Sunday’s sermon focused on the decision of Herod Antipas to behead John the Baptist. The sermon considered Herod’s story as a cautionary tale regarding the way people of faith should make decisions when faced with complex situation in the world or in the Church. Several people have asked that I post the sermon on the Rector’s Page, and here it is. The sermon, and the pastoral letter read to the congregation on Sunday, are also available on the “sermons” page at http://www.stjohnsroanoke.org.
You may have noticed that this morning Mark tells us a gruesome story. Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod the Great, has arrested John the Baptist and put him in prison. Even so, we are told, Herod is unsure. Herod is confused and angry because John’s words indict the king and the decisions he’s made, but Herod also knows John is truly holy and finds John challenging in the best way. Mark tells us, “When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
This dynamic could have gone on, and perhaps Herod eventually would have been moved by John, but then Herod’s beautiful step-daughter emerges to dance for the king on his birthday. Herod is so tantalized that he pledges to Herodias that he will give her anything her heart desires. And she, who has colluded with her mother, says in reply, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Why does Mark tell this tale? It seems fit for a modern slasher film rather than the Gospel, but I don’t believe the story is included merely for its Hollywood shock value. It must be trying to teach Jesus’ disciples—and teach us—something. It shows up as an interlude in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, and its location may shed light on its purpose. This story appears in the narrative just after Jesus has sent the disciples out two-by-two to spread grace in the world. One intention of the story may be to offer the disciples caution: “Look what happened to John the Baptist. For those who follow Jesus, the same may occur. Be ready to pay the potential price for fidelity.”
But we also may be supposed to imagine ourselves in Herod’s shoes. This story may offer a window into how decisions are made in the world, and by contrast to Herod, how perhaps decisions should be made by people of faith.
Herod Antipas is faced with a situation in which his pledge to his step-daughter is at odds with his heart. He is faced, we might say, with a decision of law versus grace. He is, after all, the king, and he has decreed. A king’s word is law; his pledge is his bond. But Herod struggles because his experience of reality—in this case, his experience with the holy word preached by John the Baptist—suggests to him that acting against his pledge would be the more faithful thing to do. It’s impossible to know what the result would be of such action. It’s impossible to know how those around him, whose admiration, respect, and love he covets, would react if he denied Herodias and freed John. It’s impossible to know the response he would get outside the walls of his palace. And so, Herod denies grace and leans heavily on law. Mark says, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his pledge and his guests, he did not refuse Herodias.” Herod severs the head of John the Baptist and puts it on a platter.
The best teaching stories are clear cut, and this is surely one of those. We all know what Herod should have done. He should have thrown out his pledge, told Herodias to go to her room for asking for such an abhorrent trophy, and freed John the Baptist. The brush strokes of this story are in bold primary colors. For the reader, there are no shades of gray in this tale. The right decision for grace over law is easy. And so we take notice, and we remember it.
But while primary colors make for good teaching stories, they’re not always, or even usually, the way the real world is colored. In our lives, both personal and corporate, we face situations in which law and grace, the temporal and the spiritual, worldly reality and heavenly ideal, often mix black and white into shades of gray. How to act faithfully in the face of such complex situations is not always clear, and our decisions are made—God willing—with some fair measure of fear and trembling. To know how to apply the lesson of Herod and John in such situations requires deep and sometimes anguished prayer.
Even so, Mark gives us the story of Herod Antipas as encouragement to deny that the easiest and safest answer is necessarily the most faithful. Mark tells us this tale as caution that worrying overmuch about the reaction of those around us can lead us astray. Mark includes this story to remind us that humility and grace provide truer direction and grant us more support than leaning on law.
Of course, in our lives this work sometimes feels like the disciples being sent out into uncharted territory two-by-two with no staff, no map, and no money in our belts. It’s perplexing and scary. Pick your conundrum: Child-rearing, marriage, business decisions, political choices, or the church. Confidence in the right answers is hard to come by.
But those who paid attention to our first reading this morning will know that Herod’s decree is not the only pledge mentioned in scripture today. They’ll have picked up on the truth that it’s not our own decisions, not our own pledges in which we must have ultimate confidence.
In Ephesians, St. Paul reminds us of God’s pledge to us. It is a pledge in which law and grace never conflict, because God’s pledge is the law of grace. For our lectionary to place God’s pledge alongside Herod’s this day reveals to us just how small we human being are, and just how big God is.
What is God’s pledge to us? What is his promise? We know it, but listen again very carefully: Paul says, “In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavishes on us.” God will “in the fullness of time gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
This, Paul says, is the pledge God makes to us with the seal of his Holy Spirit. Regardless of whatever decisions we face in matters of the world or the church, regardless whatever differences, disagreements, or distinctions we encounter, God’s pledge, in the fullness of time, is to gather us all—to gather us all—to him. It is his pledge, and nothing we choose to do or not to do, that enables us to “set our hope on Christ.”
God’s pledge to us is unbreakable and true. And therefore, we have nothing ever to fear. We can lean on grace in our own decisions and rely on God’s promise ultimately to draw us—potential mistakes and all—to him.
With respect to complex decisions we make in the life of the church, hear this: We are one Body; we are one Church; we are one parish family—all of us—today, tomorrow, and in the fullness of time. Jesus Christ is the Lord of us, and we set our hope on him. Because of God’s pledge to us, there is no situation we can’t face together. And in the end, it will be that witness more than anything else that will cause people to look at us in this place and say, “There are the children of God’s inheritance. There are those who lean on grace. Whatever else they may be, they are most certainly the Church.”