Reading Matthew 20.20-28
Today we celebrate the Feast of James the Great, James the apostle. He and his brother, John were, according to Mark, called by Jesus, Boanerges – the sons of thunder. The reason for this name is not known. Perhaps they were somewhat impetuous or quick tempered. There was that incident when Jesus and his disciples were passing through Samaria when they were not welcome in a village because they were heading for Jerusalem – relations between Jews and Samaritans were not good; according to Luke the brothers asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ They were rebuked. James and John were part of an inner circle of disciples with Peter who were present at key points in Jesus’ ministry: at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, at the transfiguration and in the garden of Gethsemane
This evening’s Gospel recounts a not especially flattering incident. It seems to be one of naked ambition. It is common to all three synoptic gospels but Mark and Luke have the apostles ask the question of Jesus themselves. Matthew has their mother ask for them! ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus nevertheless replies to the brothers with a question of his own: ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ ‘We are able’, they reply – without apparent hesitation despite Jesus’ warning.
How do we answer? It is one of the big questions Jesus puts to each of us. Can you accept your life as a gift at God’s hand?
We know life’s not bed of roses. We know that bad things happen to good people, that bad things happen to Christians, that bad things happen to us. But I don’t want to belittle the sorrows and trials that many suffer; the cup that I have been given has been comparatively easy. Our lives, the cups of our lives are cups of sorrow and joy, of curse and blessing, of death and life. We all have to drink the life contained in our cup - for better for worse. So often we want to control our lives, to change them, to have them be different. We complain about the hand ‘fate’ has dealt us: if only … We blame our parents for dropping us on our heads as babies!
When James and his brother answer, yes to Jesus, Jesus makes no promise, offers no reward – instead he says, ‘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 a ransom for many.’ In the event James did lose his life for the Gospel. He was executed on the orders of Herod Agrippa in or about the year 44, the first apostle to be martyred.
To accept and embrace the cup of our life is a matter of faith, of trust in God. It is a leap of faith contrary to our natural instinct. We want certainty so we can plan. As we see in the current Brexit negotiations, it is the lack of certainty that leads to chaos. But as we learn to answer yes, to accept ourselves, to accept the hand that we are dealt, to drink our cup, we learn to place our trust in God.
It’s not just a case of ‘making the best of it’. To drink the cup is to live confidently, hopefully, courageously, to accept who you are: a child of God, a child of the one who calls you my beloved, a child of the one who walks with you on your journey through life, a child of the one who shares your life as you, through baptism, share his risen life.
Our yes to that question, our sipping of the cup isn’t just a one off. Every time life ‘goes wrong’, Jesus asks us: can you drink? Every yes is another affirming of our trust. ‘Do you also wish to go away?’, Jesus asked his disciples after some had deserted him after some other difficult teaching. ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’, Peter replies on behalf of those who stayed.
Every yes is another sip of the cup until it is fully drained at our death. Every time we say yes, every time we sip, every time we continue to trust, we rise again, we embrace the life in that cup more deeply, we can find grateful hearts for the life that we are given. We are able to pray with our local saint, George Herbert, ‘Thou hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart’. Or to move forward 300 years, and to use that aphorism of Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations Secretary General who was killed in a plane crash in 1961: ‘For all that has been, thanks. To all that shall be, yes.’
In Gethsemane, Jesus asks for cup given to him to be taken from him: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ He shows total trust in the Father as he says yes and carries on. And we are told an angel came and ministered to him.
Legend has it that, after his beheading by Herod Agrippa, James’ remains were taken to Santiago de Compostela which has since become one of the most famous of pilgrimage destinations.
I used to be an Associate Priest in the Queen Thorne benefice which stretches across the north of Sherborne. We were twinned with Conche in Evreux, the Roman Catholic diocese with which our diocese is linked. The benefice of Conches comprises some 40+ parishes! Together we undertook a pilgrimage from the abbey at Bec in Normandy to Santiago – a week at a time over about 15 years. On one stage a young boy from England had ill-fitting boots and subsequently blisters. We English tried to sort it out among ourselves. When the French found out they were very, very angry and very upset. Part of pilgrimage is to share each other’s burden: to be the servant of all. As Richard Gillard’s Servant Song puts it: ‘we are pilgrims on a journey and companions on the road; we are here to help each other walk the mile and share the load. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.’ We English had not had that grace, we had wanted to remain in control.
Drinking is usually a shared activity, a sign of hospitality, a sign of acceptance of each other, of those with whom we drink. To drink together is effectively to drink from a shared cup, a cup we share with each other, a cup which we share with Jesus because through baptism we share his life.
This evening’s we will share a cup. It’s part of mystery of the eucharist. In it is our life ‘hidden with Christ in God’. In it is the life of Jesus: his earthly life, his death and his risen life. We embrace and share his earthly life with its hard times as well as its joys as he embraces and shares ours. We share in the salvation gained by his death. We are already joined to, and share in, his risen life and will do for all eternity. We all share in the one cup and are united with Jesus and each other as the body of the living Christ – always dying and always rising until the cup is fully drained and filled for all eternity at the feast in the Kingdom of which this eucharist is but a foretaste.
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? James and John said to him, ‘we are able’.
The Revd Tony Monds