Who was St. James? There were at least three James in the early days of the church:
- James - with John - sons of Zebedee;
- James son of Alphaeus - another disciple
- James the Brother of Jesus, one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem,
often thought to have been the author of the epistle of James.
Today - we celebrate the first of these, James the son of Zebedee. What do we know about him? not much.
- he was called from fishing on Lake Galilee
- he was with Jesus on the mount of the Transfiguration, along with Peter and John;
- he was taken by Jesus with Peter and John when he went to pray in Gethsemane
- his listed in Acts as one of the apostles remaining after the death and resurrection of Jesus
- he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD; the first apostle to die.
His character? He was described, with his brother John, as ‘Boanerges’- sons of thunder. Perhaps this means that they were fiery and impetuous. We can glimpse something of this in the incident described in today’s gospel:
- in Mark: James and John, sons of Zebedee (Galilean fisherman) - came to
Jesus - asked if they could sit at his right and left hands .. when he came to
sit in state - or in ‘glory’ (same word, in Greek).
- in Matthew - their mother made the request on their behalf. She asked Jesus if
he would grant her sons this honour when he entered his kingdom.
- Jesus points out that they do not understand his purpose: ‘you do not know
what you are asking’. ‘Can you drink the cup - of suffering - which I shall
drink; or be baptised with the baptism with which I shall be baptised? (baptism of affliction: perhaps referring to the connection of baptism with drowning: baptism by submersion in a river symbolising drowning - and so
death to sin, and rising again to new life).
- They are not to be deterred: and in Matthew’s gospel, the sons of Zebedee
now begin to speak on their own behalf .. they say that they are prepared to
share in Jesus’ suffering. Jesus confirms that they will do so: but says that
the positions of seniority in his kingdom are not for him to grant.
This was a very vivid little incident. It must have been one of those conversations which were deeply significant to the apostles. But if we probe more deeply, what lessons does it offer to us? I would like to mention four.
1. The first concerns motives. What did James and John want from being disciples? did this conversation expose their underlying desire for power and status? Did they really just want to be apostles because this would give them a new and important role - and perhaps one that would last for ever? We can only speculate, but perhaps this was consistent with their character - ‘Boanerges - sons of thunder’ - their personalities seem to have been dominant, strong-willed, anything but meek and mild.
This reminds us that we need to be aware of our own motives in the things that we do - and sometimes to question them. Now it is rare that a person has truly unselfish motives for anything they do. We understandably feel satisfied with ourselves when we do something for others. But the problem arises when our own desire to feel important, or to be helpful, or to be in charge of someone becomes more important than the action itself. This can mean that even when we do something which appears to be unselfish, we can actually be doing it primarily for our own sake.
2. The second point arising from this conversation between Jesus, James and John concerns the question of who is important in God’s kingdom. Jesus uses the request that has been put to him to make it clear that power and status are not the qualities of those who are great in God’s kingdom. He said, ‘Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant ... anyone who wants 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.
- So much of modern life runs directly counter to this understanding of spiritual greatness or stature. Who is important in this world? Those with power - political; financial; power to influence others through the media; the people in various walks of life - especially sporting or musical - who are known as celebrities. But Jesus is saying that none of this matters. What really matters is the state of your soul. And in particular, one’s ability to put one’s self to one side in the service of others. The taking up of one’s cross; the image of servanthood shown in his washing of his disciples’ feet; ‘he who would save his life will lose it; he who loses it for my sake will save it’. Jesus is saying, then, that our spiritual advancement, the development of our soul, depends less on worldly achievement and status than on our ability to deny ourselves and follow him.
3. Third point - Jesus said that the places on his right and left had been allotted by his heavenly Father. The point here is that some things are known only to God. In particular, only God knows the quality of our spiritual life. Jesus regularly criticised those who thought they knew that they were holier than other people - the Pharisee compared with the tax collector; those who took pride in their success in observing every detail of the Jewish religious law. Maybe James and John thought they were better than the other disciples. They must have thought they were justified in asking Jesus to give them special status - so perhaps they too had fallen into the trap of spiritual pride that Jesus condemned in others. If we think we are doing pretty well spiritually - let’s beware. No-one can be sure. C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity”, makes the point that there is less credit to be had from leading a holy life if circumstances have helped us to do this, than if one has had to struggle hard against the effects of environment and upbringing to make one’s life even a little bit virtuous. In the same way, we can never tell how much spiritual progress someone else has made without knowing quite a lot about them - and we should never think we know as much as God about someone else.
4. The fourth point is that Jesus still took James and John with him at crucial moments in his ministry. As with St. Peter, Jesus did not demote James and John, or drop them from the twelve, after this encounter. He saw that they did not fully understanding the nature of God’s kingdom; and he taught them what God really wanted people to be like. Just because they got it wrong, he did not despair. He seems to have been a little frustrated, as on other occasions, with their failure to see his plan; but he tried to teach them and did not condemn them. Which reminds us also not to condemn those who we think do not understand; it may not be their fault, and the main task then becomes to show them God’s paths.
Four points, then: the need to look at our motives; the importance of service not status; only God knows the true state of our spiritual life; and the fact that Jesus took the apostles with their shortcomings, not turning a blind eye but educating them in his ways. As I said at the beginning, we know very little about James, the son of Zebedee. But God has worked through this hazy character in such a way as to provide his Church with some very important spiritual insights. On this his feast day, may God speak to us through those fragments of his life which are recorded; may his readiness to die for his faith inspire all Christians to deeper levels of service; and may his presence at both the Transfiguration of Jesus and at his vigil in Gethsemane remind us that our faith may bring suffering but also offers the hope of glory. Amen.