Readings: 2 Corinthians 4: 7-15 The treasure of the Gospel in jars of clay (the apostles)
Matthew 20: 20-28 The sons of Zebedee seek prime position in the kingdom of God
- Introduction. We are no longer in the Easter season but every Sunday is a recollection that on a Sunday Jesus rose from the dead. I therefore invite you join in the response of the Easter greeting on this Sunday as we mark the increasing freedom from Covid restrictions, ever rejoicing in our freedom in and through our risen Lord Jesus.
Alleluia Christ is risen
He is risen indeed Alleluia
A new government was about to take over. The prime minister had already been declared, having a strong popular following. He had been campaigning for the past three years and immediately before that his cousin, John, had prepared people for an enlightened rule. Even before John was born to aged parents, his father had a prophetic insight that his son would have this preparatory role and that his nephew would be raised up as a mighty saviour of a nation, subject to foreign rule of a strong empire. Into this situation comes the pushy parent of two of the new leaders within the immediate band of followers, with a special request that her sons should be number 2 and 3 in the cabinet of the new government. That was the subject of our Gospel reading in which Mrs Zebedee comes to Jesus asking that her sons James and John should have prime positions in the about-to-be- re-established Davidic kingdom, free from Rome, under the rule of God’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of the great king David. Jesus makes no direct promise to James and John.
- Which James? This Gospel reading makes it quite clear which James we are celebrating today. We are celebrating James the son of Zebedee, not James, the brother of Jesus, who having initially scoffed at the claims of his elder brother, seems to have come to be a prominent leader in the early Church as we learn in reading the Acts of the Apostles, albeit references in Acts simply say ‘James’, possibly referring to another of the 12 apostles, James the son of Alphaeus. One quite clear reference to James son of Zebedee, is a single verse, Acts 12 v 2, referring to his martyrdom, where Luke writes, “Herod had James, the brother of John, put to death by the sword.” This happened about 44 A. D. We can therefore say with a fair degree of confidence that the epistle of James was written by another James, having been written much later.
- James in Scripture. What then do we know of James? Other than his martyrdom, we look to the four gospels for our authorative insight into James. He and his brother John were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in the family fishing business managed by their father Zebedee. On a number of occasions Jesus had taken an inner group of disciples, namely Peter, and the two brothers, James and John, to be with him at special times, as for example, the raising of Jairus’ daughter and his Transfiguration. James was therefore one of a select inner group of three, together with his brother John and with Peter, being prepared for leading roles in the early Church. They needed to learn to reach beyond the boundaries of their tradition enmity of other races and peoples, to be inclusive not exclusive and judgemental. This is seen rather well in the incident, recorded solely by Luke, when Jesus and the 12 are travelling to Jerusalem via Samaria. A Samaritan village refuses them hospitality because they are travelling to Jerusalem. The two brothers offer to call down a lightning strike on the inhospitable village. But Jesus rebukes them and they travel on to another village. This incident was near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, but I suspect that the brothers were still thinking that he would establish the Kingdom of God as an earthly kingdom with Jesus as Head of State. After the example of the great prophet Elijah, who had appeared to Jesus at his transfiguration, their task was to oppose zealously and physically those who refused to support the coming regime. This then comes to a climax in the event recorded by James’ brother, John, who later became known as the Apostle of Love, of their mother requesting special authority for her sons in the revived kingdom. Mark records the event, but as a direct request by the brothers themselves.
- James in the Church. You may be surprised that the only reference in the Acts of the Apostles to James, son of Zebedee, other than in the list of the 11 apostles in Acts 1, is that one verse stating he was martyred. One has to remember that the book is really the ‘Acts of the two Apostles’, namely Peter and Paul. I think it is fair to say that Luke, the author of Acts, wrote the book as a defence of the Apostle Paul in preparation for his trial in Rome, showing firstly that the Christian Church was essentially a peaceful institution, supportive of Roman authority, and that the riots and opposition to Paul’s preaching arose from Jewish irrational jealousy and bigotry and secondly to authenticate Paul’s position as an apostle of the Church, showing that anything Peter did in the way of preaching, healing and even raising someone from the dead, Paul also did, and more. I think though it is highly likely that Herod Archelaus one of the three sons of Herod the Great, ruling Judea and Samaria from Jerusalem, saw James, an active, leading, member of the Christian Church, as a threat to his rule. There are many countries today where the Church seems to rulers to be a threat and in autocratic states, active, leading Christians are imprisoned or put to death. It may be that in the 10 years or so between Jesus’ death and James’ death that James had an effective and fruitful ministry in Jerusalem, Judea and even in Samaria, where previously he had wanted to call down a lightning strike on an unfriendly village.
- Application. I doubt if any of us will get a mention in history or other books, read by succeeding generations, but to some extent, as the Apostle Paul says to the Christians at Corinth, the treasure of the gospel is held in us, in fragile earthenware jars. Our lives may be long, like James’ brother John, or comparatively short like James’. Death has been confronting us every day during the Coronavirus epidemic, either in the news or maybe through the death of a friend or even a member of your family. What matters is that our lives are lived in the light of the glorious light of the knowledge of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t promise to give the two brothers their wish, but he did ask them to be committed in following him, whatever the cost of that might be. As I read the Church Times each week, I glance at the clergy deaths and realise the many of my brothers and sisters in Christ were younger at their death than I am now. I recall a preacher many years ago saying, “I do not fear death, but I do fear the process of dying”. Yes, that can sometimes be very unpleasant as in Coronavirus deaths. Alternatively it may be like that of the great 19th Century missionary, Robert Moffat, whose daughter married David Livingstone, that death may come very easily. At the end of 4 years retirement in Leigh, after some 50 years in South Africa, he said to his wife, “I am feeling rather tired, I will just go upstairs and lie on my bed for a while.” And so he died.
I conclude with the words of a previous Bishop of Rochester, “Onward and upward. Alleluia!” and a prayer from Common Worship Morning Prayer for Thursday, based on the Book of Common Prayer’s Second Collect for Morning Prayer:
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord,
to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom.
Defend us your servants from all assaults of our enemies;
that we, surely trusting in your defence,
may not fear the power of any adversaries;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Rev’d Christopher Miles