Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

John 6:25-35 – The Bread of Life

The Breaking of the Bread by Sr. Mary Stephen

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

So, they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NIV)

Christians everywhere hold to Jesus as the Son of God, Lord of the universe, and Savior of all. However, for most people who were following Jesus around in the first century, this was not their understanding of Christ.  In his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke in ways that introduced people to who he really was and sought to bring them to a point of following him based on his identity. 

Jesus wanted the crowds to him for who he really is – themselves for what they really needed – and follow him based on the deepest needs of their lives. I believe Jesus is the hope of all nations and all people, and in him humanity’s most basic and profound needs are met for forgiveness, love, and purpose in life. To address this, I ask three basic philosophical and theological questions of life:

What should human beings seek the most and work the hardest for in life?

The responses in history are legion. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a proper appreciation for an ethical and virtuous life found in practical wisdom was where people’s most concerted efforts should be.  Karl Marx, the father of communism and socialism believed the proletariat should use their heads and their hands to rise above their economic conditions and oppression. In the late 1960’s, Bobby Kennedy said we ought to be working the hardest to achieve justice and not advance ourselves on the misfortunes of others. In more recent times, the Harvard Business Review is continually on the lookout for the best ways of being efficient, productive, and making the most of time because work itself is paramount.

Jesus said people are not to work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.

He said this coming off one of his most famous miracles of all, the feeding of the five thousand.  Afterward, Jesus withdrew overnight to a place of solitude and prayer. He did another miraculous event by walking on water out to his disciples in a boat. In the morning, he and they were on the other side of the lake. The crowd did not know where he was and went looking for him.

Jesus knew the crowd of people wanted more. What they got was perhaps unexpected. Jesus told them to put their efforts into getting the bread that keeps on feeding. Jesus wanted the people to pursue and follow him not only for the things he could do for them, but to seek him for who he is. 

Jesus had further aspirations for the people beyond providing a supper – he desired the people to feast on himself – to ingest him, to take him into their lives in a deep and profound way as the fulfillment of all the hope and promises of the Old Testament. 

Jesus Feeds the Crowd by American artist Eric Feather

Jesus is the bread, the basic staple of life, that meets the cravings and needs of all people everywhere. Starving people, both in body and spirit, find in Jesus a meal which keeps on giving, a feast of grace that is both delectable and unending.

The answer to my own question is that, for me, one’s highest pursuit and greatest quest is Jesus. Apart from Christ, I will starve. Furthermore, Jesus is not some cheap fast food off a value menu; he is real soul food to be ingested and enjoyed with others.

I believe people need Jesus. A passionate seeking of Jesus, to follow him, live for him, center life around him, is my most ardent desire. I do not simply desire Jesus for what he can do for me; I vigorously chase after him because if I do not have Jesus, I will die, I will starve to death. 

For me, Jesus is so much more than a nice addition to my life, like a new puppy; Jesus is Lord and Savior. I must consume him, or I will be completely undone, and I will not survive! Jesus is my bread, my food, my life!  I cannot survive on a daily crumb, but I feast on every word that comes from the mouth of Jesus because in Christ there is the life that is truly life.

What should human beings be doing to do the works of God?

The short answer: believe. To have and keep faith in the One God has sent, Jesus, is the primary “work” that pleases God. Jesus communicated to the crowd that they can do so much more than follow him for another earthly meal – they can place their faith and hope in him for food that will last, food that will transcend the three-dimensional world.

Faith is more than an intellectual recognition to some facts about Christianity. And belief is not about always having clarity and certainty to every facet and loci of Christian doctrine. No, Christian faith is complete trust in Jesus as our hope and our life. Education, economic uplift, political stability, and institutional peace and justice are important activities for this world. For the Christian, the accomplishment of these and so much more comes from the grace of God in Christ. As people come to the end of themselves with their homebrewed and half-baked attempts at being satisfied, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, the Living Bread who offers himself for humanity’s deepest needs.

Giving kudos to Jesus might be nice, yet Christ himself cares about folks placing their trust in him for grace, forgiveness, and hope in their world. Jesus longs to reconnect people with God through giving himself as the means of making that happen. All the works we do in this life, every good deed we accomplish, and each positive action we do are all helpful and necessary… and they all pale in comparison to the greatest work of all, to believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of this world, the hope of your family, the hope of the church, and the hope of your life and mine. And it is all accessed by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Who really does the will of God?

Answer: Those who come to God through Christ. The person who comes to Jesus will never go hungry, and the one who believes in Christ will never be thirsty. Such persons do the will of God. They do not settle for signs of Jesus but desire him and find their ultimate satisfaction in him.

Yet far too many people settle for signs of Jesus rather than Jesus himself. It would be silly if I drove to a sign on Interstate 94 that said, “Milwaukee” and sat there under it, believing I was really in the city of Milwaukee. And it would be weird if I looked around for the art museum or other places underneath the sign.

Church buildings and furniture, stained-glass windows, pews, and even the Bible are not Jesus – they are simply and hopefully signs which point to him. They are all designed to lead us to Christ so that we may come to him. And coming to Christ is what the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and any other description you want to give about ingesting Jesus is about. The elements of bread and cup bring us to Christ so that we can experience Jesus and be joined to him by faith in a mystical union of human and divine in the unseen heaven.

Conclusion

Where will you find true satisfaction and hope? Probably not in the clearance aisle at Wal-Mart. Likely not in conforming to cultural Christianity or embracing generic forms of Jesus as merely good teacher and moral example. Furthermore, life’s ultimate satisfaction and hope are not to be found in a spotless house and perfect kids; in working more hours and making more money. Nor will we find contentment and peace in the radical independence of doing things my way.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. Through ingesting him, passionately pursuing him, believing in him, and coming to him in everything, we find the life that is truly life. Do not settle for any substitutes to Jesus. Come to the real person.

Lord God, you said that when we seek you with all our hearts, you will be found.  As the deer pants for streams of water, so we, your people, long for you in a dry and weary land.  We hunger and thirst for your righteousness.  We deeply desire your presence in all things. So, we die to ourselves and surrender to your will and way for us, by faith trusting you will come into our lives and completely take over. May your blessing rest upon us as we seek Jesus. Amen.

By Forever Be Sure

1 Peter 5:1-5, 12-14 – Humble Leadership

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble….”

With the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.

She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with a kiss of love.

Peace to all of you who are in Christ. (NIV)

Humility is the consummate virtue of the believer in Jesus. Apart from humility there is only a lack of authenticity and integrity. With humility there is a recognition of our need for God’s grace, guidance, and peace. Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. 

A humble spirit:

  • Makes leadership both possible and bearable (God is in control, not us). 
  • Helps relieve the anxious worries that wash over us (God cares for us).
  • Enables us to resist evil and remain strong in faith (God protects us).
  • Fortifies us to remain steady through suffering (God comforts us).

Genuine spiritual humility places us securely in the merciful arms of God. Furthermore, humility and meekness are what this old fallen world needs, as well, and to which we must reinforce in all our church leadership appointments, national and local political elections, and work staff hires. An abundance of smarts and grit cannot compensate for a lack of humility. God is always in control, and so, syncing our lives with divine providence and care will enable us to be better off.

Yet, humility is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires that we willingly put aside pride, ego, and personal agendas to embrace God’s agenda:

God blesses those people who depend only on him. They belong to the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3, CEV)

Jesus said, “The truth is, you must change your thinking and become like little children. If you don’t do this, you will never enter God’s kingdom. (Matthew 18:3, ERV)

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3, CEB)

To be a humble leader means to have the intention, focus, and action of seeking God’s will and way in everything. Then, to have the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite resistance and opposition from those who want to follow a different path.

Therefore, our task as spiritual leaders is to pursue hard after God’s direction rather than relying solely upon our base instincts, pragmatic desires, and personal views. Humility provides us a radical openness to God. A meek and gentle spirit enables us to develop an ever-deepening awareness of where God is leading. The Lord is up to something and has plans for our world, our locales, and our faith communities.

We also need to recognize that not everyone is open to God. If our focus is primarily on molding a group of people to be what we want them to be, then we may have become closed to what God wants. This closed spirit comes out in a couple of different ways:

  1. Maintaining tradition at all costs. Living with uncertainty and ambiguity is too much for some leaders, so they stick close to the status quo. Like Abraham, however, we are called to move and change without always knowing where we are going. (Genesis 12:1-5)
  • Getting rid of tradition like there is no tomorrow. To get what they want some leaders focus solely on their own needs and desires without considering those they are called to lead. Like Timothy, we are to hold onto the great deposit of doctrine and heritage given to us and not always be looking for the next new thing to turn things around. (1 Timothy 6:20-21; 2 Timothy 1:13-14)

Humility-based leadership continually consults the divine will and others’ wisdom in a concerted effort to be collaboratively open to God. A humble spirit enables and empowers leaders:

  • To lead from a position of faith, not fear.
  • To seek divine help and resources through a posture of listening. 
  • To practice love in all things to all persons.
  • To make prayer and discernment the foundation of planning.
  • To read Holy Scripture as if life depended on it.
  • To consult and collaborate with others who are like-minded.
  • To honor and respect tradition while holding it with open hands, not closed fists.

If we cultivate a humble attitude and a deep openness to God, along with a determined readiness to move people lovingly and graciously in God’s direction, then amazing things can happen. Let our prayer together be this: 

I am yours, wise God, no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be.  I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power and guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.