A Homily for the Third Wednesday in Lent
Text: St. Mark 6:13-29
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to confront the powers and principalities of this world. Amen.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Christ engaged in a struggle with spiritual forces: driving out demons and forgiving sins. Even at the start of tonight’s reading, Jesus and the disciples are performing exorcisms and miraculously healing physical ailments. But then it takes a turn into the political realm.
The political climate in ancient Judea was complicated to say the least. Governed by King Herod the Great and ruled, ultimately, by Rome, the Jewish people had seen their century of relative freedom under the Maccabees fall away. The palace intrigues of the Roman world are famous, retold in Shakespearean tragedies and modern television dramas, but the political scandals of Jerusalem are just as captivating. Herod was nothing short of a monster: he murdered rivals, priests, and even his own wife and children. He utilized a secret police force to suppress opposition. He curried favor with the Roman oppressors to secure his own authority.
By the time Christ began his public ministry, Judea had been divided into four smaller territories; Galillee was ruled by Herod Antipas, son of “the Great,” who was much like his own father. He divorced his wife to marry his sister-in-law. This brought him into direct conflict with the religious zealots, who saw him as an incestuous heretic, and we see this evening that Herod Antipas was willing to murder to get his own way. John the Baptist speaks out against you? Put him in prison and cut off his head.
The Romans and the Herods governed by the same principle: might makes right. The strong, wealthy, and influential do what they will. Anyone who gets in their way gets imprisoned, tortured, beheaded, or nailed to a cross. And yet neither John the Baptist nor our Lord Christ back down. In the face of evil kings, of mighty nations willing to violently impose themselves on the world, John and Jesus – like the prophets before them – proclaimed God’s inclusive Kingdom, lifting up the lowly and bringing low the lofty.
The twenty-first century is not so very different from the first. Our world is still ruled by powers and principalities that value strength, influence, and financial wealth over human life. The powerful thrive while others are cast aside in open defiance of God’s good intention.
I don’t doubt that in this very congregation we have conservative Republicans, moderates, liberal Democrats and maybe even a card-carrying Libertarian or member of the Green Party. But in Christ, these sizeable divisions fall. In the waters of Baptism, your political identity is that of a Christian rather than that of a partisan. Your identity as a beloved Child of God trumps your partisan affiliation. In the Eucharist, you are called to be the body of Christ rather than a Democrat or a Republican. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, your identity is as a beloved saint rather than as an American voter. And yet – and yet! – we live in the polis, the city, and that means we bear witness to the Kingdom of God in politics.
We live in a fallen world, a world torn apart by sin and death. They take many forms. We’ve seen Christ doing the restorative work of healing and casting out demons, of teaching his disciples to live a life reconciled to God and one another, living into a restored community, but our fallen world extends into politics as well, and therefore so too must Christ’s healing work. The old saying, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” rings so very true. If we are to live as Christ lives, we must be willing to speak to political issues – that is, to the matters that shape and define public life in our society. The Church is not a partisan institution, but we do bear a political witness.
To a world divided by income inequality, racial prejudice, gender disparity, sexual harassment and abuse, and all-out oppression, Christ sends us out to proclaim a coming Kingdom in which the low are lifted up and the lofty are brought low; in which the first are made last and the last are made first.
It’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. As someone privileged enough to live as a white man in America, it rubs me the wrong way – because it’s going to cost me. It’s dangerous. It cost John the Baptist his head, got Christ nailed to a cross, and got John Lewis beaten half to death. It’s going to require a radical trust in the freedom granted by the Resurrection.
We are called to resist the powers and principalities, to proclaim a kingdom that is in this world but not of it. And while we are subject to the rulers of this world for a time, our allegiance to Christ always ALWAYS ALWAYS comes before our allegiance to Caesar and Herod.
This homily owes a great deal to Charles L. Campbell’s book The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (WJK Press: 2002).