August 30, 2016 – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
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. Mark 6:17-29
I grew up in a church tradition which consistently and creatively produced full-color Bible drawings. Colored pictures appeared in children’s Bibles, in Sunday School flyers, and in Bible story books.Other Gospel stories appeared in our church’s stained glass windows. By a young age I could very clearly picture old Moses with the Ten Commandments, and young David’s meeting up with Goliath, and Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 people and rescuing the lost sheep, and Mary and Martha’s welcoming Jesus into their home… because these full-color drawings were embossed in my memory. But I was spared the picture of John the Baptist’s beheading, what we remember today in the calendar of the church.
Yet I was stunned to read a report compiled by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research from the decade 2000–2010.[i]In one year alone, more than 159,000 professing Christians were martyred in such countries as the Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, China, Vietnam, and Egypt, among others. If we were living in a country where Christians are now being oppressed or persecuted, today’s commemoration of John the Baptist’s beheading would be a poignant reminder, not just of the past but also of the present.
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 one’s own life blood for the sake of Jesus Christ.[ii] For most all of us here, we won’t likely face this kind of blood-red martyrdom, at least today. Nonetheless there will be countless occasions to give witness to Christ, to give up our life for the sake of Christ. There will many opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for another person in need, probably even today, and not in some kind of ostentatious act of heroism and notoriety, but more likely in some very mundane and rather hidden way.
There may be certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us” whom we’ll be invited to forgive. To forgive again. We’ll be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience, or the withholding of our condemning judgment, or the readiness to be generous and not retiring, or the opportunity to bless and notcurse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but 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. It’s a real paradox, but it’s what Jesus talks about relentlessly: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it…”[iii] Dying comes in many forms. Our daily dying may be in something great or in something quite hidden, some small thing we may be sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs. Our daily dying may be in surrendering some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or right, or fear, or time that we may feel is our possession. Whatever we’re clinging to, sooner or later, will most likely get in the way of life if we don’t let it go, if we don’t surrender it, if don’t let it die. Today will most likely be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation as we lay claim on the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.[iv]
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we say 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 in our Rule, 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.”[v] However the principal reason we speak about an identification with martyrdom is not because we are monks but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we all profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.”[vi] What would that mean to you? That you “have died with Christ and are raised with him?” I’ll offer you a one-word answer: surrender. We surrender our lives. We surrender any notion that we “possess” our own lives. My life does not “belong” to me. Your life does not “belong” to you. We don’t possess our own lives. 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 our life is not about hoarding or about conserving life for its own sake but its opposite: about giving. Our life is about our willingly giving up our life and our life’s energies following the example we see in Christ’s own self-emptying. We are stewards of life, not possessors, but stewards.
A wonderful way to think and pray about the life to which you’ve been entrusted 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 God’s design. By facing into the inevitably of death you will find enormous freedom and clarity in the moments of life which you have now. All of us here may have as much as one more day, or another week, or another month, or year or perhaps many years. We don’t know. (We Brothers make our funeral plans and keep them up to date. You should do that, too. Your survivors will surelyfind it helpful to know your desires… and in the meantime the exercise will prove enormously helpful for you personally.)
So we understand 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 and sustained by Christ. Following our baptism, we are loaned back into life for a little while with Jesus’ promise that he’s going to be present to us, provide for us, and make use of us. You will re-present Christ to this world: your sheer presence, your words, your touch, your actions. Christ will use you in ways beyond which you could ask or imagine, and in ways that Christ will set up.[vii] Channel it. Channel Jesus’ power, and light, and life, and love of Christ. Channel it, generously; don’t hoard it; and don’t worry.
As you leave the chapel this evening you might find it meaningful to dip your fingers in a holy water basin near a doorway. This is baptismal water, placed 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 the finisher of life.[viii] 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.
[ii]The Old English word “martyr” comes from the Latin martyr, from the Greek martyr, in Christian use“martyr” literally meaning “witness.”
[iii] Matthew 10:39, 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, 17:33; John 12:25
[iv] John 10:10.
[v] See “Life Profession” (Chapter 39) in The Rule of Life of Life of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
[vi] See “Holy Baptism” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 299ff.
[vii] Ephesians 3:20.
[viii] Hebrews 12:2.
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