This is one of the very few stories in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is not mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men – John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women – Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/stepdaughter.
John the Baptist was a man of conviction – determined that he had been called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah with a call to repentance.
King Herod Antipas was a conflicted man – seeking his own power and glory, while at the same time trying to keep the peace in Galilee, avoiding any conflict that would force a Roman intervention in his territory.
John the Baptist was a prophet, cut from the mold of the great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, a profile in courage, if you will, expressed by his unswerving commitment to speak the truth to power, always a dangerous undertaking. John confronted the King over what he deemed an adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, to John a moral outrage.
The Baptist’s loud and close judgment so angered the blushing bride that she was determined to destroy him, if given a chance. Some scholars think King Herod put John in prison to keep the Queen and her henchmen from killing him, a kind of protective custody. Despite John’s rebuke, King Herod Antipas still feared and respected the prophet, considering him a man of sincerity and goodness. Mark says Herod liked to listen to John.
If we look back to the Baptism of Jesus, like so many other stories in the New Testament, this account tends to change progressively with each Gospel, with each gospel writer having a slightly different version of just who Jesus was. Our earliest Gospel writer here, Mark, never mentions things like virgin birth, donkey ride to Bethlehem, pre-existence, or any of that stuff. In Mark’s version of the baptism, John does the baptizing of Jesus, but maybe like a game of telephone, by the time the story gets past Matthew and Luke and over to John’s gospel, Jesus sort of just is baptized, with John only there to hang around as a witness. Something all four gospels agree on, though, is that John proclaims the start of Jesus’s ministry. It’s clear that Jesus’s entry into the world is closely tied to this guy.
Remember that John the Baptist is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah who were thought too old to have children. And Jesus’s mother, Mary, seems to be the niece of Elizabeth, so John and Jesus were cousins.
Christians pretty much by definition believe that Jesus is devine, but, like the Gospel writers, not everybody agrees just when this divinity happened. (Some say at birth, some say at the baptism, some when he ascended into heaven, and others say pre-existing and always.) Mark clearly believes that Jesus was annointed to be the son of God at his baptism, with the spirit of God descending on him then. So Mark begins his story, his gospel, at the baptism because that’s where he believes Jesus’s importance begins.
A couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel was written, some people perhaps wanted more of an origin story for Jesus, (“where did he come from?) and Matthew provided that, including the new idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. So, decades after Mark’s story, we hear that Jesus was the only or unique son of God from the very beginning of time.
It seems to me that this pre-existent concept made this baptism thing kind of awkward (and perhaps why John’s gospel essentially leaves it out). For if Jesus was miraculous already at conception, why did he need his sins washed free or did John the Baptist have some kind of spiritual authority over him, making him greater than Jesus? How would that be? So Matthew adds a protest when Jesus is to be baptized by John who says “I need to be baptized by you.”
While the Gospel of John doesn’t really say that Jesus was baptized at all, there’s still a traditional association of Jesus with the Baptist that had to be accounted for, so the Baptist acts as a star witness. John the Baptist’s main job becomes telling people about Jesus but not hogging the spotlight. Here are a few of the things John shouts from the rooftops about Jesus:
It’s pretty dramatic stuff.
So the Gospel of John has no real baptism, and no temptation by Satan in the wilderness. In Mark and the other synoptic gospels though, Jesus seems more a very special man, who can be meaningfully tested because he might fail the test; In John, if he’s already divine, what would be the point? Perhaps it’s easiest to pick just one Gospel to read,
Today’s story about the Baptist’s execution happens in all four Gospels. Mark’s version here foreshadows Jesus’ own death by the hands of a political, if sympathetic, figure, and is the only version of the four in which Jesus was not the primary subject.1
However one understands the relationship between John and Jesus, one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.
Although Jesus is not mentioned, he is the key to understanding this story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where Jesus’s fame and success is growing exponentially. John’s death here is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. The Baptist’s speaking truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. Substitute Pontius Pilate for King Herod and execution by a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.
Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus is not easy. The road is rocky and resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders today may not be as outwardly wicked as King Herod, they often seem just as spineless, and just as willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will get them or keep them in office.
Herod could have made a different choice here, but power, prestige, and self-aggrandizement had overtaken God in his life. Though our lesson says he loved to listen to John the Baptist, he would not risk his reputation and the respect of the people in order to spare John’s life.
I think there’s a warning here. We are always in danger of making choices that undermine our faith and align us not with God’s kingdom, but rather with the powers of this world. A little compromise here … a little laziness there … and suddenly we wake up in a place that is far removed from where we should be standing as faithful, committed followers of Jesus.
Our lives are filled with choices. Herod chose loyalty to his kingdom and the power it afforded him. He presided over a banquet of death. Jesus calls us to belong to Him, speaking the truth no matter the cost, working as best we can to bring justice for all, and living lives of compassion and concern for those in need.
Jesus calls us to live beyond ourselves. Let’s strive to do so with God’s help. Amen.
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter received no confirmation that he was right, only the command to silence, not to tell anyone about Jesus.
In today’s lesson, then, on that journey, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, will be rejected, will be killed, and three days later will rise again. This is the first of three pronouncements about Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection that he gives in Mark, the first written of the Gospels. Years later, Matthew & Luke provide similar accounts in their gospels. Each telling is followed, of course, by the disciples’ failure to understand. (Those disciples always get a bad rap.)
Everything they had seen Jesus do and heard him say until this moment had been impressive and had no doubt spurred within them big hopes for the future. But now this. Jesus astonished and dismayed them with the news that – contrary to all their hopes and expectations – he would undergo suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again in three days. It was about the worst possible thing Jesus could have said.
Did Jesus really know ahead that he would suffer the shame of death by crucifixion, as he suggests here? Probably. Jesus was not the only miracle worker trolling through Palistine healing the sick and casting out demons. For the Jews of Palistine, the First Century was an era of apocalyptic expectations. Countless self-proclaimed prophets, preachers, and messiahs trampted through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment, many also offering healing and exorcisms, for a fee.
We even know many of these so-called Messiahs by name. The book of Acts tells us that the prophet Theudas had 400 disciples before Rome cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure referred to as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. Another messianic hopeful, called simply “the Samaritan,” was crucified by Pontius Pilate even though he raised no army and in no way challenged Rome – a sure sign the authorities had become sensitive to apocalyptic fever being in the air with a hint of sedition. There was Hezekiah the bandit chief, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Kochba, and many hundreds more – all of whom had Messianic ambitions, and all of whom were killed for doing so. Add to this the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Sicarii (or Daggermen), and it’s not hard to imagine an era full of Messianic energy. Jesus surely would have been aware of the fate that met the false Messiahs ahead of him, so he could probably predict his future too.
Crucifixion was a widespread and exceedingly common form of execution in New Testament days, used by many nations. One reason it was so common was that it was cheap, it could be carried out most anywhere; all one needed was a tree. The torture could last for days without needing an actual torturer. The procedure for the crucifixion was usually left entirely up to the executioner. Some victims were hooded, some were suspended upside down, some had their privates impaled, most were stripped naked. But, strangly perhaps, it would be wrong to think of crucifixions as a death penalty, for often the victim was first executed and then nailed to a cross. The purpose of the crucifixion was not so much to kill the criminal, as it was to serve as a deterrent to others who might defy the state (although people kept on doing the things for which they could be executed, so I’m not sure capital punishment served as such a great deterent then – or now). For the deterrent reason, crucifixions were always carried out in public – at crossroads, on high ground – anywhere the population had a good view of the gruesome scene. The crucified were rarely buried, nobody claiming the body, usually being left for dogs and birds of prey to strip bare before the bones were discarded.
Simply put, crucifixion was more than a capital punishment for Rome; it was a public reminder of what happens when one challenges the empire. And so it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: especially rebellion, sedition, and treason – which is how the authorities looked at Jesus’ behavior.
From our perspective today, the cross is the symbol of Christianity. That Jesus was crucified for our sins gave us the cross as an icon for our religion. While Jesus was alive, of course, the cross had had nothing to do with the cult of Jesus. The great hope of the Israelite people at that time was freedom from the Roman overlords. Having seen Jesus’ miracles, experienced his magnetic personality as they followed him, and watched him draw enthusiastic crowds, it would have been natural for them to assume that Jesus would somehow challenge their subservient role under the Romans.
So after Peter tries to rebuke Jesus, Jesus responds that such an opinion is a “human” way of thinking. It’s what we all would have thought had we been among those first disciples. Jesus not only rebukes Peter, but then shocks them all even more deeply by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future too. Those who would follow him will “deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” As if that’s not enough, Jesus
continues with even more unexpected and totally unforeseen news: To save your life you must lose it. You may lose your lives for Jesus sake.
This news was so contrary to the disciple’s expectations and so difficult to comprehend that Jesus would have to repeat it twice more in Mark. The second time he spoke of this they still did not understand him, but “were afraid to ask him,” probably for fear of being rebuked again.
We do not follow Jesus by demeaning ourselves. We are called upon to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. To “deny oneself” means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” – love God and love your neighbor.
There was a ray of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it or understood it. Jesus will be killed, but he will also rise again. That was a whole new concept that would have been quite hard to comprehend.
Jesus gives us this hope for the future, but in this text we are called upon to follow him not just for this future, but in this life. Furthermore, to follow him now means as he said: a life “more abundant.”
At a critical point in our Gospel lesson, Jesus called his hearers to follow him. On more than twenty specific occasions in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry he asked the people, individually or in groups, to leave what they were doing and come after him. The question – Who is willing to follow Jesus Christ? – may be the defining question for Christians today.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny some substance or casual practice, but rather it is his invitation for us to imagine living a life of concern for others, a life of true compassion for the suffering, a life of giving to those in need.
This is what I hope we learn from our Gospel lesson for today. Every time we open ourselves to the needs of those around us … every time we actually take time to love someone who desperately needs our love … every time we get out of ourselves a little and seek not just what we want but what the world needs … we get a little closer to what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of … “taking up your cross and following me.”
As we move deeper into the Lenten season, I hope that we will take seriously the call that first came to us in baptism, a call that hopefully takes on greater meaning as we make decisions and order the priorities of life.
I feel drawn to close with a well-known prayer from St. Francis of Assisi that feels right for today:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The name Andrew is a strong name, you might say full of testosterone, as it literally means manly, and takes on courageous and warrior characteristics. Andrew is considered the first disciple of Jesus, and so he’s also given the name Pró-to-clé-tus – “Proto” in Greek meaning “first” and “cletus” meaning “called.”
Our reading today about Andrew is from Matthew, where Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and he sees two fishermen casting their net into the sea, and he calls to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We really don’t know why Jesus chose them first or, for that matter, even why he chose them at all.
Of course, if we consider the versions in the other Gospels as well, we might say that Jesus’s early disciples were not really his at all, but were John the Baptist’s, as we see in John 1:35-37. After John’s testimony about Jesus’s baptism, it says: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.”
Andrew doesn’t enter into a discussion with Jesus about the meaning of life; they do not debate future plans; he just wants to be with Jesus, be where Jesus is. And Jesus invites him to do just that: “Come and you will see!” And he doesn’t have to be asked twice. And being with Jesus, in his presence, likely having fellowship with him at his table, was enough for Andrew to joyfully tell his brother: “We have found the Messiah!”
Traditionally, on St. Andrew’s Day, there are two major themes that churches generally talk about:
#1 is Discipleship. Andrew was the first to follow Jesus. We, too, then should follow Jesus. And
#2 is Evangelism. Andrew was instrumental in spreading the Gospel to far-off lands after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, then should spread the Gospel.
Not all of the story of Andrew comes strictly from the four different versions in the Bible. Some of what we know, or what we think we know, comes from church tradition in the centuries after Andrew’s death.
Andrew was born in Bethsaida, which is on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. He and his brother, Simon Peter, both lived in Capernaum and worked as fishermen. Because they were fishermen, they were at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale in the society. In the Roman Empire, all fish were considered to belong to the Emperor. So if one wanted to make a living by fishing, one had to pay for a special license, and then pay a special “tax” of a portion from every haul. It was a grueling, difficult life. A fisherman in the first century would have had all of his worldly possessions invested in the boats, nets, and license to fish. He would have lived a rather humble life. And Andrew lived this life.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to tradition, Andrew rescued the apostle Matthias from cannibals, and then went on to spread the gospel throughout Greece and Asia Minor, where he performed miracles in the name of Jesus. The early church said he carried the gospel as far as the lands that became Russia and even Poland. He was martyred in Pátras [Páhtras], Greece, being crucified on a cross shaped like an “X.” This cross, of course, would take on the name “St. Andrew’s Cross.”
St. Andrew is considered the Patron saint of Greece and Russia to this day, as he spread the gospel in both of those places before he was martyred. But he is also the patron saint of Scotland, and nobody has ever suggested that Andrew made it to the far northern reaches of Scotland.
That’s where a guy named Regulus fits into the story. Regulus, whose name means “Rule” in Latin, was a Christian monk who lived in Patras, Greece, in the fourth century. According to legend, he was visited by an angel who told him that the Emperor Constantine wanted to move St. Andrew’s bones from Patras to his new capital, Constantinople. Regulus did not trust Constantine’s motives, so he gathered up as many of the saint’s bones as he could and headed north to hide them “at the ends of the earth” for safekeeping. Well, to add to the story, of course, Regulus was shipwrecked off the coast of Fife, Scotland. He took the bones ashore, and the place became known as St. Andrew’s, Scotland – a place of pilgrimage (not just for golfers) and a place of healing. Scotland eventually incorporated the St. Andrew’s cross into their National flag, and they officially named Andrew their patron saint in 1320.
So here we are, members of the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, on St. Andrew’s Day. What are we supposed to get out of this story? I’ve already mentioned the themes of Discipleship and Evangelism. Does hearing Andrew’s story make you want to go out and follow his example? Probably not. I think it’s a little hard for us to connect to it, frankly. But I am fascinated by the image of someone who literally dropped everything he owned in an instant at the words, “Follow me.”
So today, let’s focus on another of Andrew’s remarkable qualities: his readiness to respond to Jesus Christ’s call to follow him. In Matthew today, at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls to Andrew & Peter to, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people!”
This call certainly would have caught the brothers’ attention if only because of how preposterous it sounds – what can it mean to fish for people? However odd the call sounds to us today, we know that Andrew responded wholeheartedly to Jesus. Andrew followed Jesus – without reservation or hesitation – with lots of curiosity & devotion – immediately leaving his nets, perhaps letting them sink in the seashore’s shallow water.
Andrew’s heart seemed to be prepared to hear & to heed Jesus’ call, with all that he had & all that he was. Because Andrew’s heart was prepared for Jesus, he did not have to be in a particularly holy place or going about particularly holy work to understand Jesus’ call to him. Andrew heard Jesus call to him in the middle of his ordinary life, his routine day, at a moment when he is casting a fishing net out into open water.
Andrew’s heart was prepared because he lived the truth of which Moses speaks in our lesson today from Deuteronomy: It says, “The word is very near to you. It is in your mouth & in your heart for you to observe.” This word that was very near to Andrew was the word of the Lord – all the law & commandments God gave to God’s people through Moses.
In calling, Jesus doesn’t give a big speech; no arguments about his cause or about what’s right and wrong with the world. He doesn’t promise eternal life or even a better life. He simply says: “Follow me, and I will make you fisher of people.”
Imagine giving up everything to go with him.
How can they do this? What do they see in this man that prompts such a bold action? It’s as if they’ve been waiting their entire lives for THIS moment to come, but they don’t know it. Now they’re seeing, in this moment, that for which they had been created.
When they saw Jesus, they didn’t just see some random teacher with potential. In the first century, the countryside was astonishingly full of itinerant doomsday preachers and healers, normally charging a substantial fee for their services.
But in Jesus, they saw something that tapped into the core of their being. They did not drop their nets for just anyone. Andrew hadn’t given up fishing for John the Baptist. But when they heard “Follow me,” I think they heard the voice of God.
Andrew did not have any special talent. But within his capacity, he did his duty for the work of God. He worked silently and led people to Christ. He, with a humble, calm and modest spirit, being loyal to his call became an obedient and courageous witness for Christ.
There are many voices out there calling us. There are many pulls on our time and our attention every day. How do we know when we are called to a particular ministry or a specific path in life? How do we know if we are supposed to drop our nets for this purpose, but not that one?
God created us. God loves us. God calls each of us. But, if we listen, in the middle of all the competing voices we hear, God is calling us to be Loving, Life-giving, and Liberating.
Christ came into our world to teach us the ways of love, the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. He mandated us to love our enemies, to show compassion, and that true meaning and purpose is to be found in laying down our lives for others. The God of compassion and peace calls us to himself. He calls us to reach across our divisions, and to listen to his voice calling us to live a better way. That same voice which called St Andrew into a life of service and out-poured love.
That’s the voice we must follow.
Like Andrew, that’s the path we must blaze. Amen.
By Sheila Heffernon & Bill Hattendorf
We were inspired last week by Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy’s reflection. Through the historic words of Julian of Norwich, she reminded us that “All will be well.” We found solace in her words, which in turn, gave us some hope. It seems fitting to follow her reflection with one about just that, Hope.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof titled his essay, “We Interrupt this Gloom to offer . . . (wait for it). . Hope. The subtitle is “Yes, America is suffering needlessly. That may save us.” His opening paragraph is: “Just one in six Americans in a poll last month was “proud” of the state of the country, and about two out of three were actually “fearful” about it. So let me introduce a new thought: “hope.” Yes, our nation is a mess, but overlapping catastrophes have also created conditions that may finally let us extricate ourselves from the mire. The grim awareness of national failures — on the coronavirus, racism, health care and jobs — may be a necessary prelude to fixing our country.”
We are in a critical time in our country, a time that none of us has ever experienced. The collision of COVID19, the worst economic downturn of any of our lifetimes, the disastrous climate change, and the majority of Americans favoring social justice and racial equality, according to recent polls, have created a critical vortex. It seems that most of the country would like to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom and is ready to work together to begin the difficult climb out. Anger and the desire for change is fueling the collaborative work of many to build some bridges and ladders, in order to climb out of the eye of the hurricane to fix our country.
All will be well, as Julian espoused during the Medieval period. It won’t just happen, though, no matter how hard we pray, unless we hang on to our hope and find the inspiration to do the work. Earlier this week Molly shared with us that tomorrow, in the Episcopal Church, is the Feast day of some very important lesser Saints (imagine that as a title!). They are Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer and Eizabeth Cady Stanton. It seems fitting to reach back in time to hear their voices. They remind us that these changes have been desired for hundreds of years.
Amelia Bloomer was a women’s rights and Temperance Advocate, and was the first woman to own and operate a newspaper for women called “The Lily.” Even though she did not create the pantaloons known as bloomers, she was a strong advocate for women to be able to wear them, so they were named after her.
Amelia wrote, “It will not do to say that it is out of a woman’s sphere to assist in making laws, for if that were so, then it should be also out of her sphere to submit to them.” She also wrote, “When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.” Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery, but she escaped with her infant daughter in 1826.
In 1828 she went to court to recover her son; she became the first black woman to win a case like this against a white man. In 1843 she was convinced that God had called her to go to the country to testify that “hope was in her,” and she renamed herself Sojourner Truth. She was a powerful voice for abolition and women’s rights.
She once said “Let others say what they will of the efficacy of prayer, I believe in it, and I shall pray. Thank God! Yes, I shall always pray.”
Regarding hope, Sojourner said, “We have all been thrown down so that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again.
And now I am here.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a suffragist, social activist and an abolitionist. She wrote “The Declaration of Sentiments,” which was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention. Her document and the convention itself helped launch the Women’s Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements in the US.
She said, “We hold these truths: that all men and women are created equal.” About political equality she wrote, “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes; to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands. To refuse political equality is to rob the ostracized of all self respect, of credit in the marketplace, of recompense in the world of work, of a voice in choosing those who make and administer the law, a choice in the jury before whom they are tried, and in the judge who decides their punishment.”
Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then rescued about 70 enslaved people through
the Underground Railroad, went on to serve in the Union Army and became an avid worker
for women’s suffrage. She said, “Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom,
keep going. I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to,
liberty or death; if I could not have one, I could have the other; for no man should take me
Harriet Tubman also said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember,
you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and to
change the world.”
Harriet reminds us that we are all able to change the world. History has taught us that approaching change with hope will lead us to a stronger and more unified place. Noel Paul Stookey reminded us, in his song, “Our Lives are Connected,” that the past is the present through which the future looks. This is the moment that history will look back on and either praise our ability to formulate the change needed to create a just and equitable future for all humans, or judge us harshly for once again, failing at the task.
How will we define ourselves in this moment? What will we do? Can we live in the hope that Marian Wright Edelman feels? As the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she has been battling for a more just society for six decades. She recently said, “I’m very optimistic. I think we have a chance of getting something done.”
Can we find hope in the words of John Lewis, a giant in the Civil Rights movement, who worked for equity until his death on Friday? He said: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Yes, All will be well, but only if we make it so, through our prayers and our work to a better future, sustaining our perseverance by hope. Amen.
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