Just when you thought it was safe to come to church on another hot and lazy summer Sunday, here we are serving up the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
It feels a bit strange to say, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” [“Praise be to thee, O Christ”] after hearing this grisly story. I don’t remember learning about it - much less coloring pictures of it - back in Sunday School. And I’ve never heard anyone preach a sermon about it. It’s not a nice text. So it’s no wonder that we rarely hear it read in worship or proclaimed from the pulpit.
The word “Gospel” literally means “the good news.” But one of the things that makes today’s Gospel reading difficult is that it sounds like anything but good news. Instead, this tale of anger, resentment, cowardice, revenge, and murder appears to lack any redemptive character.
The story begins and ends with sin. Motivated by lust, Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee and Perea, steals his brother’s wife Herodias. Not one to shy away from conflict, John the Baptist confronts Herod with his sin. This so outrages the new wife Herodias that she wants to kill John. Partly to appease her, and partly to protect John, Herod arrests John and puts him in prison.
The story takes a nasty turn when Herod throws a party. Herodias’ daughter provides the entertainment, and Herod is so taken with her dancing that he does something incredibly foolish: he promises to give her anything she asks for. It’s Herodias’ chance to settle the score. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist,” Herodias tells the girl.
Mark tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved” by this request (Mk. 6:26). He knew that John “was a righteous and holy man” (Mk. 6:20). He knew that the people regarded John as a prophet (cf. Mt. 14:5). But Herod’s grief and his knowledge of John were not enough to keep him from withholding consent to murdering the man whom our Lord called “the greatest of those born among women” (cf. Mt. 11:11 & Lk. 7:28).
A version of this story appears in three of the Gospels. But only in Mark do we learn that Herod “liked to listen” to John (Mk. 6:20). He was drawn to John’s call to repent and prepare the way for the Messiah. But not enough for John’s message to actually take root and bear fruit in his life. No, Herod kept John and his message at a comfortable, safe distance, keeping John locked away when he didn’t want to deal with the truth, and bringing John out when he wanted some intellectual entertainment.
It is an ancient conviction of the Church that the stories we read in the Bible are not just about people of long ago. The stories are also about us. When we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit invites us to see our own life stories reflected in the stories of scripture.
And so we do well not to pass over today’s Gospel lesson too quickly. For while it’s probably not the sort of thing that most of us want to hear, all of us share more in common with Herod than we may wish to admit. For Herod shows us how it’s possible to hear God’s Word and yet allow the cares of the world, concerns over what other people think about us, the lures of wealth, and the desire for comfort and pleasure, to anesthetize our consciences and choke the life out of our souls.
Sure, we may not be responsible for somebody’s murder. We may not share Herod’s moral immaturity. But who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never betrayed another person just to keep ourselves from looking bad? Who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never made a stupid promise and kept it even when we knew that it would hurt someone? And who among us can truthfully say that we’ve never come to church and listened to the Word of God only to walk out the door as though nothing had happened?
Why would we possibly do that?
Perhaps because, like Herod, we like to listen to God’s Word, but we keep it at a safe, comfortable distance lest it make a claim on our lives and challenge us to change. And perhaps we resist being changed because we know that change can be costly.
If Herod is the anti-type of Christian discipleship, the Gospels invite us to see in John the Baptist an example of what it means for Jesus, and Jesus alone, to be the driving purpose of our lives. John was born for one reason: to prepare the way for the One who is the Way. From the womb to the tomb, John pointed beyond himself to Christ. And he did so at great personal cost.
Even now, in different parts of the world, there are Christians who are suffering and dying in the exactly the same way that John the Baptist suffered and died. They are martyrs for the cause of Christ. We do well to remember and pray for them.
Hostile powers targeting Christians for their faith is hardly a unique feature of our time. That’s been true in different times and places ever since Jesus Christ walked on this earth.
One source makes this critically important point crystal clear:
It is a story oft repeated throughout the history of the Church, even to this day. One thinks of Hitler, Stalin, contemporary tyrants in the Middle East, military dictators in South America, and a host more. Christianity may be tolerated as long as it is personal and private, out of the public view and non-intrusive. But when it threatens it is to be exterminated. Often the Church has surrendered its prophetic voice of conscience to secular rulers and governments. Those who have dared announce the kingdom of God in contrast to the tyrannies of men have suffered and died for their faith.
Neither Jesus nor his disciples then and now are “meek and mild.” Gentle, yes. Compassionate, yes. Loving, always. Yet the gospel threatens and threatened people strike back. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
We are blessed to live in a country in which the chances of any of us suffering such a fate are virtually unthinkable.
However, while we may not get our heads chopped off, if we follow John’s example by taking Jesus seriously, we will pay a price.
Following Jesus will cost us our time, particularly time spent continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. Adhering to apostolic teaching and the pattern of Eucharistic worship in an increasingly secular, post-Christian society is bound to make us look odd. And it will pit us against the hedonism, consumerism, and individualism of our culture.
Following Jesus will cost us our pride, particularly when we make a practice of repenting and returning to the Lord whenever we fall into sin.
Following Jesus will cost us the reputation of being innocuous Christians who don’t want to offend anybody by bearing witness to the uniqueness of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Following Jesus will cost us the illusion that being a member of the Church means hanging out with like-minded, socially, politically, and economically homogenous people, particularly if we seek and serve Christ in all persons, including the poor, the homeless, and the nobodies left behind in our affluent society.
And following Jesus will cost us the safety of keeping our faith a private affair, pushing us instead to find public connections between the Gospel and the pursuit of justice, peace, and respect for human dignity.
I’m reminded of a story about two brothers who lived in racially segregated Georgia back in the 1950s. One of the brothers decided to participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians who attended church regularly.
As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The attorney brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. His other brother reminded him that he was a Christian. The attorney brother responded: “I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified.” To this his brother replied: “Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple.”
Our world does not need admirers of Jesus. It needs disciples of Jesus. It needs people who are willing to risk their necks for the sake of the Gospel. We need people like John the Baptist who set for us an example of consistently speaking the truth, boldly rebuking vice, patiently suffering for the truth’s sake, and leading others to the salvation offered in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus never promised that following him would be easy. On the contrary, he made it clear that loyalty to him can be a source of division, even sometimes pitting family members against each other (Mt. 10:34-37; Lk. 12:51). Jesus made it clear that any who want to become his followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and even lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel (Mk. 8:34-35; Mt. 10:38-39; Lk. 9:23-24, 14:27). And he minced no words when he said that the world would hate his disciples because the world first hated him (Mt. 24:9; Jn. 15:18, 17:14).
But Jesus also promised that if we follow him, if we remain faithful to his word, if we lose our lives for his sake, then we will find our true selves and learn what it means to really live. For the crucified and risen Jesus has overcome the darkness and hostility of this world. In the end, the love of Jesus wins. And all who bear witness to that love, including especially those who do so at great personal cost, will receive the crown of life and hear our Lord say: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”