Sermon for St James the Apostle, 24 July 2016, by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road

Sermon for St James the Apostle, 24 July 2016, by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road

Jeremiah 45.1-5; Psalm 126; Acts 11.27-12.2; Matthew 20.20-28

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In the far northwest of Spain, in the region of Galicia, stands the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela. The grand Romanesque cathedral of Santiago, St James in English, was built in the late eleventh century over the site of the supposed tomb of the apostle, whose bones had been miraculously transported to Spain following his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles. The site of the burial having been rediscovered in the ninth century, again by miraculous means, Compostela became the most famous pilgrim shrine in Christian Europe, and today thousands of pilgrims flock annually on the pilgrim way, the Camino, to worship at St James’s tomb. The cathedral also famously houses the world’s largest thurible, the botafumeiro, which, on feast days, astounds the congregation as it billows out clouds of incense, swinging at up to 80 kilometres per hour through a dramatic 65 metre arc.

As with many saints, the life of St James is a bewildering tapestry of fact and fiction, the unweaving of which requires painstaking scholarship. Today, I want to investigate the life of James using three simple questions: who was St James, what was James’s response to Jesus, and, perhaps most importantly, what does his legacy mean for Christians today?

So, to our first question, who was St James?

The first gospel to be written, that of Mark, mentions James early on, in the story of his calling together with John, which immediately follows that of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. Chapter 1, verse 19: As Jesus went a little farther, he saw James, son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

James is then mentioned together with John in the calling of the twelve. Again from Mark, chapter 3, verse 13 and following: Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Two things are worthy of note here. Firstly, although Andrew is Simon’s brother, he is listed only forth, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are listed second and third. This especially close relationship of the three leading apostles, Simon Peter, James and John, with Jesus is emphasised on numerous further occasions – it is these three who are present with him on the mount of Transfiguration, and again are called apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Secondly, another James, the son of Alphaeus, is listed ninth in the list of the twelve. To this James we give the name St James the Less, in contract to St James the Great, the apostle we celebrate today. It’s important not to confuse the two.

The gospel tells us that Jesus gave James and John the name Boanerges, Sons of Thunder. The New Testament scholar Dennis MacDonald identifies Castor and Pollux, sons of the thunder God Zeus, as the precursors of James and John in Mark’s narrative. The suggestion is intriguing as it points to a characterisation of the brothers based more on typology than biography.
A further differentiation must now be made with a third James, St James the Just. This James was the brother of Jesus, and a leader of the early church in Jerusalem. It is to this James, rather than the apostle, that the New Testament letter of James is attributed.

To Matthew’s story of James and John narrated in today’s gospel reading I shall return, but for now we have sketched an outline of James: the brother of John and son of Zebedee, a fisheries worker by trade called into the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Later legend records that James was an evangelist in Iberia, modern-day Spain and Portugal, before his death, but for a number of reasons this seems unlikely. His death is recorded as mentioned in the book of Acts, in 44 AD. In terms of biography, we can go little further.

So to our second question, what was James’s response to Jesus?

I want you to think for a moment of the most important decision you can ever remember taking. Perhaps it was to get married, or have children. Or was it to move to a new town or country, or to train for a new job? Might it even have been to become a Christian? Take a few moments to think quietly …

Now consider James. Mark is so sparing in his words: they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. James and his brother take the life-changing decision in an instant to follow this rabbi who was previously unknown to them. Had they any idea of his reputation? Did they think about the consequences? Would James have taken a different path had he known that on account of Jesus he would die by the sword less than 15 years later?

What does become clear, and now I turn to today’s gospel reading from Matthew, is that perhaps James’s motives were not altogether pure. Matthew places the request into the mouth of James and John’s mother Salome, but in Mark’s gospel it is James and John themselves who request privileged places at Jesus’ left and right hands in the kingdom. Are we to understand that by joining the twelve, James and his brother had fantasies of power? The other disciples are angry, but Jesus reassures them with the promise that those who are great are in fact servants of others. We know little of James’ specifically after the resurrection, but we do know that, as a servant of the early church, he met his end for his beliefs.

And finally to our third question, what does James’s legacy mean for Christians today?

Among the pilgrims going up to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, there are, as with us all, a mixture of motives, some good, some bad. Many no doubt go to honour God and seek his will, asking for James’s prayers in their quest to become better human beings. Others perhaps go out of curiosity, to enjoy the spectacle of the cathedral and its dramatic ceremonies, not least the incense, and others, I’m sure, enjoy a walking holiday in the Pyrenees with a bit of history and a sense of destination at their journey’s end. For most, if they’re honest, there is probably a mixture of all these.

I asked you earlier to think of a key decision in your own life. Now think what motivated you to make that decision – again, take a few moments to think quietly …

Being a Christian makes our motives no more pure or noble than anyone else’s, just as for James, he may have been drawn to thoughts of power and influence as much as service and sacrifice. But the example of James does teach us that making bold decisions matters. First century Judaea, a bit like today’s Britain, was a place of political and economic turmoil. Out of the ferment of that time of change, led by James and his fellow apostles, emerged a gospel and a Church which would change the face of Europe and indeed the world in the centuries to come. To decide to own the name of Christ today lifts us above the narrow vision of fear which is dragging so many people into suspicion and barrier-building. Instead we become part of an inclusive and justice-focused movement where, as Jesus himself teaches us, we are not to be served, but to serve. Despite his shortcomings James joined that movement, and we can be his heirs in taking the decision to follow Jesus in the way that leads to fullness of life for all God’s children. Amen.

Holland Park Benefice