Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The late American stand-up comic Rodney Dangerfield suffered through a painful childhood. At 15, he tried to become independent through a career in show business. Financially, he struggled for nine years, at one point even performing as a singing waiter, before giving up.. He later quipped that when he quite show business the first time, “I was the only one who knew I quit.” Still, he worked at his self-deprecating style and his memories of childhood. Eventually, he thought his jokes would be stronger if he just added a catch phrase, that phrase being, “I don’t get no respect.” Sure enough the jokes that followed got a better response from the audience. t. “I don’t get no respect. On Halloween, the neighborhood parents sent their kids out looking like me. When we played hide and seek, they wouldn’t even look for me I don’t get no respect. The shape I’m in, I could donate my body to science fiction.”
The early apostles weren’t necessarily known as comedians, but there certainly were those who didn’t get any respect. Philip and James the Less could be counted in that number. They were two men who labored for the gospel in obscurity, all because their names were so common, that they’ve been confused with other men. There is no reason to doubt their faithfulness to Jesus or the Church.
In scripture St. Philip is mentioned by the evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke, as one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and nothing more. Only St. John offers some details into the apostle’s life. John tells us that Philip may have first been a disciple of John the Baptist together with Andrew. John writes that Philip brought Nathanael to Jesus, and almost immediately the focus shifted from Philip to Nathanael. St. John writes of the crowd of 5000 who gathered on the hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee to listen to Jesus, and how Jesus tested Philip asking him where he thought they might buy bread to feed the crowd. Philip had no idea. Still, he calculated quickly that 6 months wages could barely buy bread for such a crowd. At another point John tells us that Philip brought a group of Greek-speakers to Jesus where he was probably their translator. Certainly, Philip must have done some great deed on his own, but not in scripture.
According to tradition, Philip was sent together with his sister Mariamne and Bartholomew to preach in Greece, Phrygia, and Syria. In the medieval Golden Legends, the writer tells how Philip overcame a dragon in Hierapolis, a city in modern-day Turkey. He was arrested there and taken to a pagan temple to make a sacrifice to a deadly, hidden dragon. Reportedly, people who drew too near the entrance of the dragon for their sacrifice often died. Birds flying past the shrine fell to ground mid-flight. Instead of trembling in fear, Philip ordered that the crowds: “Break this idol and set in its place the cross of Jesus Christ and afterwards your dead shall revive, and all the sick people shall be made whole.”
The legend seemed improbable until 2013, when archaeologist Francesco D’Andria uncovered an ancient Roman shrine called the “Gates of Pluto” buried under the ruins of Hierapolis. There, he discovered a natural gas pocket, running beneath the shrine, that produced an hallucinogenic and deadly vapor. This was the dragon the ancient world feared and worshiped. Sealing the shrine and constructing a cross above it closed off the vent and stopped the poison. He concluded that Philip’s words and action would have been a miracle for its time.
In Hierapolis, Philip also converted the wife of the Roman proconsul to Christian faith. The magistrate who was so enraged at her conversion that he ordered Philip, Bartholomew, and Mariamne be tortured. Philip was crucified upside-down, preaching to the end. Bartholomew was also crucified, but he released before he died.
Unfortunately, for the poor apostle Philip, as far as scripture goes, he gets no respect. There is a second Philip in the Acts of the Apostles who is appointed as a deacon and proclaims the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch. His story in the Bible alone takes up more space than the apostle Philip’s entire ministry. Many readers can easily mistake the apostle for the deacon.
As for St. James, there are not just two Jameses, but there are several in the New Testament. Jesus, himself, calls two to be his disciples, James the son of Zebedee, as well as James, the son of Alphaeus. James the son of Zebedee, the brother of John, is often referred to as “James the Greater.” He was part of Jesus’ inner circle: Peter, James, and John. He is the one that legend states travelled to Spain, was beheaded by King Herod, and his body was transferred to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Today’s “James the Less,” the son of Alphaeus is the lesser known apostle. His name only merely appears in scriptures the list of disciples. Later in the Book of Acts, we meet yet another James, James the brother of Jesus, who is sometimes referred to as James the Just. The risen Jesus appeared after his resurrection and made a believer of him. He ended up becoming the leader or bishop of the Church in Jerusalem. He’s likely the author of the Epistle of James. Traditionally, it is believed that he was martyred in AD 62 being first thrown down from the temple and then stoned to death by the Pharisees on order of the High Priest. Another tradition states that he was beaten to death with a fuller’s club.
So which James do we commemorate today? That is the theological conundrum that has captured the church for nearly 2000 years. Perhaps, James the Less is the James actually the James venerated in the Coptic Church of Egypt as the missionary whose journey brought him to Egypt. One tradition maintains that James the Less was crucified at Ostrakine in Lower Egypt. How and where you believe James the Less died, identifies which James you think he may be. Poor James, just gets no respect.
Oddly, even the origin of the combined commemoration feast day for Philip and James shows no respect. James and Philip are never paired together in the Gospels. It’s always Philip and Bartholomew. But on May 1st, 561 when the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Rome was dedicated, the relics of Philip and James were placed there, and ever since then they’ve been linked together in the calendar of the Western Church.
To the evangelist St. John’s credit, however, Philip does have speak one memorable line . On the night Jesus was preparing his disciples for his departure, Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” To which Jesus responded, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
It is the most honest and authentic statement spoken by any faithful follower of Jesus. Philip knew the Lord. He had walked with him for three years, but he didn’t fully understand his ways. He still wanted to see the Father. Don’t get me wrong. Wanting to see the Father was good, but Philip wasn’t grasping that Jesus and the Father were one. That is the same challenge the Church faces in the world today. People want to see and know the Father, even those who should know him. They want clarity of God’s purpose, especially of what is good and evil, moral and immoral. They want to experience the grace of God and to know its limits. They want to encounter his transforming love and be empowered by his Spirit. And they want you and me as followers to Jesus to show them the way.
Unfortunately, you and I have been led to believe that the Father is not revealed through Jesus and his simple, less dramatic followers. We have been led to believe that the Father is seen only in glitzy programs, coordinated activities and large numbers- yes, through the greater, scripted apostles. As disciples of Jesus, you and I can easily forget how important our personal faith and efforts are in guiding others to Jesus. Yes, your words and deeds, just like Jesus and the early apostles, are the gestures that should lead those you love and even strangers to see the Father. In small, seemingly insignificant, and what some might perceive as forgettable acts, they can see and experience the Father in you. But, beware, you may not always get the respect you deserve, and you may at times feel overlooked, obscure and forgotten.
Two hundred years ago, one of my ancestors, Bernhard Hartz, was sent from Norway as a Moravian-Lutheran missionary to Greenland to minister to the Inuit. The mission had been guided by Norwegian and Danish missionaries for 90 years until the British blockade of the North Atlantic during the Napoleonic War of 1807. By 1812, as a result of the war and the blockade, all of the missionaries had returned home, leaving my ancestor as the only pastor left for the entire island. It was a daunting task, but he received comfort in the words from devotional book printed by the Moravians called the Daily Texts, which incidentally, is still in print today, and from the writing the Moravian Church’s 17th century founder Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Count Zinzendorf played a critical role in the development of Protestant foreign missions once writing to the mission churches, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”
That may seem a little hard. Personally, I wish Zinzendorf had written, “Preach the gospel, die and be remembered.” But it is certainly a sentiment that Philip and James would have understood. They knew full well that the gospel wasn’t about them; that it was all about Jesus. They trusted that their hope was not in this age, but in the age to come—the age they saw unfolding in the risen, resurrected Jesus. And so they put their faith, their lives and their futures in his hands, and they became faithful stewards of his gospel- trusting that God preserves the memory of the faithful. even if their own stories should be forgotten.
My friends, you may not get much respect, and you may feel obscure and overlooked, but preach the gospel, die, and rest assured, that you will be remembered, just as Philip and James have been remembered. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.