For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
I grew up in a church tradition which consistently and confidently produced full-color Bible pictures. There were colored pictures in Sunday School flyers, in Vacation Bible School tracts, and in religious “comic books.” By a young age I could very clearly picture old Moses with the Ten Commandments, and young David’s meeting up with Goliath, Jesus’ feeding the 5,000, and Mary and Martha’s entertaining in their home because these full-color drawings were embossed in my memory from an early age. (I grew up in the Midwest, and I have to admit that most of these Bible characters looked Swedish, amazingly enough!) But I was spared the picture of John the Baptist’s beheading, what we remember today in the calendar of the church. It is not one of those scenes that I could have or can easily picture. And it would not seem to be an experience that many of us here will likely face, at least not today.
And yet I was stunned, just a couple of years ago to hear a report from the compilers of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. These researchers reported that, in the year 2002 alone, more than 159,000 professing Christians were martyred in such countries as the Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China, and Vietnam, among others. Were we today among the hearers of this gospel story in an oppressive country, we would be likely be very attentive.
The English word “martyr” comes to us from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” being translated as “witness,” the ultimate witness to Christ being the offering of our life’s blood. I suspect that for most all of us here, we won’t likely face some kind of blood-red martyrdom, at least today, nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give witness to Christ. There will most likely be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for a brother or sister, even today… not in some kind of ostentatious showings of heroism and notoriety, but in some very mundane and rather hidden ways.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we’ll be invited to forgive. We’ll be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience, the withholding of our judgment, the readiness to be helpful and not retiring, the opportunity to bless and not curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but I would say that all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once a day, even today, to die, like a grain of wheat. Something great or puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs, some thing – some image of our selves, some impression or decision or resolution or right or fear or time that we feel is our possession – will get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t give it up, don’t let it die. Today will be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and claiming this “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak about an identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” We do say in our Rule that “…from the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own life commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God.” And we remind ourselves that “the witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.” But we as monks recognize that our identification with martyrdom, which gives us the grace to surrender our lives to God through our monastic vows, comes from our the grace of baptism, where we – all of us here who are baptized – “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” What would that mean to you? That you “have died with Christ and are raised with him?”
Surrender. The surrendering of our lives. Surrendering any notion that we “possess” our own lives. My life does not belong to me. That is how I would speak about having died with Christ and being raised with him. We don’t possess our own lives. I would say we are stewards of the life that God has given us, and for however long God continues to give us breath. I think of it as being loaned back into life after baptism. And so I would say that our life is not about hoarding or about conserving itself for its own sake but its opposite: about giving. Our life is about willingly giving up our life and our life’s energies as we see in Christ’s own self-emptying.
A wonderful way to think and pray about the life you’ve been given to steward is to face into the certainty of your own death. The only thing uncertain about death is how and when we will die. Death is a part of life. By facing into the inevitably of death you may find enormous freedom and clarity in the moments of life which are still ahead for you – be it as much as another day or week or month or year or perhaps many years. (We brothers make our funeral plans and keep them up to date. Your survivors would sure find that helpful if you did that… and in the meantime it might prove enormously helpful for you personally.)
So we say that in our baptism we give up the delusion that we possess our own life, and we acknowledge that our life needs to be salvaged by Christ. And then we are loaned back into life for a little while with Jesus’ promise that he’s going to use us, he’s going to use you. You will re-present Christ to this world – your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions, beyond which you could ask or imagine, and in ways that Christ will set up. Channel it. Channel that power, that light, that life, that love of Christ. Channel it, generously, don’t hoard… and don’t worry.
As you leave the chapel this evening you might find it meaningful to dip your fingers in the holy water basins near a doorway. This is baptismal water, placed there at the doorways as a reminder of our own baptism, where we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” We give up both the delusion and the burden of possessing life. We acknowledge that we are neither the author nor finisher of life. We’re a steward of life, a participant, a player, an agent, an ambassador on a short-term, mortal assignment by Christ. Who knows for how long? Give it your all; you will be given all you need.
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