Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 15th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Mark 6:14-29, Ephesians 1:1-14
And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Really? This is Gospel? This is Good News, that Herod ordered the decapitation of John the Baptist? Now, we know that Gospel is a word with multiple meanings, and when I say: This is the Gospel of the Lord, I’m saying that this has been our reading from the Gospel, in this case St. Mark. But still, how is this story even in the Gospel? How can John’s death by decapitation even be a part of the story of salvation?
Everything about this story is uncomfortable. The deeper we dig, the messier it gets. First, we have a wicked royal family. Herod, ruler of Galilee on behalf of the Romans, is married to Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife. John the Baptist condemns their sin, and lands in jail, as the king, and especially the king’s wife do not appreciate being condemned. John in this persecution joins every prophet who gets in trouble for speaking the truth to powerful people.
Next we have a birthday party gone terribly wrong. We shouldn’t read too much, or too little, into the daughter of Herodias pleasing the party with her dancing. But questions force themselves upon us. Just how old was the girl? Just what kind of dance did she do? We don’t know, we only know that her dance was so pleasing it led Herod to make a rash promise, and back it up with a vow: Ask whatever you want, up to half of my kingdom…
Now our twisted story gets really bad. Did a girl go to her mother in innocence, just looking for a something good to ask for? A castle? A pony, perhaps? Or did a young woman share her mother’s anger at John, and went to her knowing that they had an opportunity to do bad things to the wild prophet from the Jordan? In any case, think of the request. Think of saying those words out loud, in all seriousness: Give me the head of John the Baptist, on a platter. Think of being one of the birthday guests, of waiting in horror for the wish to be granted. I assume they waited in horror; you don’t suppose anyone waited in ghoulish expectation, do you? It was a dark and wicked party.
The deed is done, and we are appalled, and perhaps wondering about Mark. Even though he wrote the shortest of the four Gospels, Mark gives the most lurid details from this story. Why tell us so much? Is it simply to reveal the darkness of which we human beings are capable? Surely we don’t need to be warned away from such evil; hasn’t our society progressed far beyond such savagery?
After all, it’s not like we Americans have aborted 55 million children in the womb since 1973. Like the violence of Herodias, the violence of the abortion industry is bold, bold enough to claim that these babies were killed in the name of women’s health. Their concern for women’s health must not take into account the health of the 27.5 million baby girls we have aborted, not to mention the physical, emotional and spiritual health of the mothers who realize too late that they have been deceived into making a terrible mistake.
Does Mark really need to lecture us on violence? It’s not like dozens of grotesquely violent multimillion dollar horror movies are produced in America each year, primarily to be watched by our youth. Even better are the insanely violent video games, which put the trigger in our hands! It’s not as though multiple times every year we hear of people slaughtering co-workers or fellow students, for no conceivable reason. Do we really need Mark to warn us of the human capacity for violence and cruelty?
Yes, of course we do. Remember that the next account in Genesis after Adam and Eves’ fall into sin is the story of Cain killing his brother Abel. Turning from the Lord of life makes us into seekers of death. Our sinfulness means that violence is within us all. We will not be able to relax our guard until God delivers us from this world of tears. Mark just lifts the veil a little on the darkness, so we are reminded that it’s all too real.
But is that it? Is this story needed in the Gospels simply to warn us against human wickedness and violence? Can we understand more of how the decapitation of John fits into the Good News of God’s salvation? If only somehow there could be a “recapitation,” a rejoining of the head to the body. That would be a happy ending. But how can that be? Once John’s head is off, how can it be reattached? This is why violence is such an enduring curse. Stolen goods can be returned or replaced, a lie can be admitted and corrected, a covetous heart can learn to rejoice in another’s good fortune. But once thrown, a punch struck cannot be pulled back. Once dead, a murder victim is gone to us. Scars can last a lifetime, and the blood of Abel still cries from the ground. How can there be a recapitation, once the deed is done?
Well, there is a recapitation, a recapitulation, to use the technical term, a bringing all together again under one head, which we heard about in our reading from Ephesians. Now, you didn’t hear those exact words in our epistle. Our translation tries to make easier sense of the Greek for us, speaking of a plan for the fullness of time, a plan “to unite all things in him,” things in heaven and things on earth. The “unite all things in him” translates “anakephalaiosasthai” which means “to recapitulate,” or, “to bring back under the head all things,” in Him. And the Him, the Head, is, of course, Jesus Christ.
Remember what Jesus told the man trying to earn his salvation. Jesus said: Only God is Good. Which means that all men are wicked. God in mercy restrains the worst evil, for the sake of the elect, for the sake of His Church. Left to our own devices, we humans would quickly destroy one another. This is unpleasant to consider, but important to remember and confess, lest we think too much of ourselves and decide we don’t need a savior, lest we imagine we can build heaven on earth through human cooperation. It all depends on Christ, our head.
This especially we resist, because our sinful natures do not want to be dependent, powerless. We are always trying to introduce something from ourselves into the salvation equation. It doesn’t matter whether the false teaching is obvious, as in the Five Pillars of Islam, or the door knocking way to heaven of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whether the lie is more subtle, as in the seemingly tiny requirement of making a decision for Jesus, or giving your heart to Jesus. Any time we add a work of ours to God’s work of salvation we corrupt the Gospel, and we insult Christ.
We must be watchful, for our natural tendency is to corrupt the pure Gospel with works requirements, to think we are saving ourselves. Self-righteousness is even more common among us than our capacity for violence. We need to be watchful, or we will lose our heads, theologically speaking, because only the living Christ can save us from death. Only the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, testifies that all sins have been paid for. Jesus has paid for every sin, including the sins of Herod and Herodias, including the sins of those involved in the abortion industry, and including the sins of those who have been deceived by their propaganda, all is forgiven in Christ. So we, the Church, have good news for all people: whoever looks to Jesus in faith is forgiven, period. He is the prophet greater than Amos, or John, or even Moses, the Prophet who died to fulfill God’s promise of salvation for all.
John lost his head in service to God’s Church. But he will be restored, for the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the head of His body, the Church. In Christ we have been ransomed from the devil, by His precious blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace. In Christ God has made known to us the mystery of his will, a plan revealed at just the right time, a plan to bring back together under the One True Head all things in heaven and on earth. In Christ the soul of John the Baptist lives, with all the saints who have gone before, joyfully awaiting the Last Day, when John will receive back his perfected body, head included.
In Christ we too have obtained an inheritance, the promise of eternal life in heaven, having been chosen before time in Christ, to the praise of his glory. How can we make so bold a claim? Not because of anything we have done, but because God has promised. Indeed, God has sealed His promise with Himself, for in Baptismal waters we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. In our Baptismal faith, made new every time we hear the Word of forgiveness, strengthened every time we feast at the banquet of forgiveness, we eagerly await the day when Christ will reveal the promise to our eyes.
In the meantime, we live in a world that is violent, a world that rejects God’s way. We live as strangers called to speak unpopular things to the powers of darkness. But we have no need to fear, for we are free, free to be bold, to speak against evil, to speak for life, to risk the anger of the popular culture, to stand up for the weak and low. We are free to uphold God’s Law because we know the One who has fulfilled that Law for us and for all people.
Let the world reject us. For what is the world to us? We have the Head of all things, the Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He has entered into His creation and redeemed it, in His own body, on the Cross. And we are connected to Him, we are by His grace and power truly His body, the Church, His blood flows through us. Our leader, our Savior, our Head rules all things. In Christ we have the victory, over sin and death, the world and the devil. Rejoice, and sing His praises, today and forevermore. Amen.