Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
The opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is quite a dense, complex passage, with a sentence structure which makes it hard to read aloud, and a philosophical character which makes it hard to follow. It strikes an exalted tone, full of words and phrases like ‘blessing, glorious, wisdom, plan, fullness of time, purpose, truth, salvation, redemption, praise’. It paints a visionary picture of us (the followers of Christ to whom Paul was writing) having by destiny a place with God in eternity.
We heard that this morning. Three or four minutes later we heard something almost entirely contrasting - Mark’s account of what happened to John the Baptist. Where Paul’s visionary philosophical musings can be hard to follow, I doubt that anyone actually listening could fail to grasp the events in Herod’s court, or to visualise the fascinating and revolting scene played out there. The weak, vain, and malleable king with his ersatz moral dilemmas; the scheming wife; the lovely daughter; the feasting and the courtiers; the dungeon somewhere nearby with its strange and lonely hero; the royal bodyguard ready to cut a throat in cold blood; the severed head on a serving dish.
Allow me to digress for a moment. Early in my time in Salisbury I mentioned in sermon one of my predecessors as Canon Chancellor here, whose meteoric career had caught my eye. Simon of Sudbury was private chaplain to the Pope, Bishop of London, Archbishop of Canterbury, and then he was also Chancellor of England; in other words he was running the country as well as the Church; he could go no higher. Then things took a rather unfortunate turn. The peasants of England revolted in 1381, and when Simon and the king went out to meet them, they cut Simon’s head off and put it on a spike.
I don’t remember why I mentioned him previously – it was probably a caution against ambition in the Church. What I didn’t know was that there was in the congregation on that occasion a former Vicar of Sudbury, who then told me that Simon’s head had been gathered off its spike, and taken away to his home church, where it can still be seen in a cupboard in the vestry. If you doubt me, have a look online.
In our own day, we have seen public beheading done deliberately to shock, horrify, frighten and excite people, with its use for political and ‘religious’ purposes. We need no reminder that the fates of Simon of Sudbury and John the Baptist were horrible and cruel.
I said this scene in the court of King Herod isn’t hard to visualise. That may also be because it has been visualised many times over in art - in paintings, in drama, in opera, in film. It has a juicy blend of power, opulence, sex, and violence; the stench of corruption, and the incorruptible figure of the latter-day prophet. Jacobean dramatists couldn’t get enough of this kind of atmosphere, which they seem to have reckoned was the natural state of things in Italy - think ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, for example.
So, back to the contrast between our two readings: the exalted vision of our place in the fullness of time and the purposes of God; and the ultra-temporal events a couple of thousand years ago in the louche, corrupt and violent court of a petty princeling. It would be reasonable to ask why on earth we are hearing these two passages together, when they seem to have nothing in common except that they are both within the covers of the New Testament.
What brings these two things together?
You do; I do.
In some way what’s brought us here this morning is a share in the kind of vision articulated in by Paul to the Ephesians - the sense of purpose in the goodness of God. And the world of Herod’s court, where momentous and grave decisions go alongside self-indulgence, where things are decided in a cocktail of principle, religious opinion, calculations about relative power, personal desires, and family and self-interest.
Welcome, you might say, to the White House of Donald Trump, or to the British Cabinet meeting at Chequers; or to your life and mine.
The world we inhabit is not pure. We can’t keep apart from it, because it’s the sea in which we swim. But God in all his perfection and purity did not stand apart from it either; indeed he opted for it out of love.
I don’t know why the people who compose the lectionary of the Church of England have given us these two readings side by side, but I’m glad they did. By that pairing they offer us the Christian condition, which is to hold the vision of our place in the loving perfection of God in the midst of the rather foul facts of human life.
I learnt on Friday the fascinating information that the Head of our Cathedral School always tries to use locker number 67 when he goes swimming each day. And the reason for that peculiar behaviour? The opening verse of Psalm 67, which reads thus:
‘God be merciful unto us, and bless us: and show us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us.’
Which rather says it all.