A sermon preached by David Barton
Well. There is a gory story for you. It comes to us as scripture, but that doesn’t stop it being gory! John the Baptist’s head on a plate! It a reading where saying “This is the gospel of The Lord” after it doesn’t seem quite right!
But let’s have a look. Actually, it’s not a mistake by Mark. They are fifteen very deliberate verses. But it’s part of a much longer train of thought, that links with what goes before and after. The real problem is the way in which the gospels get cut up for Sunday readings. Passages get taken out of context. That’s particularly the case here.
Immediately before this – and it’s the bit that was last week’s reading – Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission giving them authority over the unclean spirits. Don’t forget: unclean spirits and demons are the outward expression of the trauma people experienced under the cruelty of Roman rule.. The Romans had very few troops in Palestine. So they ruled by terror. If they suspected trouble they thought nothing of moving into a village, destroying it and crucifying half the male population in the fields around. Inevitably people were traumatised, and the symptoms were described in terms of demon possession. And that connects with this passage. Herod was a puppet of the Romans. He acted in the same way. He’d murdered his way to power.
Jesus knows all this. He was a Galilean after all. He seems to have been able to communicate with people at a deep level, giving to troubled minds something of his own sanity and power and grounding in God. His healing seems to be about people rediscovering themselves as a sane person again – somehow encompassing the trauma. Jesus now passes over some of that ability to his disciples. They access that power for themselves. They go out and they heal, and they come back and they report it all to Jesus in amazement. And this is a rare moment of success for the disciples. From now on Mark tells us of their constant failure to understand Jesus’ purpose and, in the end, their inability to stand by him. But here, at the beginning, they are utterly in tune with him. And after they have reported it all to Jesus, he takes them to the hills of Galilee to pray and reflect on it.
This gory story comes exactly in the middle of that: between the going out and it’s success and the disciples returning to tell Jesus everything that has happened. It’s told as a sort of flashback. On one level it’s giving context to what they are doing. But Mark also writes for his later readers too. This is the tough world they have to face. Governance is erratic, authorities are not to be trusted. The result of poor governance – at any level – is always that it drains everyone’s energy, sucks the life out of people. It always does. Here that is writ large: Herod deals in death. Remember God’s proposition in the Book of Deuteronomy? Here I set before you life and death. Therefore choose life. This is a story of death. But……..over against that, Jesus brings life. Abundant life, rolling back trauma and darkness. And it’s is there for the taking and the sharing, if only we grasp it. That was the discovery the disciples’ made on their mission.
This stark contrast is typical of Mark. His gospel is lean, spare. There are no frills. And this story, I think, fits with something that is very particular to Mark’s gospel. Mark gives us no account of the resurrection of Jesus. I know all our bibles have two possible endings – one long, another short. But those are written much later to compensate for the fact that this gospel ends so abruptly. Mark tells us that the women come to Jesus’ tomb and find it empty. A young man, perhaps an angel, tells them Jesus has been raised and they are to tell Peter and the others to go back to Galilee. And then the women flee the tomb in amazement, and they say nothing, because they are afraid. And at that point the gospel stops.
Don’t think that Mark is not interested in the resurrection, because he very much is. But I think he is more interested in our discovery of resurrection life, than in telling his readers about other people’s experiences of resurrection. And this gospel has many references to resurrection – including here. Herod makes a guess at just who Jesus is – and it’s a near miss. It’s not John who is the risen one, it will be Jesus. “Go back to Galilee,” says the angel. Well, this is Galilee. This is where the disciples discovered the compassion of Christ flowing through their own words and their hands. They hardly knew Jesus at that point. But they knew deep in themselves that he spoke the words of life and they put nothing in the way of it flowing into their lives.. That moment was surely resurrection life. And Mark is surely signalling that when he puts those words into the mouth of Herod.
So what do we, Mark’s readers now, make of this? What is this resurrection life Mark longs for us to find? Well, there are times when, in ordinary everyday events, the choice suddenly becomes very clear – between speaking or doing something on the side of life, rather than something much more dark and shadowy. Even in the choice of the words we use, in some cases. Jesus lived a life totally marked by compassion. But watch him and listen to him carefully, and you realise it’s not just a matter of being kind. He tells us that when we give a cup of water to a stranger, we are doing it to him. That’s more than generosity or kindness. Jesus asks us to see the person, pushing beyond kindness to catch a glimpse of who it is who asks for this, and why. That kind of challenge to chose life, that kind of life, and be on the side of that life is always in front of us.
And there is more waiting for us here. In the section immediately after this story Mark tells us of the feeding of the five thousand. There are only five small loaves and two small fish. But everyone is satisfied and there are baskets of crumbs left over. We need to understand that we live always on the cusp of a miracle. We treat life as if it were prose, and perhaps it has to be sometimes. But the poetry of things, the God given miracle of things is always waiting to break through.
And on the journey that Jesus sent the disciples on, they discovered that they too were part of the miracle. And that is the bit we always leave out. You and I are part of God’s miracle waiting to break through. Givers of grace to one another. We should not forget it, even if we can hardly believe it.
And there is one last point in this unexpected story. This account of John’s death is a parallel to the trial of Jesus before Pilate and Jesus death. Herod and Pilate are similar characters: arrogant but weak and easily swayed. Both choose the side of death, when they would rather not. But there the parallel ends. Notice that poignant last line of the gospel: John’s disciples take his body and lay it in a tomb. Mark can’t write that of Jesus’ disciples: they have all fled. Mark never lets us forget how poor we all are at Christian discipleship.
And yet………in a few moments we will remember how Jesus took the bread and the wine on the night before he died and gave it to a bunch of people who he knew were going to do just that – betray him and fail. But he gave them the miracle of himself and who they were to be, nonetheless. “This is me, this is what I am like,” he says. “Take, eat.” He does not abandon us. Think of this simple gift of bread and wine as the vitality of creation and Christ himself, gifted to us. We can do what we have to do, whatever the circumstances.