As some of you may know, getting on for four years ago I undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, the shrine of St James in Galicia in northern Spain. You will recall that the fascination of this pilgrimage is not with the destination itself, but with the process of travelling, and the lessons one learns about the journey of faith that we all make.
Nevertheless I found myself thinking about saints and their shrines in general, and James in particular. He was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, in 44AD. During the preceding eleven years he was thought to have travelled to Spain to found the church, before making his way back to the Holy Land. After his death, faithful disciples were supposed to have placed his body in a stone coffin that miraculously floated, and navigated itself back to the northern coast of Spain where it was buried; it was providentially discovered in the ninth century just when a symbol was needed to help the armies of Christendom in their conflicts with the Moors.
All this is fantastic stuff. The underlying story of the man, however, is true and instructive for each one of us. James and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee, with the nickname “Sons of Thunder”. They liked results, to make an impact; on one occasion they wanted to call down fire from heaven on a village that seemed inhospitable. And they were ambitious; I bet their fishing business was successful. They were members of the inner circle with Peter who had special times with Jesus; they were present for the transfiguration. Jesus has just said that the twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones when Jesus sits on his, and they will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus had added that many who are first will be last. Perhaps they felt that Peter’s star had dimmed somewhat; he had earlier told Peter: “Satan, get behind me!”
Where has this got us? Jesus has just told the parable of the workers in the vineyard, repeating the saying that many who are first will be last. He has just announced he was going up to Jerusalem to be betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged and crucified. On the third day he would be raised.
It all feels a little uncertain: what will become of us? There is more certainty in the housing, employment or pensions market today than it must have seemed to Jesus’ disciples at that point in the story.
And so their mother goes to Jesus, to try to get a handle on the situation, to gain a measure of control. But we know that James and his brother were there too, because Jesus asks them a question which they answer. The request is simple and direct: “can we have the top positions in the coming administration; can we be your Right Hand and Left Hand men?”
Jesus parries with another question: “You do not know what you are asking for. Can you drink from my cup, walk in my steps?” And they reply “Oh yes”.
“Well,” says Jesus, “you’ve got it.” And James did die a martyr’s death, and John was imprisoned for years on the island of Patmos.
The remaining Ten are outraged. The Two have made their play, stolen a march, got in first. It seems that they were just as ambitious, but a bit slower!
So Jesus has to explain again to all of them, and to each one of us, the very basis of the Christian life.
Jesus came as a servant. He was attentive at all times to his Father’s will, and was determined at all times and in every way to be obedient. He was a servant.
This is at odds with the way the world likes to run. Take a look, says Jesus, at the way that every Chief Executive or office manager operates. Have a look at the way many parents demand obedience. See how often people like to be in control. See how often marriages and families founder on the rock of people wanting everything done to please them. Humankind likes to think that all of creation is there for us to exploit to fulfil our desires, that we have a right to food, to shelter, to emotional support, to the comforts of life. When I was younger and in a hurry, I used to fix my eyes on a person in front, and determine to overtake them so that would walk faster; so often we seek to inspire children to work harder by encouraging them to compete with others. Even in the Garden, we wanted to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge so that we could get ahead.
How different it would be if we were each centred on Christ. If we aspired to live as he lived, seeking to please our heavenly Father. How different each one of us would be, if we each sought as individuals to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him and humbly looking to have our characters changed to be like his. How different St Michael’s would be, if we each took seriously the imperative to serve other people, and this was our driving force, rather than the need to be right or to impose our views and wishes on others. How different Camberley would be, if we each sought to serve others in ways that build community and take seriously the needs of those on the edge, those without influence or power. What a difference we would see, as our families, neighbours, colleagues and friends saw in us the influence of the Jesus who was servant of all, and gave his life as a ransom for many; the church would grow.
To be a servant is to acknowledge that ultimately we all have to allow our Father God to be in control. We pray for his will to be done, not ours, for his kingdom to come, not ours. We are forced to pray for our daily bread. We would love to be able to amass sufficient resources that we would never have to rely on anyone else, but this is not possible and if we ever feel that we have achieved it, we are deluding ourselves. We need him to forgive us, and the evidence that we are forgiven comes in the way that we cannot help ourselves forgiving others. We are helpless to avoid the trials and temptations of this life; we pray to him to keep us.
James later became the quiet humble leader of the church community in Jerusalem, and it was on account of this that he was singled out by Herod for death. His name and reputation were later taken up and used by centuries of Christian communities to suit their own ends, so that you may wonder about the real James. It seems to me that he was a companion of Jesus, who changed over time to be the person Jesus wanted him to be. Amen. May that be true of me, and may that be true of you.
1. Name a personality from the history of the church who has inspired you; what lessons have you learned from him or her?
2. How much do you agree with the statement that we all want control or to be in charge? And to what extent do you think that you really have control in your life?
3. What message do you think God would like to convey to the Vicar, the Wardens and the PCC of St Michael’s about the way that we serve each other? Can you write these down and send them in?
4. Please pray for yourself and for brothers and sisters that we may all become more like Jesus in this.