Thursday 27th July 2017
Acts 11:27-12:2 2 Cor 4:7-15 Mt 20:20-28 James Apstl
Tuesday last, the 25th July was a ‘red-letter’ day in the Church calendar, the feast of St James, the Apostle, the first of the Apostles to be martyred, who was brother of John and son of Zebedee. He is also, as Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, so last Sunday and Tuesday were times of major celebration in his honour here in Spain. We know that James and John were fishermen in the family business, who, being approached by Jesus as they were mending their nets, we’re told in Matthew 4, left everything and followed him. Luke, in his account explains that they, with Peter had spent a fruitless night fishing, but when on Jesus instruction Peter tries again, he is overwhelmed by the quantity of fish, requiring the other two to come and help. And from that moment on, these three became the inner circle of disciples, present at such major events as the Transfiguration.
After the Ascension of Christ, this James, as opposed to James the son of Alpheus and James the Lord’s brother, is mentioned just twice; first in Acts 1, as being among those who met to choose a replacement for Judas, and then again in this morning’s reading as having been executed at the hand of Herod in Jerusalem in around AD 44. There is no information about him at all in the intervening years, which has been used to give credence to the theory that in this period he travelled, preaching Christ throughout the Roman Empire, reaching as far as Spain, before returning to Jerusalem, where he was killed; when legend has it that his body was returned to Spain for burial at Santiago de Compostela.
It’s always of course hard to know where such legends come from, but certainly the silence in scripture is puzzling, particularly since, as evidenced in our reading this morning, Herod Agrippa considered him important enough to be beheaded, before then turning his attention to Peter, for had we continued to the following verse, we would have read: “King Herod had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword and then after he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”. Yes James was still very much right up there with the greatest of the apostles, still linked in those two verses with Peter and John, who had been with him throughout all their years of training with Jesus.
And whilst reading that passage from Acts, I’m struck by the Timing. The Christians in Jerusalem were struggling with poverty, probably due to some extent to an early form of discrimination, making it harder for the followers of Christ, to find work. And then to cap it all, they receive warning of a coming famine when even the scraps of food they’d been able to find would dry up. How worried they must have felt, but how wonderful that we read of the Christians in Antioch, who on hearing this, joined in sacrificial giving, “each according to their ability” to send relief to those in Jerusalem. What a joy this news must have brought to Jerusalem, but how short-lived that joy as Herod chose that very moment to execute James, as a means of gaining popularity with the Jewish majority. And for many of us this raises questions as to why God allowed James to be killed, yet intervened a few days later to preserve Peter.
But answers to questions such as these are not at this stage for us to know. Sufficient for us to accept, as St Paul reminded the church in Corinth, that our role is simply that of promoting Christ, preaching and living for him before everyone. So Paul, in his letter likens us to cheap, clay pots, whose only real value is in their contents; that at times the pot needs to be broken to release the full fragrance of the perfume within. So he speaks of our suffering on Christ’s behalf, “struck down, but not destroyed” and “carrying His death within so His life may be seen by all in our lives”; with all this being “to the glory of God.” And if only we can accept that, then all else must necessarily fall into place. Our giving WILL be sacrificial as those at Antioch, rather than selfish and penny-pinching. We won’t challenge God as to why He allowed this or that to happen, but rather keep praying that in all the problems and perplexities of life, we may continually reflect and show forth His love to others, so that God alone may receive all the praise and glory.
But of course we all at times fall short. Even James and the other apostles had much to learn, with low as well as high points. That call to follow Jesus, similarly shared with Peter and John, must be a lesson to us all. No question and no delay, they all three responded immediately, and leaving career, family and a variety of other commitments, they devoted themselves to following Jesus. But then our Gospel Reading today tells of one of the low points in his development, as James, along with his brother John were brought by their mother to petition Jesus for the top two places in his kingdom. Jesus had named these two “The sons of Thunder”, but in their servile obedience to their mother, they remind me more of two naughty schoolboys than of thundering knights, to whom Jesus’ gentle response and question as to their ability to share in his cup of suffering, should have been rebuke enough. His reply to their ignorant and somewhat arrogant assertion of their ability to suffer with him, must have struck home loudly when James later had to face Herod’s sword.
Small wonder, we’re told the other ten were angry at their audacity! But in being so annoyed, the ten showed they were no different from James, John and their mother. All, at that time were thinking only of themselves and looking for reward for their service rather than service for its own sake, which is what Jesus always requires and deserves. So Jesus again very gently redirects them all, using himself as example to explain how, in his kingdom the slaves enjoy greatness and the greatest are those who, like him, are servants of all, prepared like him, to give their lives in his service.
How great a lesson this should be for us all. How much of our time is spent, like the disciples in that reading, bickering amongst ourselves and taking offence at perceived grievances? How often, like them, we stand on our dignity or allow our self pride or feelings to be hurt by some slight, or lack of recognition of our contribution? Is that how Christ expects us to be? Are these the reactions of those prepared to give their lives in his service, as he gave himself a ransom for us? But this, as we’ve seen is the natural, human reaction of James and those other disciples at that time, and as being ourselves so very human, it is so often our own experience too.
How much we need to remember that we are but clay pots, whose sole purpose is to honour and glorify Christ. What a difference this could make to our own lives, to our community and to our Church if only we could hold on to this invaluable principle. Difficult I know, but for a start perhaps we could take to ourselves the well-known prayer of that Spanish Saint, Ignatius of Loyola and make it our own:
Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest;
To give, and not to count the cost,
to fight, and not to heed the wounds,
to toil, and not to seek for rest,
to labour, and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do thy will.
Duncan Burr, 27th July 2017 at Aljambra
The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Church of England.