Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
16 July 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Cost of Discipleship
Based on St. Mark 6: 14-29
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Today’s text comes as a surprise. In telling that Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee had heard of Jesus and the disciples’ great deeds of holy power, the gospel of Mark says,that Herod thought that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Wait a minute! Since when is John dead? And beheaded? When did all this happen? We haven’t heard about John since chapter one and it is now chapter six of the gospel. Nothing has been mentioned of John after he baptizes Jesus, except that John that has been jailed. We don’t even know why John was jailed. The gospel writer finally tells us the backstory, almost as an afterthought. It is as if Mark has just noticed the confused looks on the faces of the hearers of the story.
Herod liked John. Now before I go much farther, lets get this out of the way—this is not the same Herod that went after baby Jesus and had all the infants in Bethlehem murdered, nor is it the Herod who later had St. James and other disciples executed. This Herod, Herod Antipas, was son of the former and father of the latter. Obviously there is something seriously wrong with this family. Nonetheless, Herod Jr. liked John. He was interested in what John had to say, and truly thought he was a holy man. That is until John said something that Herod didn’t like. John challenged Herod for having killed his brother Phillip and then married his brother’s wife, Herodias. The problem here is that as inspired by John’s words as Herod was, he wasn’t willing to be transformed by them, for John called primarily for repentance. John has the prophetic audacity to challenge his ruler, the audacity to challenge the status quo. He directly commands Herod to give up his sinful relationship with Herodias. Herodias has no intention whatsoever to give up her power as the wife of the ruler of Galilee and thusly wants John killed. But Herod reveres John, and even fears him because of his righteousness, and does not want to kill John. So Herod responds like many a ruler to an agent of change, a disrupter of false peace, by banishing John, jailing him. It is important to note though, that the text makes clear that Herod also protected John the Baptist, most likely from Herodias’ wrath.
On the evening of his birthday, Herod gave a celebratory banquet. A young girl, known popularly as Salome, did the dance of seven veils for Herod’s enjoyment. Like many of the others in the royal court, Herod found the dance titillating and enchanting. But, unlike the others enjoying her dance, he was her uncle. Nonetheless, Herod was so taken with her provocative dance that he told her, “Ask for whatever you wish and I will give it.” Herodias, the girl’s mother convinced her that John’s head was the proper gift. So the girl asked for it. This gave Herod great sorrow—yet he was a man of his word, and ordered one of his officials to behead John.
That is the story we hear as a flashback from Mark. Herod is still afraid of John even after his beheading, suspecting that Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist. Ironically, John was thought to be the risen prophet Elijah. So, perhaps according to Herod, Jesus was really Elijah, once removed. The relationship between the cousins John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth is an important and intriguing one. We have very little information about the relationship from the gospels. James Tabor in The Jesus Dynasty, speculates about Jesus and John being partners in a movement.
There is a striking parallel between the story of Jesus and of John, as well as between Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate. Both Herod and Pilate were sympathetic to these revolutionaries. Perhaps both heard truth in the messages of Jesus and John. But, again neither was changed by the message. Pilate and Herod both find themselves forced to condemn the men. In trying to rid himself of guilt, by saying that he washed his hands of the matter, Pilate finds blood on his hands. Herod, as well is plagued with guilt, and afraid that Jesus is John risen from the dead.
John the Baptist and Jesus had the boldness and daring to challenge authority. They spoke truth to power to rulers of faith and government. When these rulers said, “Peace, peace; peace and prosperity,” Jesus and John replied, “You say peace, peace, but there is no peace” because there is no justice. There can be no peace when there is no justice. By challenging the status quo, the ruling class, the commonly held beliefs, Jesus and John risk everything, and leave behind any promise of prestige, honor, reputation, and respectability among the elite.
Rev. John Thomas asked the 24th General Synod of the United Church of Christ in 2003, “Do we love Jesus more than the lure of respectability?” What former UCC President Thomas asks is this: do we care more about being faithful to the call of Christ than the respect and honor and power of the world? Too many Christians often forget that the call of Christ is not to be popular, but to be faithful. Are we willing to risk every earthly pleasure for the sake of the gospel? Or do we care too much about being mainline, mainstream, reputable, conventional, and respectable? Are we willing to take the difficult position that might make us unpopular and excluded; the position that threatens unity? That is the way John the Baptist prepared us for. Anglican John Pridmore says
Calvary is many places. Calvary is Auschwitz, where the frail Franciscan Maximilian Kolbe offered his life for another prisoner. Calvary is the cellar in Kampala, where Archbishop Janani Luwum perished at the behest of the tyrant he had challenged. Calvary is the altar of the hospital chapel in San Salvador at which Oscar Romero was assassinated. Calvary is the dungeon beneath the Machaerus fortress where the Baptist was beheaded. These are famous Calvaries, but there are countless others, where those who will never be canonised died so that “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” might be completed (Colossians 1.24).
The disciples knowing the story of John the Baptist saw a glimpse of what was demanded them. They had a view of where their discipleship might lead them. The twelve had just begun healing and transforming lives. In the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ, we declare that we “accept the cost and joy of discipleship.” The disciples had just had their first taste of the joy of discipleship, that joy that Jesus brought to their lives and the lives of others. But the story of John tells them of the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and martyr, in 1937 wrote his landmark work The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer in this work writes at length about what the discipleship must cost the follower, bemoaning what he called ‘cheap grace’:
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? …Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer speaks is the grace that Herod and Pilate desired, and the grace, which many a Christian desires. Herod and Pilate liked what Jesus and John said until they challenged the arrangement of the Kingdom, rearranging it, putting the rulers on the bottom. They wanted grace without turning from the way of sin; forgiveness without repentance. The joy of discipleship is the Christian’s delight, but too many shirk from the cost. The disciples see in John the Baptist and eventually from Jesus where they are being called. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer says:
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which He speaks as it pleases Him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow Him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and My burden light.”
So with the disciples we hear what discipleship may require of us, what grace costs. Are we like Herod and like what the prophet and messiah say, but want to remain content in the status quo or like the disciple who risks being an outcast in order to be faithful? Jesus bids us this moment, “Come my child, and follow me.” May we be able to say, “Yes, Lord, I know not where you will lead me, but I leave behind my boat and nets and follow only you.”
John Thomas: Imagine, a tale of two ships
John Pridmore: This Sunday’s readings: 5th Sunday after Trinity, Church Times
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Testament to Freedom, Discipleship