Around 2000 years ago there was a man who proclaimed that God’s beloved community was just around the corner. It upset the powers that be, and so he was executed. But shortly afterwards rumors began to circulate that he had risen from the dead. Instead of dying out, his movement continued.
Did you realize that I’m not talking about Jesus? I’m talking about John the Baptist. We know from this week’s Gospel reading, and from the book of Acts (18:25, 19:1-7), that John the Baptist had disciples who carried on his movement after his death, and also that there were rumors circulating back then that he had risen from the dead.
That, we’re told, is the circulating rumor King Herod believed when he heard about Jesus’ and his disciples’ ministry. Herod had beheaded John himself, and we just heard in grizzly detail how that happened, but now he suspected that John wasn’t staying dead.
You know, usually when we hear a Gospel lesson, it’s all about Jesus. This one is different. Jesus gets mentioned, but the story is all about John, plus Herod, plus two women both confusingly named Herodias. Why isn’t this story all about Jesus?
Well, it is, in a roundabout way. Mark tells us this story right after telling us how Jesus was rejected in his own hometown. He’s giving us a glimpse of things to come. Something like what happened to John is what’s in store for Jesus, and what’s likely to be in store for his followers if they stick to the message—rejection, persecution, even death, because our world isn’t ever ready to be turned inside out by the arrival of God’s beloved community. It’s not ready for God’s love.
Now why would anybody call this good news? (Remember, that’s what the word “gospel” means—”good news.”) When God’s love shows up in our world, it gets killed. That’s good news? God’s embodied love is guaranteed to meet rejection, even death. What a downer!
But that’s how the prophets got treated. That’s how John the Baptist got treated. That’s how Jesus got treated. That’s how his first followers got treated.
And all too often that’s how we, the Church, still treat the most faithful followers of Jesus. The more effectively they show us where God’s love can take us, the more we want to tune them out. We may not be as crude as Herod. We don’t have to resort to killing the messenger. But we’re very good at killing the message.
Just read the biographies of all the saints we commemorate in our Church calendar. They weren’t all killed outright for the love they embodied, but not many of them were popular, not while they were alive, except among their likewise unpopular circle of followers.
Take Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. Some of us are old enough to remember him when he was alive. I was 14 when he was killed. And I confess, I remember not liking him. I was okay with the idea of civil rights in general, but I thought he was way too pushy about it. Why did he have to be so loud? Why did he and his followers keep breaking the law? In my book he was a trouble-maker, which, of course, he was. And it got him killed. But I had already killed his message. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how what he stood for flowed from his finding in Christ the strength to love those who harmed him. Now our Church commemorates him on April 4, the day of his death. And I’m grateful for that. Now. But I wouldn’t have predicted that while he was alive. I had killed his message.
The more effectively people show us where God’s love can take us, the more we want to tune them out. When God’s love shows up in our world, it gets killed. How is that good news?
It’s good news, because it’s only part one of the news. When God’s love shows up in our world, it gets killed. That’s part one. But here’s part two: When God’s love gets killed in our world, it REALLY shows up. The love that dies wins. That’s the good news, parts one and two.
We get glimpses of that news in the prophets and in the story of John the Baptist. But the story of Jesus brings it front and center.
Jesus doesn’t just talk about God’s love showing up in our world. Jesus IS God’s love showing up in our world. And once again when God’s love gets killed, that’s when it REALLY shows up, only this time with a face and a name—Jesus, God’s love showing up in person.
Unlike Herod, people like Peter and James and Mary Magdalene and Paul didn’t just fret about rumors that maybe Jesus was back. They met the risen Jesus themselves. They met God’s love in person. Their lives were never the same. And when they went out spreading that news, people may not have seen exactly what they saw, but their lives were never the same either. They became members of Christ’s risen body. When they gathered to break bread, when they cared for those in need, God’s love really showed up in person.
And when we gather to break bread today, when we care for those in need, God’s love still shows up in person—the God who wins by losing. We haven’t seen exactly what Peter and James and Mary Magdalene and Paul saw, but we see bread broken and wine poured out, we see needs met, and our lives are no longer the same. We’re changed.
The change in us may not look dramatic. Most of us are not going to get our own feast day on the calendar. And we’re probably more than okay with that! For many of us it’s simply finding the unexpected strength to keep loving in the face of utter rejection. We see love repudiated every day, almost every time we turn on the news. Closer to home, we see others lash out at us when our love gets too close, and to be honest, we see ourselves lash out at others when the tables are turned. But we’ve learned that this is just part one. The love that loves us through death itself only grows more insistent when it’s rejected. The love that dies wins.
And at times the change is still astonishingly dramatic. Remember how a few years ago in South Carolina a troubled young man tried to start a race war by killing a group of African Americans. If that’s what he wanted, he definitely picked the wrong group. These were church members who knew that when love gets killed it really shows up. Instead of starting a race war, he started a massive movement for racial reconciliation. The church members and families started by forgiving the killer himself, and then they started the “Hate Won’t Win” campaign.
Yes, when God’s love shows up in our world, it gets killed, but that’s when it REALLY shows up. What we glimpse in John the Baptist’s story comes home to us in Jesus’ story, and now it’s becoming our story. Hate won’t win. The love that dies wins. Death is not the last word, just an interruption. The love that dies wins. Thanks be to God.