The Feast of Simon and Jude the Apostles
Picture The Wiltshire Regiment’s South African War memorial, Salisbury Cathedral
Eve of the Feast, Sunday 27 October 2019
There was a telling moment on the BBCs Any Questions? Programme on Friday, when an audience member asked: would we have felt as much compassion for the 39 people in the refrigerated lorry if they had survived and not died?
Panel members whose job it is to make laws and devise policies answered in those terms, but the question was not really about that. These people had dreams, they had loved ones following their journey up to the last and fatal leg. And as possible names have emerged the poignancy has grown: this was a name the parents chose for a son or daughter to be their identity, a loving shorthand for a whole human life, with all its possibilities – all now cut off.
As time passes, though, the significance of a name can fade. The names on the memorials around this cathedral may have had an arresting power at first – people knew them, knew their families – but now we see most of them as just names, just words in stone or metal or glass. When Simon and Jude – more correctly, Judas – whom we celebrate this evening, upped and left to take up with Jesus and his ragtag group of followers, no doubt their names were on everyone’s lips in their villages and beyond. But that was long ago. So much time has passed that their names are just words on paper to us.
That’s especially so with these two, who barely peep through the gospel narratives. Simon has the nickname ‘Zealot’, hinting perhaps at some political radicalism, but he never says a thing in any of the gospels. Judas (often called Jude to distinguish him from the Judas who handed Jesus over to his death) has a small New Testament document attributed to him, the letter of Jude, but it’s rarely heard in services. He speaks only once in the gospels, but when he does it is to ask a question that has preoccupied Christian minds in every age. We hear it in the reading from John’s gospel: ‘How is it that you will show yourself to us and not to the world?’
Think of all the things that trouble us. Surely no-one would so callously use their fellow human beings as they sought a better future; surely there would be a fairer sharing of the riches of the world; surely we would stop gambling with our climate; surely more people would come to church; surely so much that is wrong would come right – if only God stop moving in a predictably mysterious way and make a big public splash. Why show yourself only to us and not to the world?
Jesus’ answer is that he and his Father will make their home with those who love him. Three time he mentions love. That is the point of it all. And public displays – showing yourself to the world – are not about love but about power. Jesus knows that if you want to change the world deep down, you start with human hearts. And you don’t overwhelm them, you leave them free to choose.
This sounds sweetly reasonable in the calm and beauty of this place. It would sound less so in Northern Syria or at Tilbury Docks. We must not let the serene sights and sounds in here blunt the impatience which has prompted Jude’s question to be repeated down the Christian ages and uttered centuries before in the cry of the psalm writer, ‘Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?’ (Psalm 44.23) Because that very impatience, that refusal to accept that things just have to be the way they are, is itself the sign of the work of the Spirit which is Jesus’ gift to those who love him.
Feast Day, Monday 28 October 2019
In the scene in John’s gospel, Simon, Jude and the other friends of Jesus are with him in a room somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. But we begin somewhere in the city of Liverpool. At one point in the play and film that bear her name, Shirley Valentine looks back on her schooldays. Teachers saw her as ill-behaved (which she was) and ignorant (which she wasn’t). At assembly once, the headmistress asked what was humanity’s greatest invention. Hands went up – but no answer was satisfactory, not even ‘the internal combustion engine’, the suggestion of teachers’ favourite Marjorie. Shirley’s hand was still up.
‘How could you possibly know?’ sighed the headmistress, ‘but go on.’
‘The wheel,’ said Shirley.
‘But – but’ – spluttered the headmistress – ‘someone must have told you.’
‘Well, how the hell else was I supposed to know?’ Shirley retorted, and went into detention.
Shirley was dead right. It’s like the motto (which I've mentioned before) on the two pound coin, ‘Standing On the Shoulders of Giants’. What do you know? Whatever it is, it’s partly to do with all those who came before you – parents, friends, teachers, neighbours – and whoever it was who told them. Some were not giants, some names you’ve forgotten or never knew, but you are standing on their shoulders.
The phrase goes back to the medieval philosopher monk Bernard of Chartres but we know it best from the pen of scientist Isaac Newton. The design on the ‘tails’ side of the coin evokes the development of technology, with images standing for the Iron Age, Industrial Revolution, Computers, Internet. Each stands on what went before; so, by an indescribably winding route, today’s designer of artificial intelligence is benefiting from what was done in a blacksmith’s hut 1500 years before Jesus was born. Each generation stands on the shoulders of others, like a tottering wall of acrobats (you may remember the sheep doing this very stunt in the Wallace & Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’).
The letter to the Ephesians offers a similar but different picture for the church: not a wall of acrobats, but walls of brick and stone, making a building. When that letter was first read, the church was a one- or two-storey building, so close were they to the foundation events of the Christian movement. And here we are, the latest generation of Christian people to hear the letter to the Ephesians. By now, the building is much, much higher, as each generation has built upon (or occasionally dismantled) what the last left. But it is the same building, built upon the same foundation, and underlying it all there are still those first friends of Jesus whom we call the apostles.
Two of them, Simon and Jude, we give thanks for today. We know little about these men. They are really just names to us. Yet they mattered. Jesus chose them, he wanted them to be with him, and so they were, as John’s gospel says, ‘from the beginning’. So Ephesians pictures them as foundation blocks, nestling around Jesus their cornerstone, on which everything is built. You and I being here this evening, knowing what we know of God, living with whatever faith we have or would like to have, this is partly, and by an indescribably winding route, due to Simon and Jude. Let’s be grateful.
The image of the church as a building is just that, an image. It’s not a definition: it illuminates some aspects of the truth but might obscures others. To see Jesus as a cornerstone makes clear his significance as the foundation of all that we are, but it mustn’t suggest that for us Jesus is buried in the subsoil of the past. Through his Spirit he is with us now, and he speaks to us. He wants us to be with him. And if we say Yes, we shall affect for good those who will stand on our shoulders and build on what we have left, though to them we might each be just a name, or even less than that.