Holy Communion 14th July 2018
John the Baptist - Truth to Power
Mark 6. 14 - 29
How do you make a point to a powerful leader when you think they need to be challenged? How do you face them with the consequences of who they are and what they do: their injustice, rampant narcissism, imprisonment of dissidents and opponents, their blatant immorality, their multiple marriages, their sexualisation of women, their alliances with the staggeringly dangerous and despotic, their abandonment of the proud traditions and founding documents of their nation?
You are with me, I’m sure. Herod Antipas was all these things. And, in the words of the Scriptures he would know, there is ‘nothing new under the sun’. So, one of the ways people made a point this weekend was to promise so much protest that Donald Trump basically avoided contact with the nation he was visiting. 23 years ago I was a new member of General Synod, and getting used to being in the centre of London. As I was walking to Church House one day, John Major and Bill Clinton were on the other side of the road, walking back from Westminster Abbey to Downing Street. Presidents have changed. London has changed. The nearest I got to Trump on Friday was his helicopter flying over from Windsor.
Herod Antipas was not the leader of the free world. But he had power over his people. He wasn’t a King, either, though he acted as such and was used in that way by his Roman patrons. They just got annoyed when he went to Rome and asked formally for the title, and exiled him to Gaul. His wife, Herodias, the cause of such trouble in our Gospel reading today, exercised great loyalty to him, and went with him into exile, though she was given the opportunity to stay. Herod had succeeded his father, Herod the Great. Go to Israel today and all the fabulous archaeological sites are Herod’s constructions. He made an impact, and his son revelled in it. You were meant to be daunted by the size and scale, just as we are daunted by the sheer power of POTUS and his military hardware.
How do you speak truth to such power? A quarter of a million people tried, and such public sentiment, especially when non violent, changes the atmosphere. Or you could become as powerful and weaponised as such a leader, and face them down. But adopting such power opens you up to similar corruption and abuse. What on earth will a Trump Putin summit be like? Today’s Gospel gives another option. Get under their skin. Be of such integrity and commitment and transparent desire for the truth that leaders desperate for affirmation, quick witted, and wanting every scrap of knowledge will want to download what you have. Come with nothing except a new way, which taps into the ancient ways.
Herod simply cannot resist John. He can’t pigeonhole him, can’t recruit him, hates what he says but won’t silence him. Power needs truth, and someone has to speak it. Truth does not need big money and shiny communications, does not need unlimited access and lobbying rights. It needs boldness and honesty and lack of fear. John knew what would happen. But truth needs to be spoken. And when it is, eventually, however much it gets smacked down and called fake and assassinated and despised, it will be heard.
One of the reasons I went to Israel and Palestine six years ago was because I wanted to understand the role of the place, the geography, and then the buildings, in the story of the Christian faith, the ministry of Jesus. The places of Christian significance are a bit of a mess really, a bit scruffy, often no more than caves with slightly shambolic buildings on top of them. Not like Herod’s dad’s places. But the powerful ones are long deserted. The little ones remain. It hit me that the issue was not the beauty of the buildings themselves, but what they commemorated and signified. Sometimes it was the unassuming humility and ordinariness and littleness which told a deep and powerful story.
Sebastia, in Samaria, is one such deserted site – a palace, forum and amphitheatre. Here it was that Herod’s successor will have listened to John the Baptist, and here that, after Salome danced and asked for his head on a tray, John, the speaker of truth to power, was laid to rest. He is commemorated in the palace compound by a tiny chapel, almost underground, with room for only two or three people at a time, cared for by the last Christian family in the village, part of a congregation in nearby Nablus numbering two hundred Anglicans among 600 Christians in a city of 160,000 people.
‘One is coming’, said John, ‘who is more powerful than I. I’m not fit to repair his shoes.’ It is not about us, not about our structures and cathedrals and churches and billions of pounds of investments and Bishops in the Lords, brilliant though they may be, but about the one to whom we point, like John the Baptist did. Our structures and buildings are only any good when they don’t rely on their power but preserve and express the theology and discipleship and aspiration of faithful Christians, and continue to preserve and express and make clear all of that by pointing to Christ.
I pray that our fellowship and community life and active proclamation of the Gospel will be such that we are such a place and people of holiness, forgiveness, healing and faith in Christ, and can speak the still small voice of truth to power, even to the powerful in the church. If, in Sebastia, one of the most powerful witnesses to Christ in the death of John the Baptist can be commemorated in a simple chapel in a ruined palace, then we can use whatever we have to point people to Christ. We find ourselves now in Hampstead not in a village out of town, like our predecessors, but at the heart of a world city with stunning wealth and power all around us, and within us. With no power John spoke truth. With great privilege here, we will trample all over his grave if we fail to do the same.
The Ephesian church was reminded in our Epistle reading that that they had heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and were marked with the Holy Spirit, given the power of God. In ourselves we are as powerless as John. With the truth, the gospel, the Holy Spirit….who knows?
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