Advent 3 ~ St Mandela the Baptist
Our news has been full – perhaps overfull - this week with retrospective comment upon, celebration of and even veneration of Nelson Mandela. One news journalist I saw even went to describe him as something of a secular saint. I’m not sure what a secular saint is – or even if it is possible to be one - but the BBC seem to think there can be such a thing – and it is true that the church have extended the concept of Sainthood to include weird and wonderful, dodgy, subversive characters.
People like John the Baptist, for example.
A saint is, in most dictionaries, someone who points us to Christ by their life and faith, someone who perhaps dies for the faith, performs miracles maybe, and who is a follower of Jesus. Someone who shines with the light of Christ. I guess a secular saint is simply an extremely good bloke – although I’m not sure we should describe Nelson Mandela in those terms though. He was after all, imprisoned for being a terrorist, or perhaps a freedom fighter if you prefer. More realistically we might say that he was locked up for saying things he shouldn’t have said, advocating actions which the ruling powers did not like, and for generally being a dangerous embarrassment. Just like John the Baptist, in fact.
For sure, the connections, parallels and similarities between Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist are really quite interesting. For perhaps they both shone with the light of Christ in their own ways. The main difference of course, is that Mandela, secular saint that he might be, was not a secular martyr – he survived his long ordeal in prison, whereas John had his head chopped off by a weak, tyrannical dictator who didn’t like truth and justice and favoured his own clan rather than let anyone else share power or influence. John, if you remember, ended up criticizing Herod for his adulterous marriage, for which he ended up in prison. But before Herod’s second wife’s daughter – known as Salome – did her naughty dance and beguiled Herod into having John executed, he had a crisis of faith and sent his disciples to challenge Jesus about who he really was.
It is a strange question that they ask, really. According to St Luke, Jesus and John are cousins, born six months apart. John has known Jesus all his life. Wacky camel hair-raising baptizer that he is, he met Jesus at the Jordan a couple of years previously, and saw the Holy Spirit descend as God declared him to be his Son, and in John’s gospel John declares that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.
Can he have forgotten this? - Surely not.
Although many of us do sometimes forget who Jesus is, and it never hurts to remind ourselves that Jesus is not just a nice bloke with nice things to say: a kind of Biblical Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, with a bit of Princess Diana rolled into one.
Or maybe John thought that Jesus had lost his way a bit, that Jesus wasn’t behaving quite how he - John the Baptist – expected or wanted him to. Perhaps he thought Jesus’ disciples would spring him from prison, start a revolution, or somesuch. He wasn’t the only one to think like that at the time. Everyone else got Jesus wrong – even Peter and James and John, so we can’t really blame John, or be surprised, if he too got the wrong end of the stick. So perhaps this is a provocative question – ‘come on Jesus, I’m languishing in jail here, get on with it!’.
The dear departed Nelson Mandela might be able to throw some light on this conundrum. Being in prison is very disillusioning – disorientating. Whatever news you get is distorted, filtered, or simply untrue. Who knows what John was hearing, and who knows what it must have been like for Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Unbearable hardship, and the fear of death, either from violence or long drawn out pointlessness. And in either case, the utter negation of everything you stand for and hold dear. If John’s mental state was altered a bit, we would quite understand. And even if it wasn’t, that he might have lost some confidence, had doubts, or simply needed affirmation of the truth of what he had given everything for and was about to die for, is an understandable, human reaction. John needed to be told he was doing the right thing, and that he wasn’t wasting everything for no reason. He needed to hear Jesus encourage, support, and even love him for what he was enduring for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
I suspect that there were times when Nelson Mandela could have resonated with that. Times when in prison he might have doubted his cause, wondered whether it was all worth it, contemplated whether he was throwing away his life and freedom for a lost cause. Or is it truly that both men were so wedded to their integrity, so committed to their beliefs and actions that they were prepared to go to any lengths? Well, we have been reminded how in 1963 Nelson Mandela said publicly he was prepared to die for the freedom of South Africa. And John the Baptist must have known who he was upsetting and where it might lead.
And then we have Jesus’ answer to consider: John asks a question, and Jesus tells him that the answer to his question – ‘are you the Messiah?’ – is to be found in the actions that are clearly in evidence around the place. The blind see, the lame walk: these are signs of the coming of the Messiah, prophesied in scripture. It’s Jesus’ way of reassuring John, in the gentlest possible way, that he is – still – the real thing. ‘Don’t take offence, cousin’ he seems to say, ‘it is me and I am the real thing. Just look and see what is happening around you’.
And then, in our gospel narrative, Jesus goes on to commend John as the greatest among the prophets, but also at the same time he denigrates him a bit by saying that he is lesser than anyone who comes after him as a follower of Christ. John is not a follower of Christ, he is a preceder of Christ – one who prepares the way. And John himself knows it, early in his ministry declaring that he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. He is humble, but he is right. He is someone who knows himself, who knows both how important, and insignificant he is at the same time.
Interestingly, the Church – Christ’s church – has treated him rather unusually, declaring him to be a saint – and an important one at that. If Nelson Mandela can be described as a secular saint – a contradiction in terms probably - then there is also a conundrum with describing John the Baptist as a saint, commonplace as that is. For John the Baptist was never a Christian. But if we can have secular saints, post-Christian saints we might call them - perhaps we can have pre-Christian saints too. The early church has certainly thought so, declaring John to be a holy one of God, washed in the blood of the lamb, as it were, even though he, like Moses, Elijah and others before him, never lived to see the death and resurrection of Jesus, and therefore could not proclaim nor witness to it. He is the last in the line of prophets, but is not a disciple – indeed he had his own disciples. And it may be that part of the story about his disciples coming to him was on their own behalf. John was in prison, and perhaps they are wondering whether to change teams – to become disciples of Jesus. Perhaps they did after John died.
So John stands on a threshold of a new order, a new freedom, a new salvation, a new faith. And his role is to point to it – to point to Jesus, in word and action. It costs him his life – and indeed it cost Jesus his too.
John was a martyr in the broad sense of the word – someone who died for his beliefs and righteous actions. Later, Christian martyrs would come to be defined as those who suffered and died for their Christian faith – for holding to the faith of Christ crucified and risen. John could not have done that, but is recognized as and called saint because he nevertheless served Christ and affirmed him as Messiah. As a martyr and a saint in the broad sense of the word, he is honoured by the church with a feast day on June 24th. For like all saints, he points us to Christ – showing us the way, and living a life which characterizes Christian virtues and serves as inspiration to those who follow him. One of whom, perhaps, was Nelson Mandela.
The other day, an eminent and widely published hymn writer sent me a hymn he had just written. It is about Nelson Mandela. I thought it pretty impressive that someone could get out a hymn celebrating Mandela’s life so quickly – and it is pretty good. My only concern about it was that it did not mention God or Jesus at all, nor was it addressed to God or Jesus, and nor did it connect anything about Nelson Mandela to Christianity in any way. Most hymns tick one or more of these boxes, and those that don’t, might simply be classed as poems, and invariably cause controversy.
Dare I mention ‘I vow to thee my country’?...
No, perhaps not!
The point is, what I was sent is a poem, extolling the virtues of a great man. Of that there is no doubt, and his place in history is unique and well-earned. The poem is a classic epitaph, and stands in a long tradition of writing poems when someone famous dies. But it is not a hymn, nor could it be.
Even Mandela’s predilection for forgiveness and reconciliation, laudable and inspiring as it was and is, does not make him a saint, or a suitable subject of a hymn. What might, was his faith and witness to it. And we have some evidence of that:
In 1985 he wrote to the Archbishop of Cape Town saying how much he had appreciated Chaplains’ ministry in prison, and there is a lovely account published in this week’s Church Times by Harry Wiggett, who was one such chaplain.
He tells how he gave Nelson Mandela communion, so let me read you part of his account:
“On this particular occasion, when I reached the Peace, Nelson gently stopped me and went over to the young warder on watch. “Brand,” he asked, “are you a Christian?” “Yes,” the warder, Christo Brand, responded. “Well then, you must take off your cap, and join us round this table. You cannot sit apart. This is holy communion, and we must share and receive it together.”
To my utter astonishment, Brand meekly removed his cap, and, joining the circle, received holy communion. I was deeply humbled because I, the priest, had not thought of doing that. To appreciate the significance of this incredible act of inclusive love, one needs to be aware not only of its spiritual, but also of its political significance. The fact that Christo Brand was white, and that he had responded to an invitation from a black, and so naturally, was deeply moving. Brand had political power, but submitted to the power of the Spirit working through Nelson, the prisoner. In Christo Brand's Dutch Reformed Church, blacks and whites were not allowed to worship together. Nelson had Christo joining us in worship. Our Sanctus must truly have gladdened the Trinitarian heart that morning. That is the Nelson Mandela I know and love and pray for. That is the spiritual Nelson Mandela who, through his loving and living of life, and seeing all in the image of God, belonging to one another, that has brought hope not only to those of this multi-faceted nation, but also to millions throughout the world. He truly shone with the light of Christ.”
John the Baptist shone with the light of Christ, whose way he prepared, a lone voice in the wilderness calling for repentance. Nelson Mandela joins the ranks of countless men and women who represent the stand of goodness against evil, the triumph of faith and hope for the downtrodden. He was no secular saint, but rather one of the holy ones of God – A Christian who shared the Lord’s Supper of hope and redemption.
So it is strangely – serendipitously fitting that on the day the world says farewell to Nelson Mandela, the church focuses on John the Baptist. And we do so, in this Advent season, to remind ourselves that while John prepared his generation for the first coming at Bethlehem, his legacy serves to remind us that it is the return of our Lord for which we now wait, and we begin to approach Christmas in the traditional Victorian ways we have come to love, we need to have held before us the bigger picture of Jesus, of whom we say or sing:
Christ has died - Christ is risen - Christ will come again
John could never have said that – Nelson Mandela was able to, and, by account, did frequently. And we can and do – what a blessing! And that is why Jesus says of John:
“among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”.
The first are the last, and the last first. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/12/13