Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Gospel reading Mark 6.14-29
It’s a nightmare for King Herod.
Sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, he has been hearing what Jesus has been doing ‘up North’ in the backwater of Nazareth and in and around Galilee, healing people, performing miracles and proclaiming the Kingdom, and overwhelming love, of God.
It’s a nightmare because people are saying that John the Baptist - who Herod had murdered - was raised from the dead and active again.
As we heard, Herod, found John intriguing but frightening: John was clearly good and spoke the truth but he aimed the truth at Herod.
Herod was a tyrant, murderer and incestuous adulterer. And John called him out.
John the Baptist is, of course, our patron saint. Just a couple of weeks ago our focus was on his example and prayer as a patron saint as we celebrated his birth, but now it is his death we have heard about.
In life as in death John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lamb of God who is slain by the powers of this world.
In so doing we find that this gospel reading tells us a huge amount about the conflicts and machinations of the human heart, that, if not restrained and well-directed, issue in violence and ultimately murder.
This was understood by the hugely influential French-American philosopher and anthropologist, René Girard. Girard, a Christian, who died some 6 years ago, was fascinated by the links between violence and religion. Girard saw the Bible as naming and unveiling the patterns of tension at the heart of human society.
In a nutshell, he shows how our desires can lead to conflict and how in order to resolve the conflict we create scapegoats who take the blame for what has gone wrong and in so doing we think we have made peace and somehow pleased God.
You might see this in two children playing. Child A and child B are playing happily. Child A sees child B enjoying her toy, so child A now wants that toy. But it’s not the toy per se, it’s that child B enjoys that toy, so child A wants it and tries to snatch it. A struggle ensues.
How is the struggle resolved? Possibly a parent intervenes and the desired toy is removed from both parties and peace descends. Or the children decide to resolve it themselves by smashing up the toy they both wanted and they do something else together.
In both examples the conflict ceases through a truce after the toy in question has been blamed and removed.
It happens all the more in adult society. Societies in tension find the scapegoat to blame: with Covid it was young people partying; with Brexit it was big bad Brussels and refugees; with 1930s Germany it was the Jews; with Herod and Herodias, in their adulterous affair, it was John the Baptist, which is why John was in prison.
When the scapegoat is ostracised, ridiculed or eradicated a truce descends under the guise of unity.
Yet the prophet Jeremiah noticed in Jerusalem in his day, ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11. see also Ezekiel 13.10). Fake peace is built on the targeted victim. John becomes a truce making victim.
One of the famous elements of the murder of John the Baptist is the dance that Salomé performs for Herod and his confederates. It is a parody of the joyful dance of the unborn John the Baptist, dancing in his mother’s womb as he recognised the presence of Christ in the Virgin Mary.
The idea of Salome, a young girl, dancing for these drunken, lecherous men is deeply disturbing and what we would recognise today as abusive and exploitative.
Salome is reputed to have danced the dance of the seven veils, yet what is truly unveiled is the violence of the human heart when unchecked, the tendency to create the person or people to blame, to deflect from our own malice and ill will.
It may not lead us to murder, but who are the others we blame so as to avoid taking our responsibility in life? What is the underlying grievance in our hearts that bursts out in running others down? How do we use our criticisms of other people to mask our own frailties and vulnerability?
What Herod found was that the truth is not satisfied with false truces and is no respecter of earthly power. That’s why when Jesus was doing his deeds of power, that were not about violence but about restoration of life in its abundance, Herod was unsettled and got his nightmarish flashback about how he had killed John.
The truth of God will not be snuffed out by tyrants.
True fellowship, society and community is built not on violence followed by fake truces, but is grounded in forgiveness, love and identification with the victim.
What the gospels unveil is that Jesus Christ is the victim who makes peace and forms peace in the human heart. Jesus Christ deconstructs the myths we live by because the victim is the one in control and not the victimiser, the Herod, the Pontius Pilate, the you or the me.
The way of discipleship is precisely to open ourselves to saying I will not create scapegoats and victims. I will desire only Christ, in a way that is not in competition with others, but fixing my eyes on him is about truth, love, peace and life in all its abundance.
John the Baptist famously declared, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Jesus Christ is the Lamb, the victim, who through his resurrection draws us from the culture of death, blame and malice.
At Herod’s feast the culture of death, retribution, rivalry and scapegoating prevailed. In Jesus Christ’s Eucharistic banquet, the culture of life, reconciliation, communion and embracing of the victim is celebrated.
That is not the stuff of nightmares, but of our deepest, heartfelt desires.