of Christ, and, as the collect today put it, his holy teaching.
However, in the past 200 years, scholars and theologians, devout Christian women and men, have wondered if Paul’s conversion was not a mixed blessing. Was it a good thing that a Jewish Pharisee should be the greatest exponent of Jesus, the way, the truth and the life? Has Paul been too ready to lay down the law and to give specific instructions about things which are now not seen as important? And have some people been too ready to make Paul’s pastoral letters into a new religious law? For example, is it important for women to wear hats in church? Are women to keep silence in church? Are Paul’s letters answers to pastoral concerns of the first century or are they rules to be obeyed for all time?
These questions bring us to our third world and church shaking event. Seventy years ago the world was in the grip of the Second World War. The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and of parts of China had made it impossible for Anglican priests to get to neutral Macau, where there were a number of refugee Anglicans with no priest. Li Tim-Oi had already been made a deaconess in Macau by Bishop Ronald Hall and had been authorised by him to take the sacraments to the Anglicans in these difficult times. In January 1944, Li travelled through Japanese-occupied territory to meet with Hall in the small town of Xing Xing, as yet unoccupied by the Japanese, where he ordained her as a priest. From the Bishop’s point of view and Li Tim-Oi’s point of view the ordination was necessary to preserve the life of the church and to support Christians in distress. William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury understood the need, but he was not able to give his official support. Li Tim-Oi served the church faithfully as a priest until the end of the war when she resigned her licence. She was still an ordained priest in the church of God, but she did not take a licence again until 1971, when two other women were ordained in Hong Kong.
When Li Tim-Oi was first ordained there were many people who rejoiced. The Anglicans who had fled to Macau for example, and Bishop Ronald Hall, who was always a fighter for social justice. There were men and women, in the church and outside who felt that this was the right thing to do. Other women who had felt God’s call to ordained ministry but whose call had been denied by the church, felt that there was some hope ahead.
Of course there were those who were not pleased. Some felt it was a betrayal of 1900 years of tradition in the church; some felt it was disobedience to the plain words of scripture, while others, without much reflection, simply felt that it was wrong.
Since Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, the church has seen and dealt with many changes. It is learning how to deal with differences of opinion and faith. It is learning how to deal with child abuse and exploitation. It is learning to be compassionate and inclusive, loving and accepting. I believe that the church is learning to trust God. We have learned that Jewish Pharisees can be Christian; we are learning that women can be priests and there are some places where openly gay people are trusted ministers of the gospel.
I finish with the words of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder, Paul’s instructor in the Jewish faith. In the book of Acts he is recorded as saying, “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
We may have our misgivings about the future of the church and how our ideas of church may be challenged, but Gamaliel reminds us that if it is God’s church, then God will care for it, and, as Jesus said last week, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.