7 Pentecost, Yr. B
July 12, 2015
Who is Jesus?
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be on a tour of Bath Abbey in England. In addition to the stunning gold and marble, stained glass and magnificent baptismal font, I noticed something else.
The Abbey’s brochure has two entire panels devoted to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Really? We need to tell people?
The explanation begins, “Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2,000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home.” Later the text continues, “He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.” (Bath Abbey www.bathabbey.org)
Not long ago, we wouldn’t need to explain. Now as our culture has changed so that secular life dominates and scriptural stories are not familiar, we no longer can assume that everyone knows Jesus.
If only John the Baptist were around, then we’d know. John spent much of his time (when he wasn’t dressing strangely or eating wild locusts and honey) pointing the way to Jesus – just as Jesus so often pointed to God.
John said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mt. 3:3) and “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” (Mt 3:12) John spoke with the voice of a prophet, and as we know throughout history, prophets risk much to speak truth – even their very lives.
We have varying associations and familiarity with John the Baptist. Some think of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Others may know Oscar Wilde’s drama “Salome,” which composer Richard Strauss used as the basis for an opera. If you’ve visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris you may have seen the marble sculpture, created in the year 1881 by artist Jean Dampt, of John as a young boy – knees bent, hands folded in prayer, and eyes gazing toward heaven.
Last week in England, the royal family celebrated Princess Charlotte’s baptism by Archbishop Justin Welby, the accounts all mentioning special water flown in from the River Jordan, where John baptized Jesus. Maybe today’s gory passage comes to mind, and we wonder if John was terrified or fearless in the face of death.
We enter Mark’s gospel account to find Herod fearful, imagining that John – whom he’d beheaded – had been raised. We can read John the Baptist’s beheading as a parallel story to Jesus’ own crucifixion and death.
We hear Mark’s typically sparse description of Herod’s birthday banquet amidst Herod’s lust and hunger for power. John’s preaching criticizes Herod’s adulterous lifestyle. When Herod’s daughter dances at the banquet, pleasing Herod and all the guests, Herod promises her anything she wishes, even half his kingdom.
The girl goes to her mother and says, “What should I ask for?” Her bloodthirsty mother, demonstrating The Great Parenting Fail, suggests she ask for John’s head on a platter. Can you even imagine?!
Just as this gospel passage depicts the brutality that humans bestow upon one another, we see also the greed and selfishness of human desires that value what we want in the moment over the life of another. Thus the mother’s desire, the daughter’s actions, and those of Herod lead to John the Baptist’s martyrdom.
It’s the stuff of drama – and a sad but realistic commentary on how much it’s human nature to want what we want, when we want it, with little concern for our neighbors. Love our neighbor as ourselves? We’ve got a long way to go.
Yet, a writer notes, the real theme here “is not the drama of life and death, love and hate…it is the confrontation of political power and prophetic faith.”
Prophets challenge power and complacency. They, like John the Baptist, point the way to Jesus. I believe that we have a prophet among us in the newly elected Presiding Bishop from North Carolina, Michael Curry, who will be installed at Washington National Cathedral on November 1st of this year.
Those gathered in Salt Lake City for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church experienced Bishop Curry as a powerful preacher, one who authentically hails the power of Jesus’ name. Episcopalians generally aren’t comfortable talking about Jesus in a personal way.
During the 2-hour process of four Presiding Bishop finalists answering question after question in the House of Deputies, Curry’s naming Jesus got the attention of Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement.
Gunn tallied and tweeted the number of times each candidate said “Jesus” and found a startling number of Jesus mentions for Bishop Curry. During the Sunday morning march against gun violence, where a procession of bishops through the streets was joined by some 1500 convention participants, Bishop Curry named poverty, racism, and violence as “the unholy trinity,” urging our focus and trust instead on the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Curry bid us to “Go.” “Go, out into the world; make disciples. Go where the fish are. Don’t wait for the fish to come to you.”
It’s a time for reinvigorating mission in the Episcopal Church. At General Convention, the budget for the next triennium passed with over 2 million dollars added in for evangelism, for making more disciples – as well as for stewardship, for the care of creation, and for the urgent, difficult work of racial reconciliation.
This is Jesus’ work. If we’re going to follow him, if we want to invite him more and more into our lives, then we’d better know who he is.
Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Good Shepherd; the Bread of Life which we share and for which we will in a few moments give thanks when we come together before the altar – despite our differences, or disenchantments with one another.
Bishop Curry said, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.” It’s a tall order. Who can do all that? We can begin, when we do not rely on ourselves alone.
John the Baptist – prophet, preacher and weird, locust-eating martyr – points the way for us to get there: he reveals Jesus, Light of the world, the one who “had no money, commanded no army, and wielded no political power.” It is this Jesus whose power is beyond human understanding, whom we are challenged to follow, and to whom we give honor, glory, and unending praise.
 Douglas John Hall in Feasting on the word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Yr. B, v. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 238.
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