s127g00 Somerton Park 16/7/2000 Sunday 15

"When Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." Mark 6:16

It is salutary for me to realise that, of all the characters in the New Testament, the one we probably know most about, with all his faults and foibles, strangely enough, is King Herod. But when one comes to think about it, it is hardly surprising, for the personal life of Kings and Queens, and especially their marital infidelities, are the subject of popular gossip (and no doubt gross exaggeration) to this day. Our passage for our gospel reading would be worthy of our modern gossip columnists. Just as well they didn't have cameras then :-) Who would want to be a member of the royal family? I doubt whether any of us could ever appreciate the pressures they live with every hour of the day and night.

I was interested to hear someone suggesting recently that Prince William should be allowed to "let his hair down" as he moves from Eton. One wonders whether the same advise would have been offered if William was the son of the person giving the advise, or whether the same advise would be given if that child was female?

We are told that Herod feared John the Baptist, and despite having him imprisoned, protected him. He liked to listen to John's words, though the message perplexed him. When he had to honour his rash oath to his daughter, he was deeply grieved.

We are given a picture of a man, ruled by his affection for his wife and daughter, and of course, led astray by that affection. In a walk of life other than one so much in the public spotlight, he may well have been little different from you or I.

My text for today is Herod's response to the question of who he thought Jesus was. Herod's answer was that he was John the Baptist raised. In the depths of his grief and self-loathing, he believed that Jesus was John the Baptist, now returned, no doubt to torment him further.

We can be quick to dismiss this answer as wrong, but perhaps it might be instructive to think that this answer was right, at least for Herod. As far as he was concerned, the efforts of his wife and daughter to get rid of John the Baptist whose accusations had been to them a constant irritation and affront, had failed. Whoever this Jesus was, Herod most likely assumed that events would now surely repeat themselves and he would be forced to execute another "holy" person, against his better judgement.

Of course John the Baptist had criticised Herod for his marriage to his brother's wife, and he and we assume that this is what religious people do - go around criticising the faults and foibles of those unfortunate enough to be in public office - in public office either through wealth, election, appointment or ability. Herod assumed that Jesus would do precisely the same. And often I see people in the Church who think that they have a perfect right to continue this criticism of others, in high office or not. Certainly the world still considers that this is the main preoccupation of the Church. And I wonder: "Whither the Good News?" But I have no cause to wonder: "Whither the congregations?" The answer to that is clear.

I want for the moment to consider the effect of the perpetuation of this paradigm of ministry - criticising others. Firstly: good and competent people will not seek public office. Secondly: the Church will (not without considerable justification) be hated, and any good news, if we actually do have some to impart, will never be heard. Thirdly: society will become increasingly isolated and fragmented, one from another. I see the modern antisocial behaviour among quite ordinary competent people a direct result of the non-acceptance of people in the "Church" as well as in society at large. There is little wonder that ordinary people are loathe to be committed, though of course this is not just to the Church.

But the good news is of course that Herod was mistaken. Jesus didn't come to criticise Herod over his marriage. It is inconceivable that Jesus was unaware of this issue, but on the one occasion when Jesus "enjoyed" Herod's hospitality, it was the chief priests and the scribes who spent the time vehemently accusing Jesus. Herod managed to get in some questions, to which, we are told, Jesus did not reply. We have no record that Jesus took the initiative and the opportunity to raise the matter of Herod's lifestyle or the execution of John the Baptist. (Luke 23:6-12)

Indeed of course we have the picture of the religious authorities, who logically would have had similar concerns with Herod's morality as the Baptist, instead enlisting the aid of Herod to get rid of Jesus. Jesus called into question their position of power over ordinary people.

We cannot say that Jesus was crucified for following in John the Baptist's footsteps.

No, the Good News is that Jesus did not come to bring Herod's sins, many though they might have been, home to him. Herod, like most of us too, do not need to be reminded of the things that we have done wrong. Herod, like most of us, do not need to be shown how to amend our lives. He, like we also, are not likely to thank those who do so. Jesus came to bring acceptance and forgiveness.

The Cross is the logical extension of the way Jesus went about his life and ministry to real people. He accepted people as they were. In so doing Jesus encouraged them to accept themselves for who they were, and to accept others for who they were too.

The Cross is not the ultimate stick or carrot to shame us into doing something with our sins. I mean what actually can we do about them anyway? We can do nothing about our sins ourselves, except where it is possible to ask the forgiveness of those we have offended and endlessly berate ourselves for doing what we did, or endlessly berate ourselves for being found out. God forgives us for our sins. God has forgiven us for them already. God does not deal with humanity any more graciously since the Cross and Resurrection than before. To suggest different, that God did not forgive as readily before Jesus, is to make God unjust to all those who lived before Jesus, and that simply cannot be the case. The Cross and Resurrection are surely about helping us to put things behind us, to move along in life and, most importantly, to accept others, in the same way as we have been accepted.

It is a quite regular experience of clergy to find people "shy away" from them. It is as if people think we have extra-sensory perception, that we have access to the heavenly ledger, that we know everything they have done wrong, and that we are just waiting to criticise them for those wrongs. Even if they haven't done anything particularly serious, people assume we will be critical because they don't come to Church. How wrong can people be?

For the general reaction that ordinary people had to Jesus was quite different from this. Jesus was readily welcomed into the homes of 'ordinary' people. The 'welcome' was much less cordial in the homes of the 'religious' people. If our theology and ministry practice does not lead to this same outcome, then something is seriously wrong with our theology and our practice of ministry.

And the same theme is evident in the reading from the Old Testament for today, where Amos prophesies against 'the high places of Isaac', 'the sanctuaries of Israel' and 'King Jeroboam'. Had he prophesied in the land of Judah, in the countryside from which he came, the ordinary people who heard Amos would surely have agreed with his assessment of the high and mighty.

Sometimes fighting ones way through the words of scripture is fairly difficult. In the passage from the letter to the Ephesians we heard read as our epistle for today, the central core of the mystery is 'to gather up all things' - a plan for the fullness of time. We and all people are to be gathered in, unless we resist because others will be gathered in with us also. This is precisely the opposite of the isolation and fragmentation that I see happening in society as a direct result of people, both inside and outside the Church, being critical of others.


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