Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 7th July 2013

7 July 2013 at 15:00 pm

Canon Mark Russell, Chief Executive, Church Army

Two things sell newspapers, sex scandals and stories about royalty. Mix those together, sex scandals with royalty and it will be all over the tabloids for days, and twitter will be on fire. Throw in religion and it’s a journalist’s dream come true. Locate all that in first-century Palestine and you have the story of Herod and John the Baptist.

In our Gospel reading today we have a story of an unpopular and paranoid king marrying his brother’s wife. This marriage broke the law. We have a prophet challenging the king. An alcohol-fuelled birthday party, the king’s stepdaughter performing an erotic dance for her stepfather, and a drunken promise to execute the prophet who had dared challenge the king.

There was nothing private about this story. It would have been around the royal palace in a matter of minutes. Then the gossip would fly around the markets and streets, it would be all around the town by the morning, and the whole nation would have known the sordid details by dinner time the next day. It is shabby, sleazy and shameful.

John the Baptist had bravely challenged the king’s behaviour, and he paid for his courage with his life. But the king was still frightened of John even when he was dead.

As Matthew Henry puts it “a guilty conscience needs no accuser or tormentor, but itself.” The ghost of John’s memory mixed with the potent guilt the king had for his crimes. Herod was a frightened, weak, and volatile man. He was racked with guilt and knew his sin would find him out.

Every time I come into this beautiful Abbey I pause at the Great West Door, to look up at the twentieth-century martyrs on the west front of the Abbey. I thank God for the vision of the then Dean and Chapter.

• In 1918 the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia was killed by the Bolsheviks
• Manche Masemola was a Anglican from South Africa, 16 years' old, and killed in 1928.
• Maximilian Kolbe was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church after being killed by the Nazis in 1941.
• In 1941 Lucian Tapiede, an Anglican from Papua New Guinea, was killed during the Japanese invasion.
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, killed by the Nazis in 1945.
• Esther John, a Presbyterian evangelist from Pakistan, was allegedly killed by an extremist in 1960.
• Martin Luther King, civil rights activist, a baptist, was assassinated in 1969.
• In 1972 Wang Zhiming was killed during the Chinese cultural revolution. He was a pastor and evangelist.
• In 1977 Janani Luwum was assassinated during the rule of Idi Amin, in Uganda, for being an Anglican Archbishop.
• Oscar Romero was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, assassinated in 1980.

These amazing people gave their lives because of their faith, because they stood firm, said unpopular things, and remained true to God’s call on their lives.

Like John the Baptist, their example inspires us and moves us.

John the Baptist has been executed, yet the king still hears news of a young radical prophet. A young man calling people to repent, a young man calling for a new Kingdom. A young man healing the sick, changing lives. Jesus is travelling round Galilee, bringing, change, and the whole region cannot stop talking about him.

Was he Elijah? Jewish tradition said Elijah would return to prepare for the final judgement, Malachi records that in the penultimate verse of the entire Old Testament. Others thought John the Baptist had come back to life, and that certainly was the view of the paranoid Herod.

Jesus was doing amazing things, he was forcing people to take notice. The work of the Kingdom of God alive in Jesus was shocking the whole country. The radical words of Jesus, the radical actions of Jesus, forced an entire nation to ask “who is this man?” Which begs the question, how can the Church act today, that provokes a nation to ask “who is this man?”

I think our country is bored of Church. This weekend the General Synod of the Church of England meets in York. Yet again they will try to work out if women can be bishops. The world simply cannot understand what our problem is. Many of us know the arguments are nuanced, but to the outside world they make us look daft. They look at our Church as we have awkward conversations about human sexuality, and they shake their heads in bewilderment.

Jesus shocked a nation, because he loved the poor, he served those left behind, and showed amazing grace and love. He fed the hungry, he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he turned water into wine, he took the one thing that people sought, power and influence, and his sermon on the mount put that in the hands of the meek, the grieving, the peacemaker. His followers were not the high priests and wealthy, his disciples were fishermen.

Many churches are working hard to make a difference. Living out that calling in our second lesson, to demonstrate the kingdom of God. Churches run community centres, youth groups, groups for shut in elderly, we work in prisons, hospitals, we run hundreds of foodbanks up and down the land. Isn't it a scandal we need food banks at all?

I lead Church Army, a movement of people committed to serving those on the margins of our society. We work on tough housing estates, with sex workers, with marginalised young people and we run the largest homeless project for women in London. I want to thank the Dean and Chapter for supporting CA prayerfully and financially.

The Church is the largest voluntary movement in the land, over 23 million hours of voluntary service was given to serve the communities of England last year. The National Secular Society by comparison has 7000 members which is pretty much the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society.

Yet we have much more to do. Sometimes it does us good to hear how others see us. I had been invited to give an address to a clergy conference, so I was speaking to a high school audience in London two weeks before the conference and asked them to give me some words to describe the Church of England. Guess the top word? Boring!

When I read the Gospels and see what Jesus did, who Jesus was, I see a Jesus who was radical, bold, prophetic, caring, loving, exciting, dynamic. I see a Jesus who reached out to those on the margins, who loved the unlovely. When I read his teaching, it’s bold, life changing, relevant, simple, timeless. I have concluded that it takes some serious talent to make this story boring.

“Who is this man”. It wasn’t Elijah, and it wasn’t John. It was Jesus. The Son of God, the Messiah.

Twenty centuries later the question comes to us. Who is this man? So what do you say? Who is this man? Who is the man who inspires us in worship today, and whose life, death and resurrection inspired this great Abbey to be built 1000 years ago?

Jesus stirred a nation to ask what was going on. I pray the Church of England can once more excite our nation, and point to a risen Christ, who still changes human lives.

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