A sermon preached on St James the Apostle, Tuesday 25 July 2017 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer. Readings Acts 11: 27–12:2, Matthew 20: 20–28
Jesus asked James, ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’
I was a child in the sixties. This is not the same as having been a child of the sixties: for me it was less the decade of the Beatles and the Summer of Love than that of Airfix kits, The Valiant Years on TV and Sink The Bismarck at the Commodore cinema in Orpington (now a branch of Wickes). My – pretty soft – life was furnished with memories of the Second World War, with air raid shelters on the school field and my parents’ stories (not that they made a point of telling them) of their years in uniform. It created in me the impression of a time when life had to be lived large because it might be so short; when you would know, decisively, what you had to do and whether or not you were up to it. So it seemed, anyway, to a nine-year-old boy. Would I have been a hero? Would I have come up short? Or, like most, ordinary people expected to do or endure extraordinary things, would I have just about done my bit?
Some of us may put ourselves through a similar personal questionnaire when we think of terrorist attacks. How would I do? What I be willing to take a risk for? Would I be prepared to die to save another person? Or for my beliefs? I suspect none of us can be sure how we would be in the event. Perhaps some who said Yes to one or both of those questions would find that they could not, whereas some of the Noes might surprise themselves.
I once met an Army chaplain who had been in the first Iraq War, in the nineties. When they went to draw their kit before deployment the quartermaster told the chaplains they now had a choice of shirt: the usual, bespoke one with a cross, the chaplain’s insignia, sewn on to the lapel; and a standard issue shirt with a detachable metal cross. The quartermaster explained that, if they were captured by the Fedayeen, Iraqi irregulars who would single out Christian ministers for special treatment, they could – well – detach it, and improve their chances. He chose the sewn-on one because he didn’t want to have the choice, in the event, of laying down the cross.
This evening we celebrate the Feast of James the Apostle and we meet him in the reading with his brother John. First, though, we meet the lads’ mother, the pushy parent (a species not unknown to us). They stand there mute as she demands that Jesus give her boys the best seats in the kingdom of God as Jesus’ right-and-left-hand men. This does not immediately mark out James and his brother as hot tips for the Courage Award at speech day (in Mark’s version of the same story they do at least ask Jesus themselves).
Jesus addresses the brothers direct and hints at what this thing they want will mean for them. James and John tick the Yes box: they assure Jesus that that they will commit themselves to him: ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ ‘Yes, we can.’ Really? Soon they will share Jesus’ cup, at the last supper, but soon after that Jesus will be offered another cup, drugged wine given to the condemned to dull the pain of execution. He will then be nailed up on a cross, but those at his right hand and his left will be two other criminals. In the event, James and John will be nowhere in sight.
God wants you and me to be committed Christians, to commit ourselves to Christ with no holding back, to drink whatever draught is put in our hands because we walk with him. Each of us can make that commitment; many of us have. But if I offer my heart to Jesus with no holding back, I cannot make that decision once for the whole of my life. So wobbly am I that what I give wholeheartedly today I may take back faint-heartedly tomorrow. Trusting God is like learning a language. It has to be practised. As a Christian of our own era has put it, ‘Many tears, much shame, continual repentance, this is the lot of those who pledge themselves to God.’
It is a pledge you learn to keep by breaking it, because that is how we learn to distrust our own strength and trust in God’s alone. And God does not let us down. I cannot nail my colours to the mast and commit myself to God, with no going back. But God in Christ – nailed undetachably to the cross – committed himself to me and to you; and on that day there was no going back. And it is by our going back in heart and mind, again and again, to the foot of that cross that we find our true strength.
Perhaps James found that strength eventually. Eleven terse words in the Acts of the Apostles tell us of his fate: the cocky disciple who dodged the draught his master drank was indeed to die, by the sword of king Herod’s enforcers, who ‘laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church’. James was among them because in the event, it seems, he was known to be a committed Christian.
‘Many tears…’ Austin Farrer, ‘Committed Christians’, The Essential Sermons (SPCK, 1991) page 183; Farrer also explores the theme of the Cross and God’s commitment to us.