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Recovering a Context for Debate in the Church
by Chris Chivers
[Ed. Note: This sermon was originally preached at Westminster Abbey on July 13, 2003, using the lectionary readings Ephesians 1:3-14 and Mark 6:14-29.]
Fear. Lust. Murder.
These are but three of the many themes of the gospel reading of Mark 6:14-29. But as we hear the story of Herod's gift to Herodias of John the Baptist's head on a platter, we can perhaps be forgiven for feeling that it has somehow come at us from nowhere. For, strangely, the particular context of this tale is omitted from these verses. We begin with the line "King Herod heard of the healings and other miracles, for Jesus' name had become known " The line in Mark actually reads "King Herod heard of it " But the attempt by the authors of our lectionary to conflate the previous seven verses into the phrase "healings and miracles" does little justice to what it is that Herod has heard. So forgive me if I now read those verses.
Jesus went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:6b-13)
What King Herod had heard to his alarm was not simply that a prophet and his followers were moving about Galilee performing miracles and healing people. But he had heard that a new sect with a rigorously simple lifestyle were preaching and teaching the same message of universal repentance which had, in John the Baptist's ministry, been so pointedly directed at Herod's own household and which he supposed he had silenced by having the Baptist killed. That, at least, is the context for Herod.
But what of the context for others? Clearly the story is told in response to a crucial albeit brief account of the initial call Jesus issues to discipleship: what this will entail in terms of simplicity and poverty of lifestyle; the arduousness of being prophetic; the ultimate cost that may have to be paid for this; and the demands made on everyone in terms of repentance and renewal. All of which applies as much to the first disciples, as to Mark's contemporaries and our own. But the story of Herod that follows makes little sense outside the context of the call to discipleship against which it is to be heard.
Perhaps, however, this telling omission of context actually offers an important parable for us at the present time. For what the authors of our lectionary have inadvertently given us is the lust and the violence but with an absence of framework, or over-arching story, against which to set them. And sadly, at the moment, some in the Church of England and in other parts of the Anglican Communion have been doing much the same in the sorry series of events that has followed the appointment of a bishop to the Suffragan See of Reading and the subsequent withdrawal of his acceptance of this appointment.
For a spiral of sexual innuendo, prejudice and vitriol some of it astonishingly unchristian and ill judged has seen us somehow distract ourselves from the only context within which the issues involved can make any sense whatsoever. And that context is of course the call to discipleship issued not only to all Christians but to the whole world.
For whatever our reaction to the specific circumstances of Canon John's proposed consecration as a bishop, unless we begin somewhere else we simply end up, as we have, with the mess of heads demanded on platters or people falling on their swords.
Perhaps the saddest feature of recent weeks beyond the obvious strain placed on the central figures of the story, Canon Jeffrey John chief among them has been the almost total absence of any real theological account of the issues. For whatever our reaction to the specific circumstances of Canon John's proposed consecration as a bishop, unless we begin somewhere else not with the specifics of his case but more searchingly with a doctrine of the human person, and with what it means for us to respond to God's call to discipleship we simply end up, as we have, with the mess of heads demanded on platters or people falling on their swords.
What do I mean by a doctrine of the human person? Firstly, I mean an acknowledgement that each one of us is uniquely called by God to be the person we have been created to be. That is what the central Christian teaching of the incarnation is all about. An acceptance by God of what it is fully to be a human being. Not a cloaking of the divine nature with a human mantle, as if God does not really become a human being in Jesus Christ, and merely experiences selective bits of our nature. Rather, a full living out by God, a bringing to culmination, of the possibilities of human existence. For as St. Irenaeus said, and as the life of Jesus Christ makes clear, the glory of God is man is human beings fully alive. Not half dead, not suppressing their true nature; nor, like Herod, acting out of their fear or prejudice, greed or lust, but fully alive to the uniqueness of who they are and what it is that God has created in them.
We have to work towards accepting the fact that who we are, at a fundamental level, is God-given . And given the seriousness with which God takes our humanity, this means quite simply that we have, thirdly, to take one another's humanity as seriously.
And if that is true, if God takes seriously if God defines his nature in relation to human beings by becoming one of us, that means, secondly, that we really must take seriously who we are our sexuality included. We can't ignore it, push it to the back of our minds, or have others brush it aside. We may find it an uncomfortable or even incomprehensible aspect of ourselves or of others but we have to work towards accepting the fact that who we are, at a fundamental level, is God-given. It is a part of the mystery and artistry of God, and his saving work in and through us. And given the seriousness with which God takes our humanity, this means quite simply that we have, thirdly, to take one another's humanity as seriously.
If we fall to our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, Desmond Tutu reminds us, then we should kneel before each human being. All of which means that dignity and mutual respect must be the watch-words of our calling to be disciples of Christ.
Of course, this won't have got us to the detail of who should occupy particular positions in the church thats for a much later stage. But it will have created the theological framework, the context of love and respect from which, and only from which, it may be possible to address such detail. And at the moment this is precisely what we need. We can do without posturing from party perspective. We should avoid muddying the waters with our own prejudice and the name-calling that so often issues from this.
We mustn't see the Bible held aloft as some kind of weapon with which to beat people into submission. Since the Bible issues an invitation to embark on an exploration of love it too needs to be put in context, to be interpreted carefully it is not a literalist rule book
We mustn't see the Bible held aloft as some kind of weapon with which to beat people into submission. Since the Bible issues an invitation to embark on an exploration of love it too needs to be put in context, to be interpreted carefully it is not a literalist rule book or a road map to detail every step along the way. In this regard we simply can't afford the human pain and unnecessary costliness which results from an abuse of our biblical heritage with more heads on platters simply because we've forgotten the real context of the whole debate.
If we are to recover a sense of unity in the church then let this not be forged at any price, least of all at the expense of a serious seeking after truth. And if there is to be repentance a word much talked about these past weeks then let it be expressed by the whole church for our failure to remember the context of our common discipleship and our high calling to promote a dignity of debate befitting the body of Christ.
For only from such repentance will we begin to renew ourselves in the costly, Christ-like pattern of discipleship at the heart of our existence. This is to be lived out by those actually prepared to listen to each other, respectfully determined to stick with one another, and resolutely convinced that the God who calls us all to reflect his glory by being fully alive fully who we are is faithful to us, and will show us where and how we are to follow.
The Rev. Chris Chivers is Minor Canon and Precentor at Westminster Abbey in England. He previously served as a canon at St. Georges Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa. Chris may be reached by email at Chris.Chivers@westminster-abbey.org