A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 25 July 2021.
Today the church is celebrating the life of one of Christ’s 12 disciple, James the apostle.
As we’ve heard in our reading from the book of Acts, he was the first of the apostles to die for his faith in around 44 A.D. by the new king in Judaea, Herod the Great. But Luke doesn’t explain why.
What we do know is that Herod had to walk a difficult political path in order to survive. He ruled the Jewish population but was hated, first because he was a puppet of the Roman emperor, and second because he was in part an Edomite, a neighbouring tribe who were enemies of the Jewish people.
So executing James could have been expedient with both Rome and Jerusalem suspicious of this new, emerging Christian sect.
And remember that James together with his brother John had been given a nickname by Jesus that may indicate that they could be rabble rousers.
Luke tells us that when Jesus once came to a Samaritan village, the people there refused him entry because he was on his way to Jerusalem, a city despised and rejected by the Samaritans.
In response, James and John suggest to Jesus that they should pray for fire to come down from heaven to burn the village up. The nickname that Jesus gave them both was ‘Boanerges’ or ‘Sons of Thunder’!
There are four people in the pages of the New Testament, all connected to Jesus and all called James and any one of them might have been the author of the letter of James.
In the list of disciples there’s James the son of Alphaeus; and Jude, another disciple of Jesus, had a brother called James. We know very little about either of these.
Then Jesus himself had a brother called James who became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, but even so he too remains a shadowy figure.
Whereas James the son of Zebedee whom we give thanks for today, is more prominent.
He was one of the four fishermen called by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He came from Capernaum, fished on the Sea of Galilee, and was a business partner with Simon and Andrew the other Galilean fishermen. James and his brother John, were called by Jesus while they were mending their nets, and at once ‘they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men’ and followed Jesus.
It’s an important start to the gospel story.
These four, Simon and Andrew, James and John, form something of an inner circle around Jesus perhaps because they were the first to be called and prior to being called they’d worked together on the Sea of Galilee.
In particular on two pivotal occasions their names are mentioned as being close to Jesus: at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.
If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s understandable that they wondered whether they might be in a privileged position. In today’s gospel from Matthew we heard them coming to Jesus hoping to be given the best seats in the kingdom – one on the right of Jesus and the other on the left.
I know that’s not quite what we heard; in fact the names, James and John, weren’t even mentioned. But turn to the earlier account of this story in Mark’s gospel, and James and John are mentioned, and it’s them, not their mother, who makes this request.
Matthew seems keen to show the apostles in a better light than Mark does, so Matthew removes their names entirely from the story, airbrushes them out, referring to them as the ‘sons of Zebedee’ or ‘the two brothers’. And so instead of James and John coming to Jesus, Matthew has their mother coming to Jesus with this request for preferment.
And the indignation of the other 10 disciples seems not to reflect a better understanding Christ’s ministry, but merely anger that these two brothers were trying to get ahead of the rest of them.
The sad irony is that not only did James fall foul of a tyrant, Herod the Great, but he also drank the cup of suffering that Jesus himself drank when he was killed with the sword.
What’s particularly precious about the story is the teaching that Jesus draws from this incident:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’