Read Mark 6:14-29
We are starting a new worship series today. It’s called, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” Now some of you might be thinking, “I already know who Jesus is. I’ve been saved by God’s own son who came to earth enfleshed in bodily form, was crucified, died and resurrected so that I could be redeemed from my sin. Easy enough. Case Closed. End of Story.
It’s easy to think that is the core belief of our faith. In fact, we’ve been told that most of our lives. Once saved, always saved. It’s the ticket to getting into heaven. There is no other reason for being Christian. We’ve been told, as long as you accept Jesus Christ as Savior and believe in his death and resurrection, then you are home free. Yet across the ages, the church has debated this simple topic, sometimes in very bloody ways. Some decided that in order for this to work for them, then it has to work for everyone else. But, it is important to note that this mindset led to the Christian crusades in the 12th and 13th Centuries when Muslims and pagans were murdered or taken into slavery. This bloody attack on non-Christians lasted for over 100 years. It is estimated that over 1.7 million people were slaughtered in the name of Christ during this time.
But this belief was also the impetus for the extinction of millions of Jews and others by the Christian leader of Germany, known as Hitler, in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler’s “Final Solution” (the term used by the Nazis for their plan to annihilate the European Jews) was for a very simple reason. Hitler believed that the Jews killed Jesus, and so God had ordained him to punish them on God’s behalf. It started by rounding up anyone of Jewish decent and putting them in camps, then separating families from their children, and finally exterminating them. But it wasn’t just the 6 million Jews that were eliminated. Around 7 million Soviet civilians were also destroyed for resisting Hitler. 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish citizens were murdered. 312,000 Serbian civilians. 250,000 people with disabilities living in institutions. 200,000 Gypsies. 1,900 Jehovah's Witnesses. 70,000 Homosexuals. This doesn’t even account for the German political opponents and resistance activists who confronted Hitler’s reign of terror. World War II is perhaps the most tragic event in the history of Christianity that many of us can remember, or at least read about. All in the name of Jesus Christ.
In the early 1920s, Gandhi and India's National Congress Party began practicing civil disobedience as a chief political strategy in order to achieve independence from British colonial rule. These Hindu dissenters, in spite of violent setbacks to their cause and regular clashes with British authorities, never gave up their vision that the British could be driven from India without shedding one drop of British blood; and Gandhi continued to walk his way back and forth across the country preaching the gospel of non-violent resistance.
As he did so, his reputation began to spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. Both Hindu and Muslim villagers would come from long distances on foot, with their bedding on their heads and shoulders, pulling carts or riding horseback just to catch a glimpse of him. Never before had any political or religious leader made such an impact in his own lifetime. Even the civil authorities had to sit up and take notice. Although they resented deeply what Gandhi was attempting to do, they could also not help but admire what he had come to represent. Eventually, the British were forced to declare that the empire was now dealing with an entirely new political phenomenon, and that there was no doubt that Gandhi’s courage and vision had a tremendous hold on the public imagination.
Gandi’s courage and vision was exactly the kind of threat that overcame the British empire—and it is exactly the same thing that the current rulers of this world fear most. To have the courage to envision that the world could be a better place for everyone; not just the rich and powerful, not just the religious who believe the only way. Sounds kinda like Jesus, huh? A Hindu like Christ?
And it’s this same phenomenon that the author of the gospel of Mark presents to us in this week's gospel. In the 13 scriptures previous to this text Jesus gave instructions to his disciples about how they are to embody God's love in the world. Expect opposition and trouble, he tells them, but the only thing you need to take with you is the good news and a confident faith. And then Mark tells us the story of John the Baptist; and how this expectation was a risky endeavor.
He reminds the early church of King Herod’s brutal reign. Now this is not Herod the Great, who ruled Israel around the time of Jesus' birth. This is Herod the Great's son from a non-Jewish wife. He was called Herod Antipas to differentiate himself from his father, but you can be sure he was a chip off the old block! Mark calls him "King Herod", but the truth is he wasn’t a king. Oh, he wanted it pretty badly, but the Romans would not allow there to be any other kings but Caesar during the Roman occupation. So Herod was given a less threatening title. He was the ruler of Galilee which made him the chief political authority, aside from the Romans, during the time of Jesus. He was a puppet ruler put in place by the Roman’s to keep peace between the Jews and Romans. He was an ambitious, half-Jew, who, although he enjoyed great power and wealth, was despised both by his Roman masters and his Jewish subjects. He was the kind of ruler who thumbed his nose at Israel's religious laws, both by stealing away and marrying his brother's wife Herodias and by building his capital city, Tiberias, on top of a pagan cemetery.
The inside story that historical documents reveal is that Herod got into deep political controversy with John the Baptist. John was mad at Herod for several reasons; but the one that really stuck in John's craw was Herod's marriage to Herodias. John publicly accused them of "living in sin" and that was enough to turn Herod’s wife purple with rage. Demonstrating that she was the one who wore the pants in the family, Herodias convinced Herod into throwing John in jail until she could figure out what to do with him.
Well, apparently Herod feared John almost as much as he feared his wife. He knew how popular John was with the people and how dangerous it could be politically if he decided to get rid of John. At least in prison he could keep an eye on him and keep peace in his own bedroom. But it wasn't just fear that motivated Herod. He was fascinated by John and couldn't help sneaking out of the bedroom at night and wandering down to the basement just so that he could hear John ranting in his old, dark prison cell. The portrait Mark paints is of a man who is transfixed with the very thing he fears and despises. "When he heard him," Mark says, “he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.”
Unfortunately this fascination was not enough to convince him to change his life. One day Herod decided to throw a birthday party for himself to end all birthday bashes. Apparently it was a banquet done in a fashion meant to impress all of Herod's political cronies and enemies and to offend the religious Jews. The climax was when Herodias' daughter Salome, who was actually Herod's niece, danced an erotic dance that was meant to get Herod all hot and bothered and make him vulnerable to suggestion. Whether Salome meant anything by it other than strutting her stuff, her mother saw it as the chance she had been waiting for. Caught up in the moment, Herod gave in to both his lust and his pride by following through on an oath to Salome to give her anything she wanted. Herodias made sure that it was John's head on a platter that "she wanted"; and that, as they say, was the end of John the Baptist.
Or so everyone thought. By the time Mark tells us this story, John has been dead for some time and Jesus has been actively preaching his own message throughout Galilee. Although Herod apparently didn't know Jesus, he knew that something equally as powerful as John was stirring out there among the people.
This is what Mark wants to tell us. This is not just a story to remind us of the dangers of preaching the truth, although that is certainly true. It is a story to remind us of the delusions of the powerful. When Herod hears about Jesus’ exploits he’s convinced that John the Baptist has come back to haunt him, and sets out to get Jesus before Jesus gets him. Jesus’ courage to speak truth to the powerful is, after all, what ultimately does him in. But that is not something Mark's church would ever have questioned. What they would have had doubts about was the effectiveness of such truth-telling. Would following Jesus and speaking the truth to power ever make any difference in the end?
There is a phenomenon about power that exists for us today as well, as it relates to following Jesus. The numbers say that mainline, moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches are losing members while evangelical denominations are growing. The research suggests that the strictness of the evangelicals’ conservative theology is what keeps people coming back. In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Dean Kelly writes "If it costs nothing to belong to a community, it can’t be worth much." He believes that more liberal churches are dying, not because their theology is wrong or faulty, but that they are too lenient when demanding commitment from their congregations. But is strictness really the attraction of evangelicals? Are liberal churches destined to lose members just because we don’t use fear to get people to come to church or to give money that funds its ministries?
Maybe not. Sociologist John H. Evans of the University of California, San Diego, tested an alternate explanation. What if churches attract members by offering a sense of identity, conservative or liberal? In a study of mainline Presbyterian churches across the U.S., he discovered that those churches that offered a clear identity, even though they were theologically progressive, were holding steady. These churches fully embrace the ways they differ from the general culture. At the same time, these churches have an open identity as being theological progressive."
But what does it mean to be progressive theologically? It’s that question that we have to engage among ourselves as we study together the way of Jesus, and the need for Holy Trinity to stand up for what it believes. What each of us believes, and what all of us collectively can do with that power of belief.
And that premise speaks to us from the text. The costly courage of John the Baptist, even though he was dead, still haunted the powerful of his world. And others still do to. One of the things that kept such moral and religious giants like Gandhi going in the face of such overwhelming odds was the profound conviction, not just that love would eventually conquer, but that evil would defeat itself. "When I despair," Gandhi said, "I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. Think of it. Always." The very powerful predators of this world who disturb the balance of nature in order to survive eventually become too big to survive. They fall on account of their own monstrous weight. Resurrection, therefore, becomes the choice of the powerless, the minority, the underdog, and to those who have a vision for something better.
As we engage in our vision of a church it will be vitally important that you speak out this vision, loudly, among yourselves and to your own community with courage. In fact, I want to make it as clear as possible. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Say this with me, “I am not ashamed of who we are.” Don’t apologize because your theology just happens to allow a few more people to get to heaven than radical fundamentalists and the religious right does. Don’t be afraid to claim your identity as a beloved child of God, fully embraced no matter who you are or where you are on your journey. Don’t cower in fear from a society that doesn’t believe you deserve the same rights as everyone else. For if Gandhi could do it, if Martin Luther King, Jr. could do it, if Jesus could do it…then so can we.
I believe that the secret to attracting members and growing Holy Trinity in Nashville is as simple as this: Be who you really are. And just who are you? A child of God, loved and embraced, and a part of God’s kingdom. Holy Trinity Community Church, you are God’s chosen people at time and in this place to reveal God’s kingdom here on earth. And that is a vision we can all share. Amen!