You know, some of the greatest stories the church has to tell come out of the most desperate and dismal of times. At the end of the second century the theologian Tertullian wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. What he meant by that was that the willingness of Christians to give up their lives, the ultimate gift, for what they truly believed in, was what gave the church the legitimacy and the power to thrive in a world and an empire where people had their pick of religions to follow.
Now, martyrdom is not exactly a popular topic in the modern day church. It’s violent and it’s dark and it’s frightening, and yet it’s a very real piece of our history and in some parts of the world today it’s a very real piece of the lived experience of Christian communities. I’ve known people in Egypt, in Pakistan, who’s churches were bombed as part of a cultural, religious, and political statement. We might not like to talk about it but there’s still a powerful draw there, there’s still something captivating about someone willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for what she or he believes in. It’s everywhere in our media, the idea of someone who’s willing to give up their life for something they believe in that deeply, or for someone they care about that powerfully.
The Christian attention to martyrdom begins, of course, with the story of Jesus himself, with the story of the cross and the lengths he’s willing to go to for the love of the world. It continues on through the story of Stephen, the first martyr of the church who was stoned for preaching the good news in Jerusalem, or St Sebastien, who was willing to live as a Christian in the Roman Army during a time of persecution, or St Lawrence who, when ordered to hand over the riches of the church to the emperor, gathered up the most neglected members of the city, the poor and the infirm, and presented them as the true treasure of the church. We have figures like St Catherine who bested the top scholars of the emperor’s court and was executed for it, or figures like the Brothers of Melanesia who were so committed to peaceful coexistence that they served as intermediaries between warring factions in times of huge upheaval.
The story of the church is filled with women and men who were courageous in the face of adversity, who were brave when everything around them became complicated and confusing and frightening. And yet all of them were inspired by the life and witness of this one itinerant preacher from Nazareth.
BLAME AND GUILT
It’s a stark contrast from what we heard last week when Jesus returned to his home town and could only carry out the smallest acts of power because the people there simply didn’t believe that someone they knew could have achieved something so great.
This week we’re given another antagonist, another person to stand against the figure of Jesus and everything he represents, his dedication and that of his followers to the mission entrusted to them by God. We get this flashback story of King Herod as he gives in to his fear and his insecurities and takes the life of the prophet, John the Baptist.
The beginning of the story almost paints Herod in a sympathetic light. For some unknown reason Herod and John the Baptist seem to have some sort of relationship. Herod listens to John and he even seems to sympathize a little bit with John’s complaints about what he’s been up to. And yet, when Herodias his wife turns to him and demands that he do something about the prophet, he immediately gives in. And it seems to me that maybe this is the point Mark is trying to get across. It’s not that Herod is this evil monster or that he’s this murderous villain like his father was, it’s the fact that he’s weak, that he lets his fear get the best of him and he gives in to the temptation to violence in order to protect his reputation and his relationships and his status and his authority and his power in the world.
WHO IS JESUS?
Herod, after all, is the king, he’s the puppet king with all the power and all the authority, and yet all of it balances so precariously on the words of this street preacher from the desert. Compare him with Jesus and the disciples who have no home. Jesus just sent them out two by two with no money, no second tunic, or any comforts of home. And yet the one thing they had in abundance, which Herod was so clearly lacking, was integrity. They wore their convictions like armour and they followed through with the path that lay before them, no matter what criticisms were lobbied against them and no matter what powers stood in their way.
This story’s interesting because it’s the only story in Mark’s gospel account that doesn’t even mention Jesus, and yet the entire story seems to revolve around this one question: who is Jesus? Jesus is the antithesis of Herod. He’s the one who inspires the kingdom movement, the one John is willing to live and die for, the one who takes nothing for himself but who gives to all those who just trust that he can do the things he says he can do. If Herod is the one who capitulates to his fears and his insecurities Jesus is the one who embraces them and then keeps going, growing louder and bolder the closer he gets to the centres of power in Jerusalem.
LIFE IN JESUS’ WAY
The story of Jesus of Nazareth, that preacher from that tiny backwater town, is the counterpoint of courage and bravery that Herod never had. It’s the ability to hold fast to his convictions, even when he was being criticized by his mother and brothers, by his neighbours, by the religious and political authorities alike. Jesus’ strength was his ability to trust in the promises of God and in the work that had been set before him, and that’s exactly what life in the kingdom of God is all about.
Life in the kingdom is life built on a faith that believes that the principles and virtues given to this world by a just, merciful, and loving God, are worth far more than social standing, or wealth, or power, or authority, and it’s a life that willing to act on that belief. It’s being willing to stand up with courage in the face of adversity and to claim, even with trembling voices, that life can overcome death, and love can overcome violence.
Our world today is still full of the sorts of fears that Herod gave into. They might come in different guises and different forms but they’re still there all the same. John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness crying out comes to us today in the faces of migrants seeking asylum and a better life, he comes to us in the face of the homeless who simply want to be accorded the most basic dignities of life, the ability to survive in this world. He comes to us in the face of the hungry and the neglected who aren’t simply objects for our pity, but who are the voices reminding us of our humanity and calling us back, over and over again, to life in the kingdom of God.
It takes eyes to see life through this lens, eyes that have been trained to look at the world in a particular way. It takes repetition and it takes dedication and it takes courage to claim with John, and the disciples, and Jesus himself, that death has no dominion over life and love. And so let us stand boldly, for the kingdom of God is all around us, and Christ who breaks open our hearts with love will guide us all our way.