Last week we explored how John’s proclamation and baptisms in the wilderness gained the attention of both Church and State. It was a free offering to all people without distinction, not a carrot on a stick to bring people into compliance to the tax violence of the State or the ethical violence of the Religion. It was a widespread message of liberation that sin was no longer keeping people from God, no strings, no loopholes, no exceptions. John is forerunning a subversive kingdom, a promised new world that is not originating from either Church nor State.
When the religious leaders heard about John, they rushed out to the Jordan to investigate. John’s reception of them is anything but a welcome. He pays no homage to their pomp or their process. Calling them a Brood of Vipers (v.7) he makes it really clear that if they truly want to be a part of this New Thing God is doing, then they would need to abandon the prideful power plays that have hijacked historical Judaism (v.9). Like everyone else, they would have to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (V.8). This institutional kingdom was about to be under cut–“The axe is laid to root…” (v.10).
I imagine there was an emergency board meeting once they got back. John’s message was going to be a problem for religion and the main character hasn’t even come on stage yet. What would it look like if people could be forgiven and experience the favor of God without institutional power?
The State also heard about John the Baptist. King Herod actually liked John and found his message quite compelling and perplexing (Mark 6:21). Herod desired to protect John but even the most powerful king is no match for sobering truth. John knew Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, to be his own. John calls it like it is naming them both as adulterers and perhaps even worse.
Herod was content to let this ride, but Herodias would not tolerate having her reputation tarnished so she made Herod throw him in prison, but she wanted him dead. On his birthday Herod wanted Herodias’s daughter (Salomé) to dance for him. She agreed only if he would grant her a request. In front of all the nobles and military Herod promised to give up to half of his kingdom. After the dance, Salomé requested (at her mothers insistence) that Herod provide the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Knowing a King cannot go back on his word, he had John beheaded. Once in the flow of institutional power it’s almost impossible to go against tradition.
Religion and state are two sides of the same coin. They are both extremely powerful and ironically take liberty from people by providing small bits of freedom intermixed with taxation. It’s important we understand the frameworks of power, otherwise we will not really understand the Good News or Gospel. Paul says: we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness… (Ephesians 6:12).
The battle is the same for each of us today. Liberation is series of breaches away from institutional power. The Gospel liberates us from each one in turn. I believe (Corporate Christianity) has neutered the Gospel into a detergent for spot free living. We pay billions to have our naughtiness washed. Of course we slip right back into naughtiness, so institutional religion has created a program that John and Jesus subvert.
I’m not saying the Gospel doesn’t cleanse sin, I’m saying that I’m no longer convinced that “shampoo Christianity” was gospel’s goal. The Gospel is a (good news) message about the arrival of a paradoxical Kingdom.
The Gospel liberates people in a way that Religion and State cannot. It has one rule, institutional power requires many. The gospel frees everyone to be themselves by vaporizing “otherness” leaving an experience where diversity and unity perfectly coexist. If you think I’m talking about Heaven, you are correct. If you think I’m talking about a magical place beyond earth, then you’re mistaken. The message John died for was that The Kingdom of God starts now (Matthew 3:2)!
The evidence of the gospel’s power is that it undermines institutional powers. The prophets said long ago that this kingdom was coming. A kingdom where the rule and ruler dwell within, and God forgets all sin (Jeremiah 31:33-34). A kingdom that would be “Good News” to the poor, a binding of broken hearts, liberty to captives, opening of prison doors, and a proclamation of the Lords favor (Isaiah 61:1-2). The sign that this kingdom was coming was that Elijah would return. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was essentially the Elijah of their day.
John’s message that this kingdom had now come was the best news anyone could here, except Religion and State powers. This promised kingdom subverts corruption and abuses to personal power. It derails the institutional status quo. This kingdom of personal power disrupts everything from the inside out. It was never God’s design that people have a king (1 Samuel 8:6). They were to be free and God would govern each from within. Kings create dependents.
To know the Gospel is to have eyes to see it’s subversion. It’s seeing all ruling powers as they are. We must appraise their reach as well as our participation. Joining the Gospel is to re-think (repent) everything. It’s to join each revolution as it becomes visible to you. The Gospel questions all authority. It invites us to leave our three sided prisons. It’s to trust that something bigger, and more expansive is transpiring. Are we awake enough to see it? Jesus said all of this has already been fulfilled (Luke 4:18).
This story of personal power subverting institutional power has been told repeatedly. It’s the backbone of American. It’s the story of Rock-N-Roll. It’s the marginalized rising up. It’s the resistance of oppression. It’s the basis of civil rights, it’s the Christoform pattern of all life. It’s the foundation of Hollywood blockbusters, the theme in every great song, the Gospel is everywhere people push back against suffering.
Do we now have eyes to see it?
Religion and State can’t see it. John and Jesus were right under the nose of those who should know better and they missed it.
May that not be the case for us.