The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and if we go by that definition, today’s gospel story is anything but good news. Here we are in the midst of summer, when everything is supposed to be more easygoing than usual, and our lectionary throws such a heavy story at us!
So today we heard the gruesome story of the beheading of John the Baptist, who is at the whim of Herod and his family, and, no, this story has no redeeming quality. The death of John is no noble sacrifice, but brutal, senseless, and unjust violence. We don’t hear it in today’s gospel, but Jesus is very upset about the execution of John, he grieves, and he withdraws as he hears the news. Evil forces are at work in the world, and Jesus knows it well.
Now this is not the only incident of senseless and shocking violence in the Bible. What we call the Old Testament is full of it – thousand fall in battle, women are raped, whole tribes are slaughtered and/or enslaved – and even in the New Testament we witness again and again how the powerful come down on the weak. Herod has John the Baptist beheaded, Herod’s infamous father, Herod the Great, orders the slaughter of all boys 2 years and younger in Bethlehem. Stephen, one of the first apostles, is stoned to death. And we mustn’t forget how Jesus, God self, is tortured and killed on the cross.
Violence of course is nothing new to us. We witness it every day, and if only through reports in the media.
But beyond that, there are some among us in this community of faith who lost a family member, or friends, to acts of senseless violence. There are those among us who lived through World War II and have experienced violence, destruction, and death firsthand. Some in this congregation shared horrendous stories with me about their experiences in the war or its aftermath, the horror, the fear, the trauma. I remember the stories my grandmother, a refugee from Silesia, told about the constant fear of being raped. My grand aunt, as she was fleeing Silesia, had to witness how almost her entire family was blown up by a landmine. My grandfather couldn’t even talk about his experiences as a soldier on the Eastern front.
Then there are other kinds of violence some of us may have experienced, like domestic violence, be it at the hand of a parent or of a spouse. Some may have experienced violence at the hand of bullies. And we all bear our scars – sometimes physically, always emotionally.
Violence seems to be part of the fabric of the world we live in, one of the consequences of what we like to call the fall and the expulsion from paradise. And violence is deeply woven into the fabric of this country – in fact, the U.S. is built on violence – the submission, displacement, and eradication of Native People. Slavery. And this violence casts its shadows up to the present day. More people than in any other country in this world die in skirmishes with the police – and the vast majority of those killed are people of color. We’ve all heard the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, among so many others. And more people than in any other country (not fighting a war on its own turf) die of gun shots, be it intentional or accidental.
And many have this strange infatuation with violence – just look at the number of so called ‘action movies’, in which violence is glorified. These are the blockbusters, this is the kind of stuff many people like to watch.
And more subtle violence exists as well. Yes, there is such a thing as social or economic violence. In the psalm we prayed today, we heard how people long for God’s presence and the day when righteousness and peace kiss each other; other translations say justice and peace. No justice, no peace – the ancient people of God already knew that.
The prophet Amos, about whom we heard in our lesson from the Old Testament today, was sent from his home country of Judah to the sister kingdom of Israel to the north to prophesy doom over the people. And why did God condemn the people? Not because of sexual deviation, as some might guess, but because of the economic violence against the poor and weak in society. In the ancient Mosaic laws, there are actually plenty of rules about the just distribution of land and goods. Those ancient laws even prescribed a regular redistribution of possessions, especially the possession of land, and the forgiveness of debt, in order to prevent rampant inequality – this is called the year of jubilee in the Bible, or ‘Jubeljahr’ in German, and is supposed to happen every 7×7 years. Everyone living in the covenant with God is meant to be protected by these laws and to be treated with dignity and compassion. Now if we took those words of God as seriously today as some other verses…
In today’s lesson, we get a little snippet about the reaction to Amos’ prophecies: he is urged to go back to his homeland and prophesy there. People don’t heed, people don’t want to heed the word and the warning of God, as if God’s voice could be made void by not listening – and, be it coincidence or not, shortly thereafter Israel is sacked by the Assyrians in the year 722. The society of Israel was so corrupted and corroded that it couldn’t withstand an outside attack.
Jesus continues in the tradition of Amos as he condemns inequality and the disregard of the poor and the weak. But then Jesus decries any kind of injustice. As I already mentioned, Jesus is upset when he hears of John the Baptist’s cruel and undignified death. He knows that evil hasn’t been overcome yet, and that what we call sin is alive and well in the world. And Jesus’ prayer in all that is: Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name – thy kingdom come. And we sense in this prayer the desperate longing for God’s kingdom to come and conquer all evil – may thy kingdom come – as much as we sense the defiant hope that, indeed, God’s kingdom of peace and justice will conquer all – thy kingdom will come.
But then think of the next line in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come – thy will be done. I think these two lines are linked like that on purpose. God’s kingdom is realized where God’s will is done. What is God’s will? We may argue about the details, but we know about the ultimate vision of God’s kingdom, which Jesus likens to a big party to which all are invited, or a tree in which all birds under the heavens find food and shelter, or a house with many mansions where all God’s children find an eternal home. John, the author of the Book of Revelations, gives us visions of the City of God, with gates that are wide open to welcome all – a place where suffering and mourning and crying and death will be no more. No more inequality. No more need. No more violence. No more suffering. No more hate. No more death. I think we get the idea what God’s will is for all of creation.
And Jesus prays that this will be done. May it be done – and: it will be done! And that’s where we come in. Now we may pray and think, ah, it’s up to someone else to do God’s will. But we are the ones who, in the end, carry on the legacy of Jesus Christ. We are the ones who are called to act according to God’s will, and to live into the great vision of God’s kingdom.
Most if not all of us here have experienced violence in our lives – and it hurts, and we know that it ain’t right and just. The least we can do to live according to God’s will in our world today is to have true compassion with all those who suffer from all the obvious and maybe not so obvious forms of violence in this world today. To pray for them. To help wherever we can. If we feel we can’t help ourselves, to look for people who can. To speak up for those who suffer. To interfere, if we can, and to not look away when we witness violence against any of our brothers or sisters, or all of God’s creation, for that matter. To be honest with ourselves: we may not actively commit any acts of violence, but we are part of a system where violence in expected and, in many cases, condoned or even justified.
We live in a world that is still far from heaven. Yet: the kingdom of God is already growing among us. God’s will is done, often in small and unnoticed ways. There is hope. And we all are bearers of this hope. We all have the power to do God’s will – and thus help God’s kingdom grow just a little more. And whenever we do see glimpses of God’s kingdom, moments when justice and peace kiss each other, and there is relief from suffering, hopefully we are encouraged and will want more of this and live more and more faithfully into this vision.
Jesus Christ died for this vision. Jesus Christ died for us and for all of God’s beloved creation. So may our fervent prayer be: Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done – on earth – as it is in heaven.
This post is also available in: German