Beheading John the Baptist
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The lesson in today’s readings about Herod’s step-daughter dancing in front of him gives us a simple lesson and a short sermon. It is a lesson that ultra-righteous Christians have been trying to teach us for over a hundred years. Here it is: the momentary joy of a dance leads to evil. So, put away your dancing shoes and don’t look back. Amen.
Of course that is not really the message. But it would make dealing with this passage a lot easier.// This is not a Bible passage for children either. When I was a child it terrified me because one of the art books my mother had included the famous Caravaggio painting depicting the gruesome scene. I had such a visceral reaction that I did not want to go to sleep that night because I was afraid I would have a nightmare. Perhaps because I saw that painting in the mid-1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, the way that injustice could swiftly happen struck a big nerve. There is no denying that this passage from Mark gives a vivid account of a horrific injustice. In unjust regimes, injustice seeps into every corner and atrocities like that can occur.
Herod’s story is the story of a spineless leader who trapped himself in his own insecurity and vanity. What we do not hear in the Mark passage, but people of that time would have known is that Herod was on politically shaky ground. He had enemies. One enemy was his first father-in-law, a powerful king whose territory bordered Herod’s. He was not happy that his daughter was put aside by Herod in favor of Herodias. His other enemy was his fellow Jews in Galilee where he ruled. They did not like him because he was in league with the Romans. Their loyalty to him was in doubt because by marrying Herodias, he broke two major commandments in Leviticus that regulated family integrity and sexual behavior. So what does Herod do? To paper over his insecurity, he plays the part of the magnanimous powerful ruler. In front of influential guests at his own birthday banquet, after he and his guests delighted in his step-daughter’s sensuous dance, he made an over-the-top offer to her and backed it up with a vow. When she asked for John the Baptist’s head according to her mother’s request—and her mother hated John—Herod was trapped in the trap his vanity built. Should he go back on his vow because he knew that killing John would be wrong? Or, should he have John killed at that instant so that he would not look weak in front of the notables? He really didn’t want to kill John. We hear that Herod liked to listen to John’s preaching. He considered John a righteous man. The text also says that Herod “was greatly perplexed” by John—perplexed in the sense that he was in awe of John. But, Herod fell prey to his own vanity. Just as he would not take the step to follow John, he would not take the step to prevent John’s death.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus comes before Herod, and again Herod has the chance to save the life of a righteous man—to convert an injustice into justice—but he doesn’t. He doesn’t get who Jesus is. He wants Jesus to perform a miracle for him. Not really a miracle, but something more like magic. And Jesus does not deliver because God is not a magician.
Herod doesn’t get who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. He rules out the possibility that anything new is happening with this man Jesus. Herod would rather acknowledge his own guilt in killing John and believe that Jesus is John come back from the dead than believe that something really new, life-changing, and world-changing is happening with this man Jesus. Herod would rather believe that Jesus is John come back from the dead than admit he wants and needs grace—God’s grace, not a cheap imitation which is really no grace at all. Herod would rather continue to live as a guilty man in bondage to injustice, with all of its perils and pain, than as a man who is free in conscience and soul because he has submitted to God in grace.
I am put in mind of a distinction made by the great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, he distinguished between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is believing you are forgiven but without repenting. And that is absurd. Cheap grace is believing in baptism but never engaging in such Christian disciplines as prayer, communal worship, Bible study, or service. And that is absurd because how can you upholdl your vows be real unless you do them? You don’t have to do them brilliantly or better than anyone else. The vow is to do them. Cheap grace is receiving communion and being in communion but without confession. That, too, is absurd. To be in communion with God and your neighbor means to get rid of the obstacles between you, and to do that you have say that there are obstacles there in the first place—that is confession. Cheap grace is like standing on the side of a swimming pool, admiring the water, having a good time watching all the other people swimming, but not going in yourself and getting wet. Cheap grace is grace without Jesus Christ, without the cross, without resurrection, without transformation. It is not living in grace at all. It is living as if God doesn’t really matter.
Costly grace is the opposite. It is grace with and through Jesus Christ. It is the cross, resurrection, and transformation. Costly grace is costly because it involves vulnerability. Grace is what we receive, not what we get. That is why it is so important in Holy Communion that we open our hands to receive the elements of bread and wine. I remember when I was in my first year of seminary, a third-year student who was teaching me how to serve Communion said emphatically, “Do not let your people grab.” Although I thought that seminarian was a little harsh, the deeper point was clear: grace is not a self-serve product that you can take or leave at your convenience. You receive grace; it is offered to you; it changes you.
Contrary to what some of our ultra-Calvinist friends might think, it is true that you can resist grace. Herod is a good case in point. You can resist grace. But, because grace is a form of God’s love, it is always seeking you. You can resist, but God doesn’t quit.
And when you accept grace, it changes you. That is an important aspect of the costliness. And, we know that friends and family don’t always like us when we change. Think of how especially uncomfortable people would be, even your dearest family, if you started telling them that you changed because of God’s grace. Yet, the hope of such change is not misplaced. I knew of a man who asked his father why he always went to church on Sunday. The father said, “Son, I hope that I will be so changed that people will hardly recognize me.” That is the hope of being changed from glory into glory by grace. Costly grace means following Jesus, being Christ’s disciple. As we know, that can get you into trouble. And we know this happens. It’s no secret that Dorothy Day lived the life of costly grace. It’s no secret that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero lived the life of costly grace.
Usually when we think of costliness, we think of risk, especially the risk of losing our lives. But when it comes to costly grace that is not the whole story. When we are Christ’s disciples and lead lives of confession and repentance, grace comes as comfort and healing to the broken spirit. To the remorseful heart, grace comes as forgiveness and acceptance. To the anxious mind and troubled soul, grace comes as peace. It is then that transformation happens. St. Paul put it best in his Second Letter to the Corinthians when he said we are “new creations” in Christ. There is nothing “cheap” or halfway about grace because there is nothing cheap or halfway about God. Amen.
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