Sunday, July 29, 2012

Following Jesus for the Wrong Reasons: A Sermon for the Feast of St. James

Preached by the Rev. John Kirkley
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Today we are observing the feast of Saint James, our patron, whose actual feast day is July 25.  He is often referred to as James “the Greater” to distinguish him from the other disciple of the same name, who is known as James “the Lesser.”  In addition, there is James, the brother of Jesus, who was a leader of the church in Jerusalem. 

We don’t know very much about James the Greater.  He was the brother of John, sons of Zebedee, a prosperous fisherman in Galilee.  James, along with his brother and Peter, constituted a kind of inner circle among the twelve disciples.  They alone were privileged to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And, of course, James was a witness to the Resurrection – the sin qua non of apostleship.

The few references to James in the New Testament indicate that he and his brother were rather bold and more than a little hot-headed.  On one occasion, they wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish a Samaritan village that had refused to offer hospitality to Jesus and his followers (Luke 9:54ff); Jesus demurred.  They also got bent out of shape when they came across a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who wasn’t following them.  Jesus essentially told them to lighten up: “whoever is not against us, is for us” (Mark 9:38-41).

Then there is the story we heard today, in which James and John themselves (in Mark’s version) or their mother on their behalf (in Matthew’s) brazenly request places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom.  We will return to that story in a moment, but it is no wonder that Jesus nicknamed the two brothers, “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Their personalities were more than a little stormy. 

James was the first among the twelve apostles to be martyred – approximately fourteen years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Like Jesus, he was executed shortly before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem; part of King Herod Agrippa’s attempt to curry favor with the Jewish aristocracy, who opposed the new Jesus movement.   He is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament.

Tradition has it that James preached the Gospel on a missionary journey to Spain prior to his martyrdom.  While this is unlikely, it is possible that his relics were brought there and interred at Compostela, which has been a major pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages.  It is said that when the Saint's relics were being conveyed by ship from Jerusalem and approached the coast of Portugal, a man happened to be riding his horse on the beach. The horse suddenly plunged into the sea, with its rider, making for the boat. They sank, of course, but then rose again, covered with scallop shells, and thus the scallop shell became the symbol of St. James.  Pilgrims to Compostela would attach shell-shaped badges to their hat or cloak as a sign that they had been to the shrine.

Beginning in the 9th Century, St. James was invoked as the patron of the crusades to expel the Muslims from Spain.  At the Battle of Clavijo in A.D. 841, the Christians were in retreat when King Ramirez of Leon had a dream in which the Apostle assured him of victory. He relayed his vision to his men, and the next morning he had his trumpeters sound the call to battle. There, on the field, the men saw St. James on a horse adorned with scallop shells, waving a banner. He led the Christians on to a clear victory, and ever since, the Spanish battle cry has been, "Santiago!"

St. James is the Patron of Spain, equestrians, blacksmiths, tanners, veterinarians, and those of us who worship here.  He is usually depicted in art with his symbols - the scallop shell, pilgrim hat, sword, and Sacred Scripture – or on horseback, usually trampling a Muslim.  Such are the uses, and abuses, of saints, who are invoked both to exemplify the highest aspirations of Christian spirituality and to justify the worst excesses of religious fanaticism. 

The image of James on horseback trampling Muslims may be a fair representation of the disciple wishing to call down fire on his enemies, but it is an ironic – and tragic – way to imagine the disciple who drank the cup that Jesus drank.  The James who ends his journey as a martyr is a very different man from the James who, at the beginning of his journey, is jockeying for power.  This is what makes James so interesting, this is what makes him a saint: the slow, uneven, but finally complete transformation he undergoes as he lives ever more deeply into his desire to follow Jesus.

The key that unlocks the door of transformation is this bare desire, this simple willingness, to follow Jesus.  We don’t even have to desire it for the “right” reasons!  At least at the outset, James appeared to be motivated purely by self-interest.  He thought following Jesus was the path to power, authority, success: not unlike the purveyors of the gospel of wealth today, who make discipleship just another get-rich-quick scheme.  Yet, despite his –  at best – mixed motives, his proximity to Jesus began to reshape his desire.

Jesus does not seem the least bit surprised or offended by James’ ambition.  In fact, there is something almost endearing about his shameless egoism.  He is like a small child, guilelessly saying, “I want that toy, I want that cookie, I want your complete, undivided, and adoring attention!”  Well, isn’t that what we all want?  Isn’t there something profoundly human about this desire to be recognized, to be heard, to be somebody?

I’m glad that we are the church of St. James.  Our icon of holiness gives us permission to come to Jesus with our egos on our sleeves, letting it all hang out.  Oh we may try to dress up our self-seeking like James – “I’m really doing this for mom, not for me; she’d be so proud if I was sitting at your right hand!”  Yeah, right!   The truth is, we come to Jesus for all kinds of reasons, sometimes driven by motives of which we aren’t even consciously aware. 

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t fear being contaminated by our distorted desire – rather, he is delighted with our desire to draw near to him at all, for whatever reason – knowing that it is we who will be contaminated by his love, and that this love will begin to reshape our desire.  As our desire for Jesus is transformed, it becomes less and less about what we can get from him – security, status, even goodness or healing – and more and more about how we can become like him.  We discover that our deepest desire is to give ourselves away in love.   The more we succumb to this desire, the more deeply we drink from Jesus’ cup; paradoxically, it is in giving ourselves away that we receive everything we need.

This, it seems to me, is what happened to James.   The James who starts out wanting to lord it over everybody, to be a big dog, ends up giving himself away in loving service to others.  He dies a martyr’s death because of his witness to the way of Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve; not to trample on Muslims or anyone else, but rather to give his life away so that many (not just a few, but many, up to and including all) could be set free from the forces that dam the flow of love.

This is the criterion by which we must judge our invocation of the memory of St. James and all the saints, as well as the reality of our experience of the living Christ: does it nurture our desire to give ourselves away in love, or does it justify our distorted desire to lord it over others (or, for that matter, to be lorded over)?  When we gather to drink the Lord’s cup and to eat the Bread of new and unending life in him, we do so to feed our desire to give ourselves away in love. 

“The table is now to be made ready.  It is the table of company with Jesus, and all who love him.  It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world, with whom Jesus identified himself.  It is the table of communion with the earth, in which Christ became incarnate.  So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; if you have tried to follow Jesus, and you have failed; come.  It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.”[1] 

Come and find the fulfillment of your heart’s desire.  Come, eat, drink, and like Saint James, you will be changed in ways you could not have imagined.  Amen.

[1] “Prayer for Communion/Eucharist” in Shane Clairborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2010), p. 564.

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