The Way: Bloodshed [and Blindness] or Blessing [and Beloved]

TEXTS:  Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

We continue on The Way with Jesus Sunday-by-Sunday, day-by-day the journey goes and grows. Jesus does not call disciples to come and be impressed with what he is doing. Jesus makes disciples to become Jesus’ life and ministry in the world, to be Christ in the world.
Jesus forms them to carry on his ministry and mission. Hear the gospel continue in Mark.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in [Jesus].’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’

But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against [John the Baptist], and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected [John]. When [Herod] heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’  He solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ [Her mother] replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’  Immediately [the daughter] rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded [John] in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When [John’s] disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The Choice: The Way of Jesus or the way of empire – Mark 6:14-20

In the entire Bible, only twice is a birthday celebrated. Both are bloodshed not blessing. In Genesis Egypt’s Pharaoh celebrates his birthday by hanging his chief baker (40:20-22). Now early in Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ ministry another royal birthday bash is celebrated. It is one of the most gruesome scenes in the gospel.
It seems so far removed from us – both in historic time and spiritual geography. But is it? Does not this tragic scene pose precisely the choice we all face all of the time? Ok, so you and I aren’t under threat of getting our head cut off, at least not literally. It is what US Army Captain Foster warned could happen to us at the Iraqi border in Jan 2010. Captain Foster insisted on escorting us to Rutba with armored Humvees of the US Army. We declined. We had a choice: the way of bloodshed or the way of blessing. Military escort would have further endangered us and violated our purpose as a peace team. Our peaceful purpose for returning to Rutba was to thank those who cared for us in 2003. We wanted to be a blessing — to go to Iraq armed only with nonviolent love not weapons of war.

Jesus reveals our choice: bloodshed or blessing. Only one is The Way of Jesus: blessing.
This gruesome gospel of John’s beheading reveals the choice that is NOT The Way of Jesus. [I am indebted to Ched Myers’ commentary, Binding the Strong Man, pp. 214-17 for the following]. The gospel is told in two parts: first, speculation about Jesus as prophet; second, the back story. The insertion of this account of John the Baptist’s death in the gospel is an abrupt intrusion. Jesus has launched his ministry and that of the disciples in homelands and hinterlands. Jesus is becoming known far and wide – both loved and feared, with gratitude and threat.
People were speculating about Jesus being a prophet like Elijah or John or other prophets. Herod was overhearing and feeling threatened by what he was hearing. He knew that he had John beheaded. He had a conscience, but not enough to have chosen well.
Mark tells the gory backstory of John’s beheading at the hands of Herod. The story begins with a backstory to the backstory of John’s beheading. Herod had illegally married his brother’s wife.
John the Baptist gave Herod a message he didn’t want to hear: your marriage is “not lawful.” So Herod had John arrested and put in prison for his truth-telling trouble. How common is that story? Silence the messenger rather than stop the sin. Herod worries that Jesus is John resurrected: “John whom I beheaded has been raised.” That’s the backstory to the backstory. Now comes the birthday backstory.
Herod has a birthday and throws a birthday bash for himself. Guess who’s invited? Courtiers, officers, and leaders. Herod invites the usual suspects: the rich and powerful political, military, and economic leaders. Again how common is that scene in today’s world. There’s nothing new under the sun. A comic repetition stands at the center of the story: Herod’s oath twice told.
His daughter came in and danced to Herod and his guest’s great pleasure. In gratitude father told daughter, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’  He solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’
Daughter, uncertain what to ask for, goes to mother and asks what she should ask of father. Revenge is on mother’s mind; bloodshed not blessing is her choice. She “had a grudge against [John] and wanted to kill him” and calls for the Baptist’s head. Daughter rushes back to father with mother’s demand for John’s head. Now Herod is grieved but had made a twice-told oath: ‘Whatever you ask I will give you.’ Saving face means doing the ‘done thing’ rather than the ‘right thing.’
Herod like Herodias chooses bloodshed over blessing. He presumes to save his own head and honor by sacrificing an innocent head and honor. In this beheading the bloodshed of the sacrificial system grinds on in its chosen way. John’s disciples take his body and laid it in a tomb — foreshadowing Jesus’ coming crucifixion. Herod acts as if he has no choice but to keep an oath. Herod and we always face a choice – a choice greater than saving face.

This is the same choice posed so thoroughly across the Bible by Wes in Come Out My People. A choice between God and empire; between the way of death and the way of life. A choice for or against The Way of Jesus. The whole of Mark’s gospel poses that choice. Herod’s choice was for bloodshed and blindness. Jesus unveils that choice and offers us the choice of being blessed and beloved. To choose to be beloved and blessed means extending that beloved blessing to others. It is a choice that is continually discerned and lived.

If this gospel comes at it from a negative angle, the wrong choice; Paul offers a positive angle, the right choice. Paul is writing to the Christian community in Ephesus, greeting them with grace and peace. [I am indebted to Tom Yoder Neufeld’s commentary on Ephesians, BCBC, pp. 36-65 for the following].

Immediately Paul launches into an elaborate eloquent blessing of God’s beloved. In the original Greek Paul gives a long elaborate running-out-of-breath-blessing-God sentence. God’s creative purpose inspires us to worship God and leads us into holy living. Holy living is not pure or blameless living but living the choice God sets before us. Choosing to live as God’s blessed and beloved people. Yes to The Way of Jesus – The Way of the Beloved being blessed and being a blessing. No to blindness and bloodshed. “Blessed be God who blesses us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3).

We as a congregation have been in a long season of discernment. So far that discernment has focused on how we have been structured and will be structured. We have discerned a new structure which we are beginning to live into. What we are really living into is far more than a new congregational structure. We are living into an even more intentional way of listening to God together. We are listening to what God sets before us. A good word for this way of listening is discernment. Discern comes from a Latin word meaning to distinguish God’s voice from all the other voices. To discern well is a way of listening. We listen to God in the gospels, in creation, in prayer, in ourselves, in each other, in the Church. Today we have blessed a Leadership Discernment Committee to help us call some of you as members of this body of Christ to a new role on the Spiritual Leadership Team. Even more than that we have blessed this discerning Way of Jesus.

The current issue of Mennonite World Review has an editorial written by Sheldon Good. He wrote on: “The politics of the church: Discernment that’s worthy of the gospel.” Good begins with this claim: “Discernment is a cornerstone of the church. More than simply making decisions, we seek together what it means to be followers of Jesus” (MWR, 7/9/12, p. 4). He helpfully quotes Canadian Mennonite leader Jack Suderman, who has worked much on discernment in the Bible and the Church. Suderman reminds us that “Discernment should be ‘joyful and exciting’ and is a ‘non-ending, non-optional vocation.’” Sheldon Good and Jack Suderman remind us that discernment is central and continuous in the Church as a way of making and carrying out decisions for the life and ministry of the church. While it may seem tedious or tension-filled at times, it is “joyful and exciting!”

I believe we will be blessed and be a blessing in our discernment over the coming years. I believe we will even grow in the joy and excitement of discernment in the years ahead. In our discernment today’s gospel shows us what not to do – bloodshed. Today’s epistle shows us what to do as God’s beloved people in Christ – blessing. In this introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians Paul gives us this promise: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will, according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ” (Eph 1:8b-9).

Christ was the “young and fearless prophet” calling us to The Way of Jesus (Hymnal 374).
verse 1:  O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Your life is still a summons to serve humanity,
to make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

verse 2: O young and fearless Prophet, we need your presence here,
amid our pride and glory to see your face appear;
once more to hear your challenge above our noisy day,
again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.

May we keep growing as God’s beloved and blessed people “along God’s holy way.”