Christian Courage: A Sermon by Revd. Janet Bromley, 11th July 2021
Since I was ordained deacon in 1994 I have conducted hundreds of
baptisms – these are a wonderful if sometimes challenging part of the
work of a priest and deacon. I sometimes ponder on the ministry of John
the Baptist, who performed more baptisms than he could probably
remember, and am thankful that I am unlikely to end up imprisoned and
eventually executed as in this grotesque story we have just read from
Herod is one of those names, which we associate with evil; in the same
way as we regard Judas, Pontius Pilate, Stalin and Adolf Hitler. But the
Herod that we have just read about is not the one who ordered the murder
of all the infant boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the infant
Messiah. This Herod is his son, who seems to have inherited some nasty
character traits from his father.
This story of the beheading of John the Baptist seems to portray evil and
wickedness triumphing over good. Certainly the failure of Herod’s
guests to protest at what Herod, Herodias and Salome cooked up between
them really sheds light on the saying:
All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing
The story also seems to be about what happens when someone gives into
temptation – Herod gave in – in more ways than one – and John paid the
price. And it is certainly true, sadly that people can suffer as the result of
other people’s sins…… we can see this all too clearly in the plight of the
millions of refugees in our world today and our questionable attitude
towards asylum seekers too…… we can see it in the results of gun crime
in the USA and here…..we can see it in the world of addiction and of its
affect on whole families and communities.
But at the heart of the story is Christian courage…. the courage shown by
Christians who speak out boldly and strongly against evil and wickedness
in the world, whatever the cost in personal terms.
That kind of boldness is part of the cutting edge of the gospel – one
which seems sometimes to be very blunt in the UK today. Being a
Christian today is generally perceived as a comfortable, cosy and private
choice. The Church should keep out of politics and not comment on
lifestyle choices or political policies.
But that’s not the angle John the Baptist would have gone along with and
nor would Janani Luwum (pictured)
Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King. Janani
Luwum was Archbishop of Uganda in the days of Idi Amin, and was seen
as one of the most influential leaders of the modern church in Africa; he
spoke out vociferously against the evils of Amin’s dictatorship. Oscar
Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in Central America in the
late 1970s, he too spoke out against the evil and corruption in society.
And I don’t think I need to tell you about the civil rights work and
courage of Martin Luther King. Surely they were all right in their
boldness in speaking out – and if it was right in Uganda, San Salavdor
and the US – surely it is right here in the UK as well.
And like John the Baptist, Janani Luwum, Oscar Romero and Martin
Luther king were all murdered because of their outspokenness. Luwum
certainly at Amin’s instigation and Romero possibly on government
orders, which makes these two martyrs similar in their political context to
the story we have read today.
All this reminds us that being a baptised Christian, a true disciple and
apostle, is counter cultural. I often say to families bringing their babies
for baptism that what they are doing is counter cultural – because they are
publicly affirming that they believe in God’s gospel of love – and the vast
majority of people do not do that today. They and we are going against
the norms and values of society. Being a Christian is about obeying God
rather than men – it means serving a higher power. It means risking
opposition, ridicule, harassment, imprisonment, persecution and even
death: all for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This story of the beheading of John the Baptist still has the power to
repulse us, we are struck by the vindictiveness of the grudge feud
of Herodias and by the devastation caused by a weak Herod out of his
position of power. So why did Mark include this tale in his Gospel at all?
Perhaps it was to complete the story of John. Mark began his Gospel
with the voice crying in the wilderness, the messenger prophesied by
Malachi and Isaiah. The one who prepared for the coming of Jesus – the
one who baptised Jesus and so began the gospel movement. But this is
also the only incident in the whole of Mark’s Gospel, which does not
mention Jesus. Maybe Mark wants us to think about Jesus even as we
hear about the fate of John. For John’s death foreshadows that of Jesus.
Like Jesus, he was unjustly arrested. Like Jesus he was put to death by
men who knew that both John and Jesus were good men.
Like Jesus there were schemings behind John’s death. Like Jesus, John’s
disciples took John’s body and laid it in a tomb.
But unlike Jesus, John did not rise from the dead. The parallel is not
quite complete, there were rumours that John had risen from the dead,
even that Jesus was John…. but John’s body remained in the tomb.
Mark ends his Gospel with a tomb that is empty. That is the joy of the
Christian Gospel, the day of resurrection…
Christianity is not just about this life – the good news is that if we are
faithful and courageous in this life, God has the crown of glory for us in
the next life. We are not all called to be victims of corrupt governments
and the misuse of power, although some Christians throughout our world
have a much tougher time in their discipleship that we do. But we do all,
I imagine, want to receive the Crown of Life from the Lord, just as John
the Baptist did. That means that we too must be faithful and courageous
in our discipleship and be prepared to speak out against corruption and
I will finish with a prayer from one of the feasts of St John the Baptist:
who called your servant John the Baptist
to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death;
strengthen us by your grace
that, as he suffered for the truth,
so may we boldly resist corruption and vice
and receive with him the unfading crown of glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.