Sunday 16 July - Pentecost 6 - Evening Prayer - Dr Ademola Odunsi

May I speak and may you listen in the Name of God who is Father, Son and Holy-Spirit. Amen.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” These are the weighty words spoken by the Priest as s/he makes a sign of the cross, with the oil of Chrism, on the forehead of a Baptismal candidate, after the sprinkling of water. Whether we know it or not, this sacrament of Baptism, one of the two ordained by Christ Himself, is an initiation and adoption into God’s big Family, and by this singular act, we bear His DNA forever. This resonates with the words of the writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians (1:13b-14): “in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” Consistently keeping this nugget of truth in sharp focus, I have found, has helped me rationalise my walk with God in this world.

The curious Gospel reading chosen by the Lectionary for today, is a flashback to the gruesome death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. It was a birthday turned into a beheading day. Mark, the writer of this detailed account of John’s decapitation, deftly sandwiches the story between Jesus sending out His disciples in twos on missionary work and the return of the disciples to Jesus, enthusing over what they did and taught. Perhaps it was to remind his (Mark’s) audience that Jesus was soon to follow in an equally gruesome death on the Roman Cross.

The name/title “Herod” in the Bible generally evokes troublesome memories. The Herod in question in today’s story is Herod Antipas who was one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ordered the death of innocent infants in a bid to get rid of Baby Jesus (Matthew 2). After the death of Herod-the-Great, his Kingdom was divided into four parts by the Roman Emperor and each of these four parts was governed by four of his sons. Hence, they were known more appropriately as tetrarchs (meaning ruler of one-quarter of the Kingdom). Herod Antipas, the central character of today’s reading had jurisdiction over Galilee and Perea (Matthew 14:1, Luke 9:7), while his half-brother Philip, ruled over Gentile territories on the far side of the river Jordan and northeast Galilee. It was the wife of this his half-brother Philip, which Antipas took to himself unlawfully as Herodias, that John the Baptist called him out for. And it was John the Baptist’s audacity to speak out against the tetrarch that landed him in prison.

As the plot of the banquet plays out, Herod Antipas through the brash promises he makes to his step-daughter (which he did not have to make) and showing off to the guests that surrounded him, backed himself into a corner. Completely self-inflicted, he suddenly finds himself in a place where his reputation and pride are jostling for pre-eminence over his conscience and sound moral judgement. He must now either behead a man whom he was surreptitiously fond of in order to please his wife’s daughter, or face the shame of being derided by his guests. His preferred choice is clear: rather than capitulate to his conscience, he’d rather decapitate John the Baptist and save face. Another sort of banquet takes place on reading Mark 6 further, where Jesus feeds the five thousand. Again, like Herod, Jesus finds himself put on the spot to make a choice. After teaching the multitude, he was invited to dismiss the people at the instance of his disciples- and with good reason too: it was late and there was no food to give to them. Jesus moved with compassion, for the people were like sheep with no shepherd, decided to keep the people back and feed them with bread and fish to their hearts’ content.

Mercifully, most of us do not find ourselves in a quandary over beheading somebody in order to please a family member. Nevertheless, we are put on the spot to make decisions which affect us and others from time to time- be they mundane or extraordinary. Perhaps even more challenging is when circumstances beyond our control foist undesirable situations on us, and we have to make up our minds on how to proceed to best manage the situation. An example of the latter might be the case of baby Charlie Gard, with a rare genetic condition, in the news recently. Any observer following the story cannot but feel immense compassion. I am in no doubt that either party, i.e. his parents and the Great Ormond Street Hospital have absolutely the best of intentions for little Charlie, but what either deems to be best for him come from diametrically opposed perspectives, yet, the judges must arrive at a decision.

All of us will at some point find ourselves debating or even agonising within ourselves like Herod or Jesus on what to do. We’d find ourselves in the place where conscience and morality are at war with the practicality and pragmatism of life. Is it ethical to take on that sort of a job, or is it rather more important to earn a living any way to pay the bills and feed the kids? Should I stand up to the social injustice, oppression and repression of others around me or do I just walk by and avoid trouble altogether? What will my family, friends and colleagues think of me if I welcomed the homeless into my home? What should be our attitude as a country towards people forced to use food banks, refugees and immigrants? Should we welcome them or are we simply full up? My finances are so tight, can I afford to give to those who perhaps need the money more than I do? These are a few of the many tough decisions we wrestle with in our personal and public lives, and I do not pretend to have any easy answers to hand out to you this evening.

If there is any ray of hope, we find it in the Epistle today. We are re-assured that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places by God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is also an abundance of forgiveness and redemption according to the riches of His grace. And as a mark of God’s promise, we are sealed with the Holy spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of the of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession- the same Holy Spirit with which we were sealed at our baptism. We encounter and engage with the Holy Spirit by prayerfully considering our options, listening to our intuitions and sharing our experience with others. Even where our decisions do not at the time turn out to be the best we could have made, we rest assured that God has our back and can turn our blighted moments into our brightest yet.

The words which the Priest pronounces at our baptism, declaring us as Christ’s own forever are apparently taken very seriously by God. Even when the peaks and troughs of life cause us to question or even derail us from faith, God actively seeks us out and through our experiences draws us closer to himself. Irrespective of whoever we are, whatever our story may be, whatever decisions we may have made in the past which cause us embarrassment, in God there is an opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning, because we bear his DNA and we are marked as His own forever. As we go out this week making choices, we are buoyed by the fact that we can place our trust in God to make the right decisions. It is important to state that the “right” decisions are not always the easiest or the ones that immediately make us look good to onlookers and we may even be castigated for it, but we can stick with it because God’s Spirit dwells within us.

Remember: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.