“It’s not easy living in Canada these days,” a pastor said to me at a clergy breakfast several months ago. I replied, “What you do you mean? Canadians are some of the most blessed people in the world. We have a high standard of living, personal freedom, the rule of law, and an incredibly beautiful country with lots of space for everyone.”
“I know,” said the pastor, “but that’s not what I mean. It seems that a growing number of Christians are being shaped by the dominant secular culture without putting up a fight. The members of my own congregation seem to be more influenced by the media than the gospel. I think we have lost our Christian witness.”
Maybe the pastor was right. Are we Christians so influenced by the spirit of the age that we have lost our effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel? How is it possible for us to live our values and practice our faith in a world that is not as friendly to Christianity as it used to be?
St. Augustine wrestled with that question back in the early 5th century. The Roman Empire, which by this time was predominantly Christian, was collapsing as barbarian hoards ravaged Western Europe and North Africa. In response to what was happening, Augustine wrote a massive treatise called The City of God, in which he posited two kingdoms – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Each kingdom has its own legitimacy, but what happens when they are in conflict?
That is the issue in today’s Gospel. John the Baptist, an itinerant preacher drawing large crowds in the wilderness, probably would have been ignored by King Herod had he not condemned him for marrying his brother’s wife – something prohibited in the Book of Leviticus (see Lev. 18:16; 20:21).
John was a blunt preacher, at a time when what you said could get you killed. So it is no surprise that John had enemies, his worst enemy being Herodias, the wife of Herod. After all, if Herod acted on what John said, Herodias would be out on the street without power or support, or even worse, she might be killed. We can understand why she wanted him dead.
After Herod had John imprisoned, he gave a party for himself, inviting all his court officials, army officers, and the leading citizens of Galilee. When Herodias’ daughter Salome so pleased Herod with her dancing, he turns to her and says, “Ask for anything, even half of my kingdom, and I will give it to you!”
Salome went out and consulted her mother, who told her, “Ask for John the Baptist’s head!” So Salome hurried back to the king and told him, “I want the head of John the Baptist – right now – on a tray!”
The king regretted his promise, but he couldn’t go back on his word in front of his guests. He then ordered John executed and his head brought to him. John’s head was given to Salome on a tray, who then presented it to her mother. Here we have the death of an innocent man who died because of a stupid promise made to an erotic dancer at a silly party where most of the guests were drunk.
“Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God,” says the author of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus knew it was only a matter of time before conflict would come between men and women who followed him and those in positions of authority. Intense commitment always brings conflict: ethical dilemmas; moral compromises; spiritual surrender. The truth is: if you are serious about the Christian life, you are going to encounter conflict – the inevitable clash of values that occur between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.
There are basically three kinds of conflict that come to all of us. Some conflicts are internal. They are conflicts that take place in our own mind and heart. Do I do the right thing or the expedient thing? Do I stand on principle or compromise my principle for some benefit? Do I speak out against injustice or remain passive? At some point we have to decide which side are we on.
John the Baptist chose to tell the truth rather than save his life. Herod chose to let an innocent man die rather than retract his foolish promise. Sooner or later, we all have to choose and take our stand. When the choice is between that which we know to be good and that which we know to be evil, we had better choose rightly. There is a terrible price to be paid when we choose wrongly.
One of the most disturbing pictures in my mind is of a German Lutheran bishop in his clerical robes making the Nazi salute surrounded by Swastikas. He was the head of the Lutheran Church in Germany and his allegiance was to Adolf Hitler. But not every Lutheran pastor was like that bishop. One prominent pastor by the name of Martin Niemoeller stood up in the pulpit one Sunday and declared, “God is my Furher!” He rejected Nazi authority over the Church, and as a result, the Gestapo imprisoned him. Two pastors – both had to choose on the most important matter facing the German people. One chose Hitler, the other chose God. Which side are you on?
The second kind of conflict is external. This is the conflict between others and ourselves when we stand up for God’s kingdom and God’s values over every other kingdom and all other values. This is costly discipleship where the shadow of the cross looms large in the background.
Listen to the words of a sermon like the one that many of us could have heard in our churches last Sunday: “In the gospel of Christ… one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us… The experience of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for this earth… May we give ourselves like Christ, not for self, but to give justice and peace to our people.”
Pretty innocuous, you may think. It’s just a sermon; just the church going about the business of preaching the gospel. The only thing is that I left out part of it. The part I left out is that right after the preacher said, “May we give ourselves like Christ, not for self, but to give justice and peace to our people,” a shot rang out in the sanctuary and the preacher, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, was dead.
You see, when Christians act like Christians, the world starts acting like the world. No more Mr. Nice Guy. In fact, the world will crucify you if you get too out of line. Sometimes being a Christian is a very dangerous thing. It can even cost your life.
There are internal conflicts and external conflicts. Both of these grow out of a third form of conflict – and that is spiritual conflict. Nothing can spare us from the evil intent of the Herods of the world. But the good news is that we can’t keep Jesus in the tomb. He just won’t stay dead and buried, no matter how hard the world tries to keep him there. So take heart that, when all is said and done, the Herods of the world will say, “Somebody has been raised from the dead. The power we thought was dead and buried is loose again in the world.”
Some of us may know the inspiring story of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. He is a true Christian who is willing to sacrifice everything in this life on earth for his faith.
Pastor Youcef, a married father of two, was arrested in October 2009 for protesting the mandatory teaching of Islam at his children’s schools. He was then charged with apostasy and attempting to evangelize Muslims, charges for which an execution order was issued in February 2012. He currently remains in an Iranian prison awaiting execution.
The Iranian courts have asked Pastor Youcef to recant his Christian faith in exchange for his freedom. In fact, he was given three opportunities to walk free from jail – all he had to do was recant his faith. Three times he was asked; three times he refused.
Pastor Youcef recently penned a letter to a human rights group in which he wrote, “…I am trying to do the best in my power to stay right with what I have learned from God’s commandments. …I have surrendered myself to God’s will.” (1)
What will happen to Pastor Youcef is the great unknown. A final decision by the Supreme Council is expected in September. Pray for him – not only that his life is spared, but that he continues to remain faithful in the face of enormous pressure to recant his faith.
I wonder what kind of conflict you are experiencing right now. Perhaps you’re experiencing internal conflict. You are being asked to do something you know is against your values. Perhaps you’re experiencing external conflict with someone who is opposing you, hurting you, and perhaps even persecuting you. What I hope, though, is that you are in spiritual conflict. I hope that whatever may be testing your faith, you know the presence and power of God in your life. Jesus lives! God reigns! Remember that the next time you start to lose hope. The kingdoms of this world will fade away, nations will rise and wane, but Jesus lives and God reigns!
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
Text – Mark 6:14-29
Proper 10/15, B
1. “Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani Standing Firm in the Face of Persecution” in christianpost.com, May 23, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.