Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the life St. James the Greater, Apostle and Martyr.
The world loves heroes. Whether young or old, we love to identify with a winner: with the person who is the greatest and best. It may be a sports team, a political party, and for some, a lively and growing church. Apparently even pastors can be great and quite possibly heroes.
It is a favorite story in the AA recovery community in the South about the heroic pastor. A drunken man stumbled upon a preacher baptizing people in the river. The drunk walked into the water and subsequently bumped into the preacher. The preacher turned around and was almost overcome by the smell of alcohol. Whereupon he asked the man, “Are you ready to find Jesus?” To which the man replied, “Yes I am.” So the preacher grabbed him and dunked him in the river. He pulled him up and asked the man, “Brother have you found Jesus?” The drunken man replied, “No, I haven’t.” The preacher, shocked at the answer, dunked him into the water again, but for a bit longer this time. He pulled him out of the water and asked again, “Have you found Jesus, my brother?” The drunken man again answered, “No, I have not found Jesus.” By this time the preacher was at his wits end so he dunked the man in the water again, but this time he held him down for about 30 seconds. When the drunken man began kicking his arms and legs, the preacher pulled him up. The preacher asked him again, “For the love of God, have you found Jesus?” The drunken man wiped his eyes, caught his breath and then said to the preacher, “No, I haven’t found him. Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Yes, the world loves heroes, and men and women who are great. It was no different in the ancient world. In this morning’s gospel, we read of Jesus’ own disciples James and John debating who was greatest. It was, however, an embarrassing scene. Jesus had just warned them of his own impending suffering and death, and they were caught discussing who would succeed him and be seated at his side of glory. “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left.” Surprisingly, Jesus did not walk away from them disgusted.
You see, nowhere does Jesus criticize a person for pursuing greatness; nor did he condemn the quest to be a hero. Indeed, it is my belief that God has created you to be a hero and to do great things. But it is also true, you may need to redirect your focus. The story of St. James the Greater, Apostle and Martyr, you see, reminds us that if you would like to be great, and a hero in the eyes of the world, you must be prepared to be last. Greatness for a Christian is not about being served, but it is about serving others. That is what Jesus sought to teach his disciples. The path to greatness is not up, but a downward descent.
Last Sunday, after I finished the sermon on Mary Magdalene, my wife Janna asked me which saint I would be preaching on this week. I answered simply, St. James. To which, she astutely questioned, “And which James is that?” You may remember that there are six different Marys listed in the New Testament, and there are almost as many Jameses. The two most well-known are St. James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, and the brother of John, and St. James the Lesser, the disciple commonly referred to as the brother, or in some academic circles, the cousin of Jesus and is attributed with writing the Epistle of St. James, and serving as the bishop of Jerusalem. St. James the martyr, was taller in stature, hence the title Greater.
St. James the Greater was one of three disciples who was closest to Jesus. Peter, James and John were together with Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry. We see them first on Sea of Galilee mending their nets, when Jesus said to them, “Follow me and will make you fishers of men.” And immediately, they left their nets, their boats and the father and followed. The brothers may not have been complete strangers to Jesus. In scripture, it is recorded that Mary’s sister was Salome, the mother of James and John, which would mean that the brothers were Jesus’ first cousins. This speculation is based on verses in two different gospels listing the names of the women standing at the foot of the cross. In one it says that Salome, Mary’s sister was with her, and in another it states that the mother of James and John was with her.
Regardless of a possible family connection, James and John were spiritually close. So Jesus took them along at certain key moments in his ministry. The two brothers were nicknamed Boanerge, Sons of Thunder, implying an ardent and impulsive zeal. They demonstrated this temperament as they travelled with Jesus when they came to inhospitable Samaritan village. The people would not welcome Jesus. For the two brothers, greatness was power, strength and authority. So we read, “when James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?’” Instead, Jesus rebuked them, and taught them that that was the way of the Gentiles who longed to be served instead of serving. They needed to learn a new way. James and John were with Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. And they were there when he was transfigured in dazzling white apparel on the top of the mountain and revealed to be God’s Son. On the night of his arrest, James and John, along with Peter, were close to Jesus in the garden as he prayed. So, it was no wonder that the two brothers felt they were entitled to a place of honor.
Incidentally, it was not simply the disciples who were struggling with their perceptions of greatness. According to St. Matthew’s gospel, James and John’s own mother came on bended knee and asked Jesus for the favor. I guess if you’re a beloved aunt you can do that sort of thing. Lutheran pastors are taught not to be so accommodating. Years ago, I was given the following advice by my supervising pastor. “When someone calls about a wedding, never talk to the mother. If the couple is old enough to get married, they are old enough to talk to the pastor themselves.” Jesus must have received that counsel from an older Rabbi, for in the next verse, he turned the conversation back to the two brothers. .
“Do you know what you are asking for? Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism, which I will be baptized?’ And they reply emphatically, “We are able.” Jesus then gives them the painful news. The cost for what they ask is to drink the cup that he drinks. It is persecution or martyrdom or both. The older brother James would drink first from the cup.
In the book of Acts, we read that King Herod Agrippa laid “violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.” In the decade following Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian Church had begun to expand to regions beyond Jerusalem and Samaria, but there was tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of the Way. Perhaps because of his evident zeal, or to appease the Jewish leaders, St. James was singled out by Herod Agrippa to be the first martyr among the twelve apostles, thus drinking the cup of Christ’s suffering and being baptized with the baptism of Christ’s death. By contrast, his brother John was not a martyr, but rather was the only one of the apostles who lived to a venerable age and died a natural death.
There is a beautiful story told of St. James’ martyrdom. According to Clement of Alexandria, after St. James was arrested and placed in jail. He did not begrudge the authority and power of those who kept him under guard. Instead, he respected them and treated them as brothers. On the way to the place of his beheading, he converted his jailer, who then joined him in martyrdom. At last he understood Jesus’s words. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is the greatness Christians are taught to strive for.
Tomorrow, across Spain, churches will celebrate the life of St. James- Dia de Santiago. It comes from the Galician word Holy Jacob or Sante Iago. Christian legend states that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian peninsula including Galicia and Spain fell to James. Early church histories suggest that he spent a number of years preaching there before returning to Jerusalem. After his martyrdom, popular belief relates that his followers carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Strait of Gibraltar to the land near Finisterre, in northern Spain. The local Queen in Galicia provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Saint James, or as he would be know Santiago, was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century until when the saint’s remains were discovered by a hermit. A church was then built over his burial place, the compostela, in his honor, at Santiago de Compostela. For nearly a thousand years, pilgrims have made the journey along the El Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James.
In the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther was displeased with pilgrims journeying across Europe to Spain, primarily, because it was a site for dispensing plenary indulgences. In his typical, colorful way Luther said to his followers, “Do not run to the shrines; for you do not know whether St. James, a dead dog or a dead horse lies there. As for you, stay home.” He believed pilgrims were merely searching for greatness of heroes. Instead, Luther preached that true pilgrims should live like St. James, and freely do good works for the sake of their neighbor.
In spite of the Luther’s words, Germans today are the most frequent pilgrims on the Way of St. James meditating on Jesus’ words, “For whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant.” The Way of St. James has a purpose. For it is along the pilgrimage way that Christians are challenged like the apostle and martyr of old to do great things- and to become heroes- by serving others. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.