A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 12th July 2015 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor.
(Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29)
However frequently you come to church, you can't have failed to notice that a centrepiece of every act of worship is the reading of chunks of the Bible. Now it's possible that some of you think: why on earth has the preacher chosen that passage? But by and large that choice hasn't been made by someone here at the Cathedral, rather by whoever constructed the overarching scheme of readings we call the lectionary. That committee, probably committees, will have done so according to a number of principles, such as exposing congregations to the greatest possible range of the vast body of biblical texts, whilst honouring the big seasons of the Church - Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, and so on - and marking the particular festivals such as saints days.
I say all that by way of a disclaimer. In case you were wondering who among us you should blame when you hear something and feel you shouldn't have, my colleagues and I can fall back on blaming some faceless bureaucrats out there. It's in the nature of lectionaries, as with all compromises, that they can always be queried, challenged, and complained about - as they are, and probably by the clergy more than by anyone else.
And that is of course because it falls to us to try to explain what we are hearing. Occasionally that's easy, because there is a strong thematic unity between the passages. But no one could say there's an obvious equivalence between the two passages we've just heard. Have a look at the way in which Paul begins his letter to the Ephesian christians: it exudes a sense of the cosmic power of God in Christ, and of the determination and purpose of God in relation to the world. Words like 'destined', 'will', 'plan', 'pledge', are scattered throughout these two paragraphs, as are words like 'grace' and 'salvation', which convey the goodness of all this purpose.
I find it hard to think of many passages in the gospels which are more at variance with that exalted tone, than the rather extended account Mark gives of the demise of the one who launched Christ's ministry, John the Baptist. This is a lurid, sordid story about people, most of whom make no other appearance in the gospel. It seems to me, in fact, that Mark has played up the tawdriness of this episode, for example by telling us what Herod's inner motivations were and by centring the story on the really implausible circumstances of a princess dancing before an audience. Whatever, we are left in no doubt that Herod and his court are corrupt, debauched, and abusive. When the one sent by God comes in contact with this centre of petty power, he is confined and violently destroyed. In this tale of a feeble princeling who likes to listen to the moral onslaught of a trapped prophet, with its air of incestuous lust, revenge and violence - prefiguring the Borgias but lacking the glamour, the culture, and the decisiveness - there is nothing to elevate the soul, to lift the vision towards the cosmic realm. There is nothing in common with the vision with which Paul addresses his readers in Ephesus.
Well, lectionaries are constructed in part upon the conventional christian belief in the unity of Scripture. In other words, the whole canon of the Bible, New Testament and Old Testament, the histories and the diverse narratives, the laws, the poems and prophets, the personal letters, the visions and fantasies: all of this is to be heard and known, studied and puzzled over; and all of it in some way interacts with and illuminates the other parts. This is a perspective analogous to Paul's describing the christian community as a body whose parts all need each other. The Bible is grasped better when you see it all, and however convenient or theologically tempting it may be, we diminish our understanding when we ignore things which are strange or unpleasant.
Whatever the combination of reasoning which led to pairing today's two readings, I'm glad it was done. To live as a christian is to hold together the facts of the world, of human nature as it really is, with the experience of the love of God and the vision of perfection that comes with it. The pettiness and abusiveness of human life, the selfishness and corruption of so many motivations, the randomness and unfairness of so much that happens to people - all that is held together with God's presence, just as the outer covers of the Bible encompass these two texts. All the messiness of human life happens within the good will of God. All that you and I say or do or think today will be in the face of the glory of that love which is beyond understanding. Ours is a faith of the incarnation. God's desire for us is so powerful that he comes right into the midst of all this: it is a love which cannot be impeded, and it will be met where we least expect it.