Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; (John 19:11)
Reading the gospel today during the Eucharist (Mark 6: 14-29), I was struck by how modern and familiar it all sounded. It is a grim story: the tale of Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter dancing before her stepfather at a great feast; his rash promise to her that as a reward she may ask for anything she wants, “up to half (his) kingdom,” and after receiving advice from her mother, the girl asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter – now. It is modern and familiar because we all know stories of contemporary tyrants – Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Idi Amin – and tyrannies, where people with too much power, full of pride and rage, unrestrained and uncontrolled but most of all deeply afraid, murder those who speak out against them or any hapless man or woman who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such people are also often very weak, oscillating between decisions. You notice in Mark’s account that Herod’s stepdaughter asks for the head of John the Baptist now. We know that Herod was fascinated by John’s preaching and might not have carried out the execution after his guests had gone home.
Power and prestige as we know can be very dangerous things. It is easy, as someone has said, to begin “to believe your publicity.” What a contrast it was, therefore, to be present yesterday at the Service of Thanksgiving for our outgoing Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens and to see how, as part of that service, he took off and put down the symbols of his office. It was very moving and quite painful to watch him take off his mitre and cope and lay them on the altar. He was now simply the priest and those surrounding him, the dean and canons of the cathedral, dressed in bright robes that denote a certain power and authority, seemed for a second more dominant; Bishop Tim, diminished – but of course, that was the point. He is only a man, as is every human being despite any marks of office. But then Tim knelt in front of the altar to pray and he was suddenly “everyman”, one of us, in need of God’s wisdom and mercy; not a lonely figure because one with us – made one through Christ Jesus, who also stripped himself of all power and authority when he came to us.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2: 5b – 7)
How glorious it is ‘only’ to be a man or a woman, made in the image of God, his adopted child. What a relief at the end of the day to be simply yourself.