Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The world loves heroes. Whether young or old, we love to identify with winners. It may be a winning sports team, a political party, or even a lively and growing church. Apparently even some pastors can be viewed as heroic winners.
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, even a misguided pastor can be a winner.
The world loves heroes and it was no different in the ancient world. The crowds in the coliseums cheered as they watched the crowning of the athlete who won the race, or the gladiator who outlasted his opponents. One day, when James the Greater and his brother John were still Jesus’ apostles in training, they were caught by their master debating who was greatest. It was 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.
Jesus never criticized a person for pursuing greatness; nor did he condemn the quest to be a winner. Indeed, it is my belief that God has created us to be heroes and to do great things. But it is also true, that there may be a cost. The story of the death of the apostle James and the deliverance of the apostle Peter from prison, teaches us that if you would like to be great, there may be suffering and persecution. Greatness for a Christian, you see, is not about being served, but it is about serving others. That is what Jesus taught his disciples. The path to greatness is not up. It is a downward descent.
Now you may be wondering: if Christian greatness and winning holds only the potential for pain and persecution, then why bother? The secret my friends, is the promise of the victor’s crown of everlasting life. As we discover in the Book of Revelation, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This crown of life that Jesus offers is for all believers, but it is especially dear to those who endure suffering, even to the point of death. This was the confidence and hope that sustained the apostles in their work and suffering. It is your promise as well.
In the Book of Acts we read that for some unstated reason, King Herod had had enough of the movement called the Way. His intention seemed to be to destroy the church by eliminating its leaders. The same method has been used by totalitarian governments throughout the history of the world. It was what we experienced in former Communist Eastern Europe. But it wasn’t simply Herod that was seeking to bring an end to this Christian movement. There was growing animosity among the leaders of the Temple and the inhabitants of Jerusalem as well.
We do not know what brought about this negative change towards the apostles and the Way. Some theologians have suggested that the apostles may not have been as present in Jerusalem as they had been in the first years, due to their traveling to other places where new congregations of believers were being established. The signs and wonders they performed were becoming less frequent. The people may have lost their awe and admiration for them. As it is said, all glory is fleeting. And people do like winners. Others have suggested that the increased ministry and inclusion of the “non-Jews” into the Way. We don’t like to associate with losers. The final straw may have been Peter’s visit to the house of the Roman officer Cornelius where the soldier’s entire Gentile family was converted. The Temple’s High Priest was outraged, and the leaders of the Way had to go.
Jesus had taught his disciples while he was still walking the earth that persecution would be the normal state of affairs for his followers. Of course, not every Christian suffers equally at every stage and place in history, simply look at the different endings to the story of James and Peter. One died and the other was saved. Yes, Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
The apostle James the Greater though he was a winner, in the eyes of the world- certainly in he eyes of his fellow disciples. He 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 saw 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. James and John were spiritually close, so close that he took them along at certain key moments in his ministry. The two brothers were nicknamed 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. Strangely, the older brother James was the first of the disciples to die, and John his younger brother was the last.
For many Christians, today, it is difficult to live out their convictions in a practical living way following the footsteps of the apostles. Suffering and persecution for a greater good and a victor’s crown of life seems simplistic and idealistic. Not the way of true winners in this world. I am reminded of the Sunday School teacher who asked her eight eager 10 year-olds if they would give a $1,000,000 to the missionaries. “Yes!” they all screamed! “Would you give $1,000?” again, they shouted “YES!” How about $100?” “Oh, yes we would!” they all agreed! “Would you just give a dollar to the missionaries?” she asked. The boys exclaimed, “Yes!” just as before, except for Johnny. “Johnnie,” the teacher said as she noticed the boy clutching his pocket, “Why didn’t you say ‘yes’ this time?” “Well,” the boy stammered, “I have a dollar!”
Yes, it is when the implications of faith become personal, and perhaps the possibility of suffering becomes real, that we hold back on our enthusiasm and conviction. In troubling times, Christians are called to be martyrs and prophets, and yet we often give in too easily. One English author said, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one-the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” There are occasions when we are called to bring about change. Unfortunately, we are drawn away from God’s higher calling and the victor’s crown of life by the devil’s still small voice. You have been called to warn and encourage those who have grown indifferent in their faith. For them, Jesus may be just a teacher, a good man, a possible life-preserver- rather like an emergency parachute that you hope you never have to use. You have to tell them more. The work of the God’s heroic disciples is not as the old preachers said just trying to get sinners into heaven, but it’s also the work of the Church to get the faithful out of bed.
As one who confesses Jesus as the Son of the living God, you should become a key to opening or closing the doors for your loved ones and neighbors to enter God’s kingdom. You open and close the doors to others by how you “live out the challenges” in your life and keep your eye on the victor’s crown of life. The great English author and theologian C. S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” The story of God and his infinite love is so wonderful that they were willing to sacrifice all for the sake of the friends and family. These are men and women who recognize the lasting gift of faith. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth and you will get neither.” If for you, Jesus is truly the Son the God, shouldn’t your aim and focus be directed by God’s truth. Shouldn’t you live to tell the story, for heaven’s sake? Winston Churchill warned, “It’s not good enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what is required.”
There is a beautiful story told of James the Greater’s death. According to Clement of Alexandria, after 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 his martyrdom. At last he understood Jesus’ 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, if they are not afraid of losing. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.