Sermon for James the Apostle, 25th July 2021
Something it is great to be doing again is having weddings in church with more than thirty people present. Over the next two weeks I shall be taking my first two in a long while. Weddings are the focus of months of planning, perhaps years of dreaming (and this year, of waiting). Friends, families, parents, even wedding planners, can all have their ideas, and sometimes (though not with the couples I'm working with) you need to call a halt and ask the couple themselves, ‘Is this what you want?’
Matthew may describe such a scene with the sons of Zebedee. They are not named, but we know already that they are John and today’s saint, James. The question is in a way about a seating plan, which can be a tricky issue at a wedding. In Mark’s gospel, the boys approach Jesus themselves, but Matthew paints a different picture, the request coming from their mother (whose name we are never told).
How does your imagination fill out the scene? Perhaps you picture two embarrassed teenagers saying, ‘Just leave it, Mum,’ as she hustles them to Jesus, then squirming as she makes her only-the-best-for-my-boys bid for them to be in places of honour, at his right hand and at his left, when Jesus is in his glorious kingdom.
Jesus answers, ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ and then (it seems) turns to the sons to see if this is what they really want: ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’
That is Jesus’ way of referring to his death: if they are to be at his side in glory they must first be at his side in humiliation – and even then there’s no guarantee. So, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ ‘Er, yes?’ they reply.
Or do you picture it the other way round? Perhaps the sons put their poor mother up to it, and perhaps they are full of bravado – ‘No problem!’ – when Jesus asks if they’ve got what it takes. St John Chrysostom, preaching on this story 1700 years ago, takes this line: ‘The request was theirs, and being ashamed they put forward their mother.’
The essentials, though, are clear: the request has consequences – or (if there is such a word) prequences. The road to being with Jesus in his glory leads first through being with him in the valley of the shadow of death. And even then, Jesus himself issues no VIP passes.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is dying on his cross there will be two people, one at his right and one at his left, but neither will be James or John: they will be two convicted criminals, again unnamed, just the next two on the list for crucifixion that day in the barbaric bureaucracy of Roman imperial rule. These mother’s sons will be nowhere to be seen.
Back in our story, the other disciples get cross with James and John, though not I think because they are above questions of status – shortly before our story, they have already asked Jesus who is the greatest – but because they don’t want these two to get ahead. On that occasion as on this one, Jesus has just warned the disciples that he is going to die; on both occasions they show that they just haven’t taken it in by coming back at him with questions about power and status; and on both occasions Jesus takes the opportunity to do some staff training on leadership, and what it looks like in his eyes.
On the first occasion, he places in the middle of the disciples a small child. Such a child in their society (as often in our world) might suffer great neglect or worse – even the word in Greek is neuter, the child is an ‘it’ – and Jesus says that that child, without power or status in their world, is the gold standard for the values of his kingdom.
Now, in our story, he asks them to use their imaginations, to picture the rulers of the pagan world – meaning I suppose the thrones, the high-end fabrics, the fanfares, the sort thing they might be about to see as they enter Jerusalem, if the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is passing by. ‘It will not be so among you,’ says Jesus. Again he draws on a dark aspect of their society to make his point. Small children have no power or status, but nor do many adults: those who are servants, slaves. That’s how it is going to be for Jesus himself, who has come not to be served but to serve.
About ten days ago, some of us on the clergy team spent an afternoon of staff training on a vital subject. This was safeguarding training – done online, with two colleagues from Church of England headquarters in London. In all our minds were the dreadful, shaming stories of abuse committed in churches, usually by people enjoying positions of power and status, against children or against adults who are vulnerable; that is, those who have less of both or none of either.
IICSA (the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) has been highly critical of the Church of England. One thing its report has identified as a problem in our church is deference, a culture that allows people (in Jesus’ phrase) to ‘lord it’ over others, to be immune from challenge or accountability. You might say that some churches are especially vulnerable to this – look around at who is wearing what this morning: who looks most likely to lord it over whom? – but deference in churches is a more subtle matter than that of high-end fabrics. Some of the stories we studied in preparation for the training sprang from churches that would have quite egalitarian dress codes while being authoritarian in other ways.
The aim of the training was to help our thinking about what makes for a healthy church culture, so that it is (as the course literature said) ‘better able to achieve the Church’s mission to the world and prevent harm and abuse from happening to others, and respond well to victims and survivors’.
A good way to mark this feast day of James would be to remember that tin-eared request about status and let that prompt us to ask what makes for a culture rather closer to what Jesus has in mind. How, for instance, do we encourage respect without deference? Chrysostom has some wisdom here. In his sermon on this story he says it is all about pride and humility. Pride he describes as ‘the root, source and mother of sin’, and humility as ‘the mother, root, nurse, foundation and centre of all other virtues’. These things, of course, reach for beyond the church. As Jesus encourages his disciples to look at the rulers in their world, let’s look at ours. As our planet faces a cascade of problems, where would you place the different world leaders on the spectrum between pride and humility?
But back to the saint of the day. It is a bit harsh on James to hold him up as an example of what not to do and leave it there. James’ story is also an encouragement not to despair when we get things wrong, as I do and probably you do too. Despite his false start as a disciple, James was indeed to follow Jesus’ path. Eleven terse words in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles tell us how, in those early days, King Herod moved against some who belonged to the church: ‘He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.’ So James did finally drink the cup that Jesus drank. He shared his humiliation as now he shares his glory – as you and I are invited to do.