The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      25th July 2021
St James the Great
Jeremy Fletcher

A Bishop, making an official visit to a home for the very elderly, asked one of them “Do you know who I am?”. “No”, came the reply, “but if you ask Matron she’ll tell you.” It is all to easy to be caught up in the trappings of authority and power, and it is good to have all that deflated on occasion. There was a rule in the Early Church that you should not appoint as a Bishop someone who wanted to be one. Even this became quickly ritualised: you were evidently meant to say nolo episcopari twice if asked, even if, of course, you really did want to say yes. The former Archbishop of York was once asked about all the grand robes he wore in church, and whether they truly reflected the Carpenter of Nazareth. His answer was that, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem the disciples put their cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on. “These robes”, said Dr Sentamu, “are cloaks a donkey carrying Jesus.”
Today the church remembers St James the Apostle. Ironically, given our Gospel reading today, he is known as James “the Great”. This is to distinguish him from James “the Less”, referred to at the end of Mark’s Gospel. He’s prominent in the Gospels, one of the “sons of Zebedee” who accompanies his brother John, and Peter, at key moments in Jesus’s life including the Transfiguration. Some traditions join various dots and speculate that he was a cousin of Jesus. He was certainly close, and possibly the elder of the brothers, as he is always spoken of before John. 
It would be a shame to dismiss the story of the request to sit at Jesus’s right and left in the kingdom as being only about base human ambition and the lust of worldly power. It is rather telling that in Matthew’s account it’s not even James and John who ask, but their mother. Well, mothers do that, but it is clearly what they want. I don’t doubt that the desire for earthly glory and recognition is in there somewhere, but look closely and it’s more like those robes on the donkey. 
The story appears late in Jesus’s ministry, just before the entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has spoken again and again of what will happen. The disciples can have been in no doubt that what Jesus was going to was dangerous and deadly, not gilt edged and splendid. The request is to join Jesus in the kingdom which is to come, not to live like kings or Roman Governors now. It is clear that they are indeed willing to drink “the cup”, the apocalyptic cup of destruction and judgment. They are faithful, and utterly committed to Jesus. They are ambitious for a role and place in the new kingdom, not this world.
Nevertheless, they have to separate out their faithful following from desiring the benefits and position which may come in the kingdom which Jesus will reveal. The cup, says Jesus, is enough. If you want to drink it only because you will have an honoured place in the kingdom then you are drinking for the wrong reasons. This is an upside down kingdom, where normal rules don’t apply. To lead you must serve. To be great is to be humble. And don’t do this in a nolo episcopari ritualised way. You must wash real, dirty, unpleasant feet. Of course, says Jesus, worldly power is seen in those who lord it over others. Not so with you. Don’t think about greatness. Think about service. 
That’s really hard, especially when organisations need leaders and rules. All too often the pursuit of leadership and power becomes a thing in itself, not for the ways in which position and power can be used to serve. Time and again people who have authority, power and office in the Kingdom of God need to be reminded that these things do not come because we deserve them. They come because we do not deserve them, but God gives them anyway. We strive to be servants, not masters. 
In the Kingdom of God the last are first, the weak are strong, the poor are rich, the dead are alive. The poor in spirit are filled by God, the one who dies brings new life. In the end our primary calling is to lay down our lives, as Jesus did. His was true authority and real power. Where those who had power around him were actually trying to rule events, Jesus allowed things to happen. He willingly submitted to baptism, to being parented, to be handed over, to suffer, and to die. He knew where true power lay, and demonstrated this in weakness. In the church we will be distinguished by our service, and our passionate desire to do the will of God, not by our getting what we want. All we can do is walk the way of the cross, and accept what God gives us.
The symbol of St James is the scallop shell of the pilgrim. He has become associated with Spain, and Santiago de Compostela is where he is reputed to be buried. It will be a great day there today, and many pilgrims will have timed their camino so as to arrive on his feast day Sunday. Many testify to the way that walking the way to Santiago teaches them about what true greatness and true authority really are, as the trappings for worldly power are stripped away. St James is great because his faithful following led not to power in the church but in his witness even to death, killed by Herod Agrippa. 
With James we have heard the words and witnessed the deeds of Jesus the Christ. With James we are called to citizenship in the upside down Kingdom of God. With James we are invited to walk the way of the Cross. In seeking only to serve may we know where true power is to be found, and in following may we know the Way, for Jesus’s sake. Amen. 

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