Sunday 13th July 2003
Year B, The Forth Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter's, Chailey
Ephesians 1:1-14
Mark 6:14-29

Have you ever, in a fit of enthusiasm, blurted out a promise and immediately regretted it? One minute you are living a balanced, normal life, the next you have volunteered to run the Sunday School even though you don't much like children; or you have been generous in offering your son the loan of your car while you go on holiday and then spent your time away worrying that he might have had a crash? It isn't wrong to make promises like this but it can make us very uncomfortable.

We tell ourselves we should never have done it; we struggle between vague, unfocused resentment and vaguely doing our best.

We are sometimes lured into making promises for less honourable motives. We promise - for the sake of peace and quiet, an easy life, perhaps promotion at work - to keep quiet when we know we should inform somebody about a problem or act ourselves. We make promises to buy time, to put off the difficult. Sometimes we make a promise to show how powerful we are. And sometimes we make a promise we know we are not going to keep.

In King Herod's case, the motive was tacky, to say the least, and it sounds from Mark as if it was a sudden promise; the rash word of a lecher pleasing his adulterous wife Herodias through pleasing her daughter; or perhaps, based on his track record, it was a lecherous gesture towards the daughter. After all, I don't imagine that she was dancing the ancient Roman equivalent of a matronly military two-step. Either way, it was a promise made in public, in front of his aristocrats and generals.

At least when we promise we don't aspire to the kingly "anything you want". In the parish context this would be fatal if only because it's near impossible to give something up once you've got it. But Herod was a bit of a show off, what our tabloids would call flamboyant (which generally means drunk and/or promiscuous); he liked to impress. So he made an outrageous, open ended promise.

Meanwhile, John the Baptist was in prison because he had spoken out against Herod marrying his brother Philip's wife. Herod had been impressed by John who had clearly had long discussions with him while he was in prison, perhaps something like Daniel's conversations with Nebuchadnezzar.  Herod wanted John kept quiet but he was also astute enough to know that John was a man of substance and he could not bring himself to kill him. And where this story opens we see Herod still so much in awe of John that when he hears about Jesus through the teaching of the Disciples, he thinks that John has risen from the dead.

Imagine his horror, then, when he was asked, as a reward for dancing, for the head of John on a platter. As long as he was reasonably discreet and did not upset the Roman administration, Herod had plenty of leeway in gratuitous punishment and death. His later problem with Jesus arose because it was all very high profile and quasi judicial. So his horror was not because he couldn't keep the promise but because of the sheer unpleasantness of it. In an age accustomed to violence as a form of pleasure, even more than our own, this was still pretty gruesome. So at one level we are being warned about making rash promises; we should always think clearly about our motives and about our ability to keep our promises. At a deeper level we are being warned about making sinful promises; I know that I should use the famous "What would Jesus do?" but at the age of 51 I still apply the "What would mother think?" test.

But the clue to the true significance of promises lies in the text from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Now some people have quite a lot of difficulty with Paul. It isn't just that the theology is very dense and sometimes highly technical, and made no easier by translation, it is also that he sometimes takes on a slightly hectoring tone. He is a man in a hurry, gathering souls for Christ before the Day of Judgment which is imminent. But in the next few weeks you are in for a treat because his letter to the Ephesians is, alongside parts of Galatians, as sunny as he ever gets. Paul lived at Ephesus for some years and so he knows some of the people he is writing to. Of course he wants to remind his listeners of the essence of Christianity and he has a number of warnings about ethical behaviour; but the tone is positive and encouraging.

So, after the briefest of salutations in what is a relatively short letter, he gets to the heart of the matter immediately. From the beginning of time affirming Christians were pre-destined to be saved by and enfolded in the love of Jesus Christ; and our sins will be forgiven by virtue of God's Grace. Let me break that into three pieces.

First, how do we come to grips with the idea of predestination in an age so obsessed with individualism, self expression and free will? God made us to love Him and we all know that love which is not freely given is not love at all but only the appearance of love. So we have human wills to choose between trying to give all our love to God and turning away from Him. Just as a parent will accurately forecast the behaviour of a child without attempting to alter it, so God has made us so that we can love Him out of choice. But the essence of the predestination lies not in how we will behave, although, of course, God knows for all time how we will each exercise our human will) but the predestination lies in what will happen if we do our best to bend our wills to God's will and to find our greatest freedom in obedience to His Word.

For just as God knew from before time began how he would send His Son to earth, he also knew what the consequence of that incarnation would be; and Paul is saying that we also know what the consequence is. We know because Jesus has promised us that if we believe in Him we shall have everlasting life; and he has told us that he is empowered to say that on behalf of His Father; and that we can rely upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, how can we have any understanding of the love of Jesus? Again, we have the evidence of the life of Jesus, of events so recent that the Gospels had almost certainly not been written when Paul was writing this letter from Rome. The love of Jesus, Paul says, is so great that we are his adopted children; but adopted according to His will, not because of something we have done ourselves. And this promise is under-written by the power of God; He is the only one who can truly say: "Anything is possible".

And that links with the idea of the forgiveness of sins through Grace. This is not a transactional situation whereby our attitude or behaviour somehow merit forgiveness. We are forgiven because we have faith in the redemptive Act of Jesus who died for us on the Cross.

And that is Paul at his simplest!

Translating that into something that we can grasp, it comes down to this. We should not behave ethically, or righteously as Scripture puts it, simply because this is the best way to preserve social coherence; We should not behave righteously because this will somehow get us into God's good books, as if he was some kind of supernatural accountant; we should behave righteously because we are the children of God who love Him because He loves us completely.

No amount of good behaviour or fine intentions will ever be enough for us to earn salvation; it is not our works which will earn salvation but the sacrifice of Jesus. How we behave is simply an acknowledgment of our gratitude for the fact that we have been accorded a relationship with God through His Son and in Fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us back to promises. The Readings for today contrast the shallowness of human promises with the depth of the Divine promise. We have the promise to Adam, the promise to Noah, the promises to Moses, Aaron, Joshua and the exiled and then returning chosen people. We have the Covenant given at Mount Sinai and the fulfilment of the promise to Adam in the ultimate sacrifice of God's Son upon an instrument of torture and death upon our earth.  By His very nature, God is a keeper of promises and he has made it easier for His mortal creatures to understand by intervening directly in human affairs, in the Old Testament and in the New, through the life of Jesus and through the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

And so, it is not difficult to have faith in God who keeps His promises to His children. In our own lives we judge promises according to the track record of the individual or organisation making them. When it comes to keeping promises, God has an impeccable track record. In our lives we have to trust thousands of people and mostly they come through; and so we should Trust God our Father unconditionally. In our lives we often go forward without knowing where the journey will end but we do it with a sense of faith in ourselves. How much more, then, should we have faith in the promise of salvation. We must, as children of Jesus, recognise our child like quality, keeping our innocence and leaving ourselves open to wonder. Above all, we must not transfer our cynicism about the world into cynicism about God's promise to us.

Unlike Herod who is promising "anything you want" but has very limited means of delivering, God has promised us everything. Eternal life with Him would seem to be a good place to begin; and end.

Now let us finally go back to the story of Herod as Mark tells it. The Herod family get a pretty bad press from the New Testament, from the massacre of the Holy Innocents to the death of Jesus, but there is just a hint of a better side to Herod, the man who liked to listen to John the Baptist. Mark, who is usually brusque, gives this story a lot of space and fills it with unusually rich detail and nuance. Herod isn't such a simple character after all; and in the face of that kind of human complexity and in the face of predestination within the compass of the Divine Will, who are we to judge others? God, so to speak, deals the hand we have to play and only He knows how well we have played it. We owe God literally endless gratitude for His goodness to us; so let us keep our promises to Him as He keeps His to us and stop worrying about how well our fellow creatures appear to be keeping theirs.

K Carey

27th June 2003