By the Rev. Darren Miner
As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
Then, we come to the account of the royal birthday party. And what a strange party it turns out to be! Herod, who styles himself a mighty king although he is in fact only a puppet of the Romans, invites the toadies and yes-men of the royal court to a stag party. And like every stag party, there is entertainment—in this case, an erotic dancer. The real shocker is that the dancer is none other than Herod’s teenage step-daughter.
Evidently, she was a particularly pleasing dancer, for the besotted Herod boastfully promises to grant her whatever she asks, up to half his kingdom. Unsure what to ask for, she ducks out of the party to consult with her mother. And upon her return, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. Having made a solemn vow in the presence of his courtiers, Herod feels obliged to comply, lest he lose face. So John is beheaded, and his head is served up to Herod’s wife on a dinner platter, as if it were a rare delicacy. With regard to Herod and his family, this is a tale of perversity, braggadocio, and utter cruelty. With regard to John the Baptist, this is a tale of the terrible price of being a prophet, of the cost of speaking unpleasant truth to unbridled power. Any way you look at it, this Gospel story is just plain Bad News.
Fortunately for us here today, there is some Good News in the Letter to the Ephesians. This letter is classified by biblical scholars as one of the “disputed letters” of St. Paul. The dispute in question is whether Paul wrote it himself or one of his disciples wrote it in his name. In any case, the theology is undoubtedly that of Paul. The English text before us today is presented as a series of several discrete sentences and is almost intelligible. But this is deceptive. In the original Greek, the entire paragraph is one monstrously long run-on sentence and requires quite a bit of unpacking.
The main point of the paragraph is to provide a comprehensive affirmation of God’s grace. In particular, it deals with what theologians call “prevenient grace,” that is to say, the grace that God offers us without our asking for it and without our deserving it. The author of this letter, whether St. Paul or his disciple, reassures us Christians that we are blessed in Christ and that we were chosen for that blessing before the foundation of the world. (Here we are getting into the vexed question of predestination. And frankly I don’t want to go there today!) It is enough for us to know that our status as disciples of Christ is more a gift from God than it is the result of any decision of our own, free will notwithstanding. As disciples of Christ, we receive grace upon grace. In Christ, we have been redeemed from slavery to sin and death. In Christ, we are made adopted sons and daughters of God. In Christ, we are destined for eternal life in God’s presence. (And not just us! For in the fullness of time, God will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.) And all that is expected of us in return for all this grace is that we walk in love. Now that’s some pretty unforgettable Good News!
But being only human, we forget it anyway, especially when the burdens of life are weighing us down. Perhaps we have money problems, or work problems, or issues with our health or with the health of a family member. Or perhaps we are stressed out over the state of the nation. In the midst of such worries and anxieties, we can, and do, fail to remember the “big picture.” The Letter to the Ephesians is a salutary reminder of that big picture, of what the church is all about. When all is said and done, the church is not about concerts, and bazaars, and book sales (although these all serve a useful purpose), nor is it about increasing membership and balancing the budget (although I would like to see both happen). Instead, the point of the church is to come together to offer thanks to our Heavenly Father for the Good News of our salvation, to learn the mystery of his will, and then to endeavor to carry it out, no matter the personal cost.
May God, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” give us the strength and courage to carry out his will in our day as faithfully and as fearlessly as did St. John the Baptist in his day. Amen.
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.