Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St James
July 26, 2010, 8:42 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 25th July 2010, at Evensong

We don’t usually commemorate saints’ days on Sundays, but we are doing so today for St James. This is a big day in Spain, where he is the National Saint, and it is widely believed in Spain that he is buried at Santiago di Compostela. When St James’s Day falls on a Sunday, the whole year is designated a Holy Year. The great incense-burner, the Botafumeiro, which is only used on the greatest festivals, will this morning have swung from transept to transept of the Cathedral while the procession made its way to the Sanctuary for Mass. The legend is that before he died St James was the Apostle who preached the Gospel in Spain before returning to Palestine to be martyred. After his death his body was miraculously transported back to Spain from Jerusalem. Such legends, like the similar one that Mary Magdalene, Martha and Lazarus were take by angels to France, were popular in the Middle Ages as different shrines vied for popularity as pilgrim-destinations. The hat, the staff and the cockleshell became the badge of pilgrims bound for Compostela.

But if we turn from legend to history, what do we know about St James, and what lessons does his life teach us? From the Gospels, we know that he was a fisherman, one of two sons of Zebedee who were called by Jesus to be his disciples. Today’s second reading from St Mark tells of his call. His brother John, and two other Galilean fishermen, Peter and Andrew, had previously been followers of John the Baptist, so it is quite likely that James was too. Mark places the call of these four right at the beginning of his Gospel, as Jesus began his public ministry. They were the original disciples.

James, of course, is what we call him in English- his real, Hebrew, name was Jacob. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus gave the brothers the nick-name of “Boanerges”, probably an attempt to render into Greek the Aramaic “benai regesh”, meaning “sons of anger” rather than “sons of thunder”. This suggests that the brothers were rather fiery and quick-tempered, and this is born out by a story St Luke tells. On one occasion, some Samaritan villagers had refused hospitality to Jesus and his companions, and James and his brother asked Jesus if he would let them call down fire from heaven, to punish them (as an old story says the prophet Elijah had done). Jesus gently reproved them, saying, “You don’t understand what Spirit you have received”. He meant that the Holy Spirit is not destructive and vengeful, but life-giving and forgiving.

In this morning’s Gospel, we saw James and his brother putting their foot in it again. Matthew says that it was their mother who did the talking, but Mark suggests that the brothers themselves were behind the request to have the two chief places in Jesus’s kingdom. As the request was made behind the backs of the other ten disciples, they were understandably annoyed. Jesus explained that, in general, closeness to him means willingness to accept humiliation and even death. Were they willing for that? Probably they didn’t understand his talk of “drinking his cup”, and answered rather glibly. Jesus told them that they would share his sufferings, but even so the precise position of anyone in eternity is not just a matter of doling out rewards like an earthly ruler. God has settled such things from eternity, and, as far as his purely human knowledge went, even Jesus could not tell what God’s decree might be. What he did know was that human ideas of power and prestige do not apply. He had come to save and to serve, and those wanting to be close to him must also serve and suffer. As Fr Richard, quoting T.S.Eliot, reminded us this morning, wanting to be important is a cause of endless trouble. If you really want to be big, says our Lord, you must make yourself small. It is a bit like the Red Queen’s advice to Alice in Through the Looking-glass: to reach your destination you must set out in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, with all his faults and mistakes, James was one of the “inner circle” of Apostles, with his brother John and with Peter. All three impulsive and inclined to make mistakes. Maybe our Lord prefers such people to the cautious no-risk-takers. Even Peter’s own brother, Andrew, who seems a much quieter man, was not in this group. When Jairus’s little daughter was raised to life, Peter and James and John were with him. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, Peter and James and John were with him. When he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter and James and John were with him. A few years after the Resurrection, Herod Agrippa I was king (the nephew of the Herod who had killed the Baptist). He was a puppet of the Romans, but he wanted to be popular with the Jews. He arrested some leading Christians, including James, and had James executed, the first of the Twelve to be martyred. Unlike other Apostles, then, who were missionaries to Rome, and to India, and so on, he had no great achievements in a worldly sense. His career as an Apostle was cut short. But we still call him “the great” St James, and we call his namesake, who led the Jerusalem Church for many years, and wrote an Epistle which is in the New Testament, is called “the less”. Perhaps this too teaches us that God’s estimate is not as ours is. He looks at the heart, and underneath the quick temper and ambition he saw in James a nature just as loving and loyal as that of his brother John, the very last of the Apostles to die, who taught us that God is Love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.

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