Fifield Patronal festival, June 24th 2018: Galatians 3 and Luke 1
Revd. Dr. Elizabeth Koepping
In 1999 I ran a course on Christian life in Burma/Myanmar for pastors, priests and ministers. I based the ten full days on the understanding that Christian life means struggling to put into effect Galatians 3, 27-29: ‘If we live in Christ, then there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.’ At the start, all participants said the churches had no problems other than shortage of money and government pressure, and certainly not with this passage. We talked about relations to people of different cultural background – which here we could substitute English, Caribbean, French, South Asia- between males and females, and between rich and poor, life-educated or also book-educated. We agreed that as all are equal before God, all must be and feel equally treated by each Christian, although such love and justice goes against ‘normal’ everyday behaviour, and is a struggle for each church and congregation in the world Christian community. Asking half way through the course who didn’t talk at church meetings, they agreed that people from an ethnic minority didn’t talk, women didn’t talk, and poor people didn’t talk. So much for equality before fellow Christians, we realised, as we went on to discuss the role and limitations of church members, lay and ordained, in what is for us is a ’priesthood of all believers.’
I chose those verses, today’s Epistle, for that course because they are challenging to us all. How we manage says not only how we live as Christians, but how the non-Christian, or the uninterested Christian, sees church. That’s the proper basis for a patronal festival: how is the church seen in this community, how do all associated with it live, and how can we gain much-needed strength from John the Baptist collectively and individually to speak and live the Word of God, an obligation which won’t finish if you get a new vicar: you are the church.
I’m afraid John’s birth story isn’t enough – nor was that of Jesus. Stopping with birth stories, significant though they are for exemplifying faith and trust in God, diverts attention from life’s up and down processes. John was killed at the wish of Herodias the second wife of Herod Antipas: he’d divorced his first wife and married his willing and ambitious niece and sister in law, who unusually came with her young daughter Salome. John refused to stay silent about this incestuous marriage of the powerful Herod, a man whom Jesus called a fox, not because he was cunning but because, like a fox, he caused damage just because he could. Herodias manipulated her weak and greedy husband, who had his much-respected friend the prophet John the Baptist killed and served up on a plate. Herod could have reneged on his promise to offer his step-daughter half his kingdom once he realised what Herodias was up to: but he chose to save his own face and sacrifice his friend John.
John is not the only murdered innocent man in the Bible. One was sacrificed because a weak provincial governor didn’t have the guts to offend the crowd and save another prophet, Jesus, from death: he too preferred to save his own face. There’s the earlier killing of the innocent Naboth, engineered by Jezebel to satisfy her husband Ahab’s lust for greed and status. And Uriah the husband of Bathsheba, whom David had killed not because Bathsheba had seduced him, but because he had taken her in a fashion which was as criminal then as now, and murder was easier than bigamy.
Herodias and Herod Antipas made choices which led to the wrong use of their step/daughter and the death of John: David made a choice which led to Uriah’s death; Jezebel and Ahab made choices which led to Naboth’s death: Pilate made a choice which led to Jesus’ death. Is each sinner equally responsible? If a person has enough food, permanent solid shelter, an income and family support and still, faced with temptation, chooses to sin, that person carries the burden of their free choice until they repent and cease such actions. But what of a hungry person who steals food to survive, or prostitutes themselves to get food and shelter for their child? What of a person who has a job after months of unemployment and poverty and keeps silent during their probation time if some superior insults a colleague or molests the newcomer? Relative powerlessness so constricts their freedom to act that compared with a similar act of a well-placed person, their sin is slight and their burden light. Salome was a young girl, manipulated and almost prostituted by her mother: despite pictures and stories to the contrary, she carries little guilt.
David, Herodias, Ahab, Herod Antipas, Pilate, all made free choices and carry full responsibility. As do we, not so much in murdering irritants, but in the everyday flaunting of Galatians 3 27-29, whenever we ignore, tread on or patronise poorer or less educated people, whenever we find ourselves rejecting those with a different accent, language, face or origin, or insult a person based on their gender and how live that out. Yes, there is a cost. Maybe our clique or family will sneer if we are welcoming and unfailingly courteous towards the strangers living among us, if we don’t join in abusive joking, if we take seriously the wisdom and goodness of a person rather than their education or posh cars.
John took his task of prophecy seriously, and he died unfairly. We too shall all die, but let us make as good job as we can of loving God, our neighbour and ourselves. In the words of today’s psalm, may steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and righteous and peace kiss each other in our lives, as in that of our patronal saint.