HOMILY for the feast of St James the Great
My driving instructor asked me recently: Now that I was a priest, how might I get promoted and become a bishop? I tried to explain to him that ministry in the Church wasn’t a job that entailed position, influence, power and promotion, and that I just wanted to try and be a good Dominican friar. He listened, paused, and then said, “But how do you get noticed?”
The mother of James and John, in today’s Gospel, has a similar mindset. Like so many on-lookers, she thinks faith in Christ and friendship with God confers patronage and power; status and importance. Christ’s apostles, then, become like God’s cronies and warlords. An example of this understanding of apostleship is the fierce depiction of St James as Matamoros, slayer of the Moors, that became popular in Spain during the Reconquista. But it’s not just on-lookers who think like this. St Matthew’s Gospel spares the blushes of James and John because in St Mark’s account of this incident it is the two sons of Zebedee themselves who ask for positions of power and privilege in God’s kingdom.
For all too often, it has been and still is tempting for us to think that our faith in Christ, or being a cleric, can give us position and power, or influence with God. This notion seems to underlie the popularity of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. In Asia, for example, many people are joining evangelical mega-churches because membership gives them status, a sense of Western sophistication, and promises of wealth. But today’s saint also seems to have had such notions, and perhaps we can find consolation in this.
For this is where St James began: with an understanding of Christian discipleship, and of what it is to be an apostle that was still immature and superficial. But a characteristic of being human is that, unlike the angels, we can learn and understand better; we can change and grow. For life is a pilgrimage, and we are all still finding our way forward with God’s grace.
St Paul’s letter shows where that grace leads us: To learn that apostleship, and indeed, Christian discipleship too, isn’t about power and prestige, but about knowing one’s weakness. We’re like “earthen vessels”, and so, we depend entirely on God’s strength and goodness. Discipleship is about being filled with Love, which is what it means to drink Christ’s chalice. It’s about loving the Truth, and a fidelity to this Truth (that is, to Jesus Christ) means that one is willing to suffer for the Gospel. As St Paul says: “While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake”. So, Christian faith is also about freedom: the freedom to love and to choose the good and true, even when it demands much of us.
St James came to understand this, maturing and journeying beyond his juvenile notions of Christianity as worldly triumph and self-aggrandizement. For he was beheaded around 44 AD, the first apostle to die for Christ; the first to drink from Christ’s chalice. Perhaps the enduring popularity of the Camino, the pilgrimage to his tomb in Santiago de Compostela lies in the fact that it reminds us that life is a journey involving movement, change and growth. And on the arduous routes to Compostela, one learns that what matters in life is not power and control but love and truth, and the freedom to embrace these.
May St James, patron of pilgrims, pray for us that we may learn as he did, and, so, rest at last in Christ, our journey’s end.
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