John is best remembered for baptizing Christ in the Jordan River. He had a great following, which took to heart the message of repentance that he preached throughout the vast wilderness region surrounding this famous river. Many thought that he was the long-awaited Messiah, but John was always quick to point out that ‘There comes one after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.’
John's life was brought to an abrupt ending, largely because of his criticism of Herod's taking of his brother's wife. He refused to be silenced, raising his voice in protest of this immoral act, even though it meant his arrest and imprisonment.
Herod was reluctant to punish the Baptist any further, for he was intrigued by John's preaching. He was forced to take action against him, however, after promising the daughter of Herodias [his brother's wife whom he had married] any request she wanted to be granted when she entertained the King with her dancing at his birthday feast. After conferring with her vengeful mother, the daughter approached Herod with this chilling request: ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’
The Church solemnly remembers the day of John's beheading with prayer and fasting [August 29]. We are asked to follow his example, and we are urged to fearlessly defend God's laws. We must never waver in protection of the sacred truths upon which our entire Christian faith is based.
The words quoted above seem harmless enough, pretty standard fare for the backs of church bulletins, giving us some examples and then urging us to imitate them, something to read while getting settled into the pew to enjoy the service, I mean, to participate in the service. What caught my eye and ear was the words in the very last paragraph, ‘we are urged to fearlessly defend God's laws. We must never waver in protection of the sacred truths upon which our entire Christian faith is based.’ And quick as lightning, the Christian equivalent of Islamic jihad came to mind—the Crusades, and every other ‘Christian’ application of this admonition to ‘fearlessly defend’ and ‘never waver in protection’ of the truth of our faith and our God. Terrorism in the name of God, even if you are not literally killing those you think are offending God's laws, but only emotionally maiming them, is still, when compared to the words of Jesus Christ, the service of satan, who is called ‘the accuser’ in the book of Revelation (12:10).
My mind quickly reinterpreted what I had just read, as I have tried to apply it in my own life. For me, to ‘fearlessly defend God's laws’ is to live my life in a way that proves the righteousness of God, so that if someone had no access to the bible, whether through mere ignorance of its contents or by prejudice against it, they could ‘read’ the laws of God in observing my behavior. Stop! I am not saying I do this faultlessly or consistently, but this is my intention, and in spite of my human weakness and ability to sin, by God's grace I sometimes succeed. The same is true of the principle to ‘never waver in protection of the sacred truths,’ again, I believe with the surest certainty, that this means that it is our responsibility as Christians to be a good witness. And a witness to what? Why, nothing else but what the holy gospel really is, not a religious perfectionism or a moral righteousness that we impose on others, but what holy apostle Paul says it is, ‘Remember the good news that I carry, Jesus Christ risen from the dead’ (2 Timothy 2:8 JB).
Thinking about what we have seen in the world since the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, it's hard for me not to recoil when I read or hear words such as these in the context of Christianity, especially within Orthodoxy, because I fear that for many, the only interpretation of ‘defend’ and ‘protect’ is the one which causes us to impose on others, not on ourselves, standards of belief or behavior that we cannot achieve in our own lives. Again, the holy apostle Paul addresses this in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans. It is very ironic that religious fundamentalism—is there any other kind, even when it expresses itself as political?—focuses not on the whole text of the scriptures being used, but only on those that fulfill its ambitions. If we are historians, and if we are honest, we will see these same anti-Christian forces at work throughout the history of the Church, committing not crimes of the Church, but crimes against it, and against Christ.
After two thousand years, except for fits and starts, it seems like the Church has made only the beginnings of following Christ in every generation. It seems that very few have understood what it means to declare that Jesus Christ is ‘the new Man.’ This is not a religious declaration. This is a declaration of war on our fallen human nature, coupled with a means of escape from what we have become, to a new nature that is accessible to us even now. Christ Himself says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ This is not a carrot on a stick held ahead of us to keep us going forward. Christ almost never tells of that which is unattainable here on earth but only in heaven. He is the most practical of men, following His heavenly Father who likewise, having made the heavens and the earth, is most practical. What Christ tells us is for the here and now first, and later, what shall it become?
Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not be repaid a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—not without persecutions—now in this present time, and in the world to come, eternal life.
Many who are first will be last, and the last first.’
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ,
the Son of God…