Christians have strange heroes. Or at least we're meant to. If we set aside the gorier, and more distracting details of today's gospel passage, I think what we're left with is a rather disorienting understanding of whom we're meant to look up to, as followers of Jesus. On the surface, I suppose, it's not all that much of a surprise. Mark goes out of his way to make us understand that Herod is a bit of an idiot, with questionable character--he seems to be a bit dim, he makes impetuous decisions at bad times, he takes up with his brother's wife. We never get the sense that we're supposed to be cheering for Herod, or Herodias for that matter.
But if we set aside Mark's editorializing, and the HBO-style details of the story, as well as (for many of us) decades of knowing full well that Herod is a bad guy, there is an odd and I think uncomfortable challenge in all of this. There's no doubt that we're meant to imagine ourselves, not in Herod's court, not as the one in control; not even as a guest enjoying the party and witnessing the spectacle. If we're walking in the way of Jesus, we're with John. The hero, from a gospel perspective is the guy in the jail cell; the one who, having spoken the truth, finds himself at the mercy of folks who are less than inclined to receive the truth.
The hero of the story is not the one with power and money, with celebrity and an audience eager to applaud his extravagance; the hero of the story is not the one with authority to take life or save it; it's not the one whose word summons others to entertain him and his friends. The hero of the story is the one who loses his head making straight the paths of the Lord. The hero of the story is the one who speaks truth to power and pays for it; the one who gives up everything to walk in the will and way of God. The hero of the story is not the one at the center of power, but the one quite a way outside of it--who spent his days not in the royal court, but crying out in the wilderness. That's worth some reflection.
I read recently that the faithfulness of the Church depends upon a "posture of eccentricity." Eccentricity may come more easily to some of us than others. But it doesn't just mean "kind of strange or odd." What it means literally is "out of the center." At the heart of it all, this story reminds us that a commitment to Jesus, a commitment to the straight-path, valley-raising, mountain-levelling way of the Lord (that John calls us to), draws us away from the centers of power as the world knows it, away from gaudy extravagance, and celebrity, and authority, with our eyes fixed firmly on an altogether different hope: God and God's kingdom of love and justice and righteousness. We are called be an eccentric people, odd and ponderous in the world.
So we'd better pray: Holy Spirit come. Let your word sink deep within us, to shape us in your strange way. May it challenge where we need challenge, convict where we need conviction, comfort us where we need comfort. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight. Through Jesus Christ, our rock and redeemer: Amen!
So, how to we nurture our eccentricity? How do we move from the centers of power, and into the heart of the gospel? As I said last week, our task as Church is to be sufficiently strange that when Jesus gets the world he wants, we'll fit right in. How do we do that? One place to start is with what St. Paul has to say in the opening chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, which is where I want to spend the rest of our time today.
I'm indebted to Eugene Peterson for the shape of what I'm about to say, and what I want to consider together. In his great book Practice Resurrection, which is a meditation on Ephesians, he isolates seven verbs that Paul attributes to God, in the tumbling, rollicking, exuberant string of praise that makes up the first sentence of the letter. (These 11 verses are one 102-word sentence--it's like Paul could stop himself; it's a torrent of praise!) The verbs are: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up. Leaning into these God-verbs will have us walking in a different way.
We begin with God--not just what God does, but God in Godself--which makes sense in here, but is a strange enough thing to do anywhere else. We begin with God because it's what we're meant to do: "in the beginning, God," (Genesis 1) "no other gods," (Exodus 20) "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is our starting place, in Paul's company. We begin with God, so that we're reminded of the conditions in which we're actually living and moving and having our being. Our existence is not dependent upon what the centers of power have to say about us, but on what God has to say about us. If we don't start with God, we end up with a very cramped view of things: of ourselves, our neighbors, this world. When we begin with God--first thing in the morning, on the first day of the week--we find ourselves in a much broader space than the powers-that-be want to allot us. We're not limited by even the best of human will and effort. When we start with God, the possibilities are endless.
When we start with God we don't start with limits, we start with blessing: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed (our first eccentric verb) us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. When we begin with God, we begin in the presence and power of the One who gives, the One whose default is blessing.
Blessing isn't stingy, it's generous; blessing isn't reward, it's gift; before our feet hit the ground in the morning, before we grow up and make something of ourselves, before we are called tax-payers and consumers--the targets of advertisers and politicians who would make the world and us in their own images--we are called blessed. God-blessed. We are given everything we need to live as we are created to live (every spiritual blessing!), before we acquire, or earn, or do anything. We are reminded that all is grace: that everything we are and have is not what we have made of ourselves, but the result of God's first, creative and blessing, word. Everything we are is meant to respond to that. We are blessed.
We are blessed and we are chosen. Chose is the next verb. God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. I think one of the most basic human fears is the fear that we won't be chosen; that we'll be left out or left behind. We won't be chosen on the playground or for promotion, in marriage or by a parent. To not be chosen is painful. And we're regularly made to understand that our desirability, what will get us chosen, has something fundamental to do with us, with who we are, what we bring to the table. It can be a paralyzing fear. Or it can make us manic in our desire to please and to accomplish, to make ourselves worthy of acceptance and approval.
St. Paul reminds us that we are chosen--before the foundation of the world! We just are. God chose us, chooses us. You didn't choose me, I chose you, Jesus says. We are chosen to be holy and blameless in love. By God's choice, we are fully human (holy); by God's choice we are not the sum of our failures, or even our victories (blameless); by God's choice we are the objects of love--a perfect love that drives out all fear. All anxiety that we won't be chosen, the pain that we all know of having not been chosen, is overwhelmed by the staggering wonder that the God of all things chooses us. And this is not me over you, or us over them. God's capacity to choose is boundless; God doesn't run out of choices.
And God chooses with purpose. Destined is our next verb. It's actually better translated as predestined, which is a word that's caused the Church no end of problems. It's helpful to know that the Greek word has to do with setting a boundary, like a fence around a field. It's not about a one-way ticket to heaven or hell when we die; it's about establishing the limits, the conditions of our lives, not so that we are constricted, but so we can flourish, so that we can grow as we're meant to. What are we destined for? Adoption as God's children. This is the boundary we're moving in: the family of God. We are blessed and chosen to represent the household of God, the life-giving way, the valley-raising, mountain-levelling way of God in this world; the way of light in the darkness, the way of holy-salt in a sin-bland world; the way unafraid to occupy the spaces outside the boundaries of the way things are, for the sake of the way that they will be. You didn't choose me, I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that will last (John 15:16).
We're not chosen to be a part of some divine collection of placid souls; we're chosen with purpose and passion, chosen, destined for the kind of relationship with God and our neighbors that changes the world. As one commentator notes, the tone of all of this is adoring, not calculating. This is not God choosing some and not others according to an inscrutable divine whim; this is God rescuing us from an impersonal fate, a fate detached from the source and sustainer of life. We are not drifting randomly, we are destined.
The next two verbs echo with elements of the first: God bestows and God lavishes. Peterson says that bestow is grace in verb form. Bestow reminds us that all this is free gift. It is freely given given, according to the good pleasure of God's will, Paul puts it. Our title as children of God is not earned, it's bestowed. Apparently, translators have trouble capturing the energy of this word. Marcus Barth uses "poured out." Peterson prefers, "drenched." When God bestows, there's no hesitation, there's no crude calculation: God drenches us in grace. The word that Paul uses to describe our condition when God bestows grace is "redeemed," bought out of slavery. God's giving sets us free; God's giving overwhelms the stuff that keeps us bound, the sin that entangles and weighs down, and we find ourselves awash in freedom, drenched in redemption, soaked in grace.
Lavished underscores the point. God is not stingy. God lavishes. What would change in us if we let that word do its work on us, that truth get inside us? It's a word that defies fear that there might not be enough. It reminds us that when God gives, it's without reservation. My cup overflows, is how King David put it (Psalm 23). When we deal with the God who lavishes, we are drawn out of the ways of greed and selfishness; we are able to love in a way that looks reckless to a world neurotic about scarcity.
How can we love our enemies? We remember that God lavishes grace.
How can we give up everything for the sake of the kingdom of God? We remember that no one who gives up anything will fail to receive back 30, 60, 100 times more. What extravagance! Our God lavishes grace, lavishes love, lavishes life. Our God's desire for us is life and life abundant!
How can we release the ways and means of Herod and his ilk, the ways of violence and vanity? We remember that in Christ there's nothing that God will hold back from us, that the Herods of the world have no capacity to take from us what God has so generously given. Nothing will separate us from God. Not even death. God lavishes, out of the riches of his grace.
The next verb is made known. God has made known to us the mystery of his will. This doesn't mean that in the Church we're privy to some secret knowledge that outsiders don't get. One of our most persistent and beloved heresies is gnosticism, which depends on the notion that a select few get special knowledge that makes them superior to everyone else. This is not that. It can't be. Remember who Jesus tells us really understands this kingdom of heaven business: the kids. Children, full of imagination and wonder, of trust and openness, are the ones who get it most readily. The worldly and well-established, the made and mature have a harder time.
When God makes known the mystery of his will, we don't suddenly get let in on a big secret, but we come in contact with a wonder too marvellous for words. What's the mystery of God's will? It's to bless, and choose, and destine, and bestow, and lavish; it's the world alive with the glory of God; women and men not as numbers, valued according to their usefulness and productivity, but reflections of the self-giving, generous, joyful, passionate, grace-lavishing God of all things. It's the kind of thing that makes perfect sense to kids and is utterly incomprehensible to Herod and his guests. It's a scandalous wonder that overwhelms the brokenness and boredom of the way things are, and points us to the way they really are! The mystery of God's will is Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and reigning. It's redemption, forgiveness, freedom for all things. It's the impossible hope of resurrection, the wild truth that nothing in heaven, earth, or hell is going to stop us from seeing God's kingdom come. It's the riotously good news that we can begin to see all of it coming to life, here and now, in and among us.
It brings us to the seventh verb. What's the mystery of God's will, what's God's good pleasure? To gather up. God's plan, in the fullness of time, is to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and on earth. I think that this is an especially important word for a Church who will be eccentric, who will be strange in an increasingly fractured and divided world. God's desire is not separation but gathering. God is not interested in our borders or categories. If we're walking in the way of Jesus, we're going to find ourselves in strange company. Look at the first disciples, which included Matthew the tax-collector (a Roman lackey, a sell-out taking money from his own people to serve the occupying, pagan powers), and Simon the Zealot (a man whose desire was to be rid of the Romans and their lackeys, by any means necessary).
In the company of Jesus these incompatible world views are set aside for something altogether different, a whole new kingdom of God possibility. Both men are called to be frontline witnesses to the will and way of God in the world. Both are caught up in the dragnet of God's grace. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, Paul sings in his letter to the Galatians, and you get the sense that that's not an exclusive list. It goes on and on. The love of God in Christ undoes our well-ordered social arrangements, our strategic separations, and gathers us up. The love of God in Christ takes what is fractured among us and makes it whole. The love of God in Christ compels us to keep strange company, to be open to neighbors we'd rather shut out and close off, to be reminders of the broad space of God's grace (Psalm 18:19), a people shaped in the odd and wondrous ways of God's blessing and choosing and lavishing pleasure.
That's who we are: blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished, made to know, and gathered up by God's glorious grace. That's what we're called to live, the eccentric reality that is meant to come to life in us, here and now, no matter who or where we are, and come what may, to the praise of God's glory. It's what we're made for.
May it be so.