One of the ways we tell the story of our faith is through the special days that we commemorate. These are either the lives of key people or events in the life of Jesus. Today brings us both, and it is a dark one. Today we remember the death of John the Baptist, our patron saint, his beheading. It is a tale of lust, of revenge, of hatred and contempt for life. It is also one with tender moments as John’s disciples retrieve his body for burial. And for Jesus it seems to have been the spur to crank his ministry up a gear.
John has a characteristic bluntness. He tells it how it is and that can be sharp. He is uncompromising and direct in his criticism. Herod seems to have both loved and hated this. He seems to have admired John but clearly got irritated when he was criticised, not least for his adulterous relationship with his sister in law. Added to that her daughter dancing and delighting him, makes him the dodgy step-dad. (The texts vary at this point as to whether she is his daughter or his wife’s – how dark do you want this story to get!)
Making a rash promise, fuelled by too much drink and unsavoury passions, the scene is set for John’s demise. Matthew’s version is shorter than Mark’s. It is Mark (6:14-29) who draws out the full intrigue and vile nature of it. When Herod makes his promise, Herodias suggests John’s head, but it is her daughter who goes that step further with adding ‘on a platter’, just to make it even worse. Contempt is being learned and emulated.
A guard is sent and John is beheaded with no further ceremony. In a first century prison death can come at any moment, without warning or preparation. As a prisoner you were at the whim of whoever had the power and life was cheap and disposable. I can see why we choose to focus our patronal festival on John’s birth not his death.
Thankfully we don’t face that kind of threat in this country, though political power reacts no less favourably to criticism. I know when I’m getting close to the mark with one or two local characters because they tell me I should not express a view or accuse me of virtue signalling and my inner John the Baptist comes to the surface. The church has a right and a responsibility to engage in democratic debate.
But Christians are being persecuted in other countries, with beheadings. Children and young women are subjected to lustful and abusive gaze from those who should protect and be safe for them. In 2018 the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, commissioned the Bishop of Truro to lead a review of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
In his report last year he estimated that one third of the world’s population faces persecution for their faith and Christians are the most persecuted group (Final Report p15). This persecution includes execution. Among his recommendations was for government to use its diplomatic and trade engagements to raise and advance these concerns.
Being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be a very costly commitment. A challenge for us in our relative comfort, is would we hold to it or dump it if the going was so tough? There was a fairly simplistic mantra circulating some years ago. If Christianity was illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you? And that opens up a whole storehouse of questions about what would count as admissible evidence where ‘churchianity’ might mask real following of Christ in word and deed and devotion. It is so easy to be focused on the institution and confuse this with actually living the way of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist takes us to passion and proclamation, challenge and call, faithfulness in the face of death and therefore the embracing of the life that is worth living. John the Baptist was the first to greet Jesus as he kicked in his mother’s womb. He pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God as he watched him walk through the market place. He witnessed in his death, summarily as it came, but with unwavering commitment.
A church named after him is challenged with how much of his story we are prepared to share. Do we delight in the presence of Christ where we see it? Do we point to him in how we live in faith, hope and love? Are we prepared when the going gets tough to say ‘this is where I stand’ and this is how I see the outworking of common life that proclaims justice, honour and equity: I can do no other? The powerful never like it when decisions are challenged and always bite back, especially if they feel threated by them. Are we prepared to stand up for the most vulnerable and face that?
So today we remember John the Baptist, the dark moments of his death and the light of hope which shone through him. May his delight in the womb be ours as we encounter the risen Christ in our hearts. May we with him point others to the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and is our hope. May the light of that hope be our inspiration in whatever we face.
Sermon for Beheading of John the Baptist, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 30th August 2020.