Sermon for St James Day

Despite having spent much time over the last 15 years walking on pilgrimage routes that converge on Santiago de Compostela – the place where the Apostle James is allegedly buried – I’ve not celebrated St James day in this Benefice before.  

The name Santiago comes from the Spanish for Saint James, the legend suggests that after Jesus’ death and resurrection James went to Spain to spread the good news of the Gospel.   Afterwards when he returned to Palestine he was taken prisoner by Herod and put to death (this is the only part of the story that the Bible corroborates).   This is believed to have happened in around 44AD/CE

The legend speaks of how Herod wouldn’t allow anyone to bury James (presumably to avoid more ‘resurrection’ stories)  so under cover of darkness his friends stole the body and put it in a special marble coffin which they put out to sea in a small boat.  The current of the sea drove the boat back to Spain where James had preached and here the Apostle was buried at a secret place in a wood.

Centuries later, in 813, a hermit called Pelayo heard music coming from the wood and saw a shining star. (The Latin for field of the star is "Campus Stellae", this name was later turned into Compostela.)   Here the Hermit found the marble coffin and eventually a magnificent church was built on the sight which still attracts thousands of modern day pilgrims.  Despite being one of them I’ve never really got to grips with St James the Apostle.  I love the New Testament book of James, but this isn’t thought to be by him as it was been written after the date of his death so is usually attributed to James the brother of Jesus.  

So that’s the legend but what does the Bible tell us about James? According to Matthew’s Gospel Jesus asks James and John to follow him as they’re mending their nets with their father Zebedee alongside the Sea of Galilee.  ‘Immediately’ they leave their father and their nets to follow Him.  (Mat. 4:21-22)  James was probably the older of the brothers because he’s always mentioned first – but it was John who had the closer relationship with Jesus, scripture describes him as the one ‘whom Jesus loved’  (Jn. 20:2) 

I wonder how that sat with James who’d have been used to the privileges of being the eldest?  (It’s interesting how in so many Bible stories it’s the younger brother who ends up with the blessing – God seems to enjoy turning the ‘ways of the world’ up-side-down.) 

Nevertheless James was in Jesus’ ‘inner circle’ along with John and Peter; these three witnessed events that no one else saw: the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:37-47); the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-3) and Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-37).   

We now call these men saints but their behaviour as recorded in scripture reveals them to be utterly human.   It’s no wonder that the Lectionary today also gives us that reading from 2 Corinthians about us being like ‘clay jars containing … great treasure’ which makes  ‘clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.’

Remember that tragic scene in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus facing the horror of his crucifixion literally sweats blood yet has to wake these men up three times to ask them for support.  Yet how they each blossom after Pentecost – there’s hope for us all yet. 

We know from Mark’s Gospel that Jesus used the nickname ‘Boanerges’ for the brothers – which means ‘sons of thunder.’  It’s presumed this name was given to denote their fiery zeal, which was likened to a thunder storm.  It may also reference an occasion recorded in Luke (9:51-56) where a Samaritan village failed to welcome Jesus so the brothers asked Jesus if they should ‘command fire to come down from heaven to consume them’ - Jesus obviously reprimanded them for this.  

Then in today’s Gospel just after Jesus has warned the disciples that he’s about to be ‘mocked, flogged and crucified’(20:19) we see James’ and John’s Mum asking if her boys can have a special position in Jesus’ future Kingdom.  They’re right beside her, so are obviously complicit in her request - they want their current favoured positions to be carried into the future.   

Imagine how dismayed Jesus must have felt by their request; they’ve clearly not been able to receive the news of his forthcoming death or understood his recent teaching about the labourers in the vineyard, which explains how God’s economy is not like the economy of the world but is one where  ‘The first will be last and the last will be first.’   

Jesus’ reply is surely laden with sorrow: ‘You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink.’

Knowing James’ future fate we see the irony in their confident reply ‘We are able.’  Clearly they have no idea that the ‘cup’ Jesus speaks of to is the one referred to by the psalmist and prophets as a cup of wrath,  ‘horror and desolation’ (Ezekiel 23.33). They’re too busy imagining themselves seated next to Jesus at a great banquet in the new kingdom, sharing a celebratory goblet of the finest wine.  Even though he can’t hear it, Jesus doesn’t protect James from the truth and affirms ‘you will indeed drink from my cup…’ he will share Jesus’ experience of a violent death. 

Meanwhile the remaining 10 disciples are angry at the brother’s request for favourable treatment.  So once again Jesus steps in and explains that the way of His Kingdom is different to the ‘way of the world’ by saying ‘whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for a ransom for many.’

Those in positions of leadership or authority in Jesus’ Kingdom will never pose a threat to anyone; they won’t act like Herod or the Romans, they won’t bully, dominate or control – instead they’ll be like Jesus – people who aim to serve and set people free from whatever kind of bondage they face.     

That word slave is translated in Latin as ‘minister’ and is derived from minus or less.  So those of us who choose to follow Jesus’ choose to be ‘lesser than’ not greater.   (I’m pretty sure this is quite the opposite to James and John’s mother had in mind!)

So I wonder how we might choose to be ‘less than’ in the week ahead.   How might we choose to serve, to minister to be a slave to others?

Perhaps just by continuing to live cautiously in this pandemic – even though we’re now allowed to cast off all restraints.   St Paul teaches us that we have been called to be free but then adds ‘do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.’ (Gal.5:13)

Freedom in the Bible isn’t freedom as the world sees it; it isn’t the freedom to indulge our every desire – rather, we’ve been given freedom in order to love and serve one another and to worship God in word and deed. So as we go back ‘to normal’ maybe the greatest way we can be ‘less than’ or minister to others will be seen in the restraints that we choose to accept for the sake of serving one another humbly in love. 


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