Feast of St James

July 25, 2021

Acts 11:27-12:2

Matthew 20:20-28 

This Sunday the universal church celebrates the life and death of St James. I hope that you gathered from the readings that James was the brother of St John, collectively referred to as the ‘Sons of Thunder’ by Jesus. James and John were two thirds of Jesus’ inner circle of three (the other being Peter). Across the gospels, James does not have much dialogue compared to John and Peter but he was always present. He was there at the raising of Jarius’ daughter, he was dazzled and confused at the Transfiguration and fell asleep in Gethsemane after witnessing Jesus’ agony.

I want to talk briefly about what I admire and find challenging about James. 

James and John, along with Peter and Andrew, were the first disciples that Jesus called. It was to this group of fishermen that Jesus called to become fishers of men. I would really like to know what was so attractive about Jesus, what was it that made them drop their nets and follow him? It reads like they did so immediately. They left everything, their father, the family business to follow this itinerant preacher around. 

What about their father? Poor old Zebedee literally left holding the nets. Socially and culturally this would have been a huge deal. Zebedee would have assumed that the family fishing biz would automatically go to James and John. Particularly James as he was the eldest. We do not know what happened to Zebedee & Sons Fishing Inc but I can imagine it was a challenge. 

I cannot help but be challenged by the immediacy of James, John, Peter and Andrew to drop everything, take such a huge risk to follow Jesus. Why do I not react the same way? Why doesn’t the church? I want to work harder at knowing more about Jesus, not just academically but personally. 

The second aspect of James that I admire is his presence. He witnessed some amazing things and we do not know what he thought as there is not much record of anything he said. His biggest contribution is recorded in Mark 13 when he points out the large stones and large buildings to Jesus, Peter, Andrew and John. This observation leads to some questions for Jesus which sparks a long discourse on the end times.  

The Matthew reading is also fascinating to me. Did they have their mother ask Jesus for this favour? Did they put her up to this? In some ways this shows that despite being part of the inner circle, James and John did not fully understand what Jesus was doing. Jesus replied that he was not able to grant this favour. Jesus had just told them and the other disciples that they were going to Jerusalem and he would be killed.  

James also struggled with presence. While he was in the garden with Jesus, it would appear that James disappeared with the rest of the disciples while Peter and John followed to see what would happen to Jesus. James’ mother is reported to have been at the crucifixion as was his brother John. There is no mention of him. 

Where did it come apart for James? Sometimes in our zeal, when things do not come together as we thought, we walk away. Maybe this is what James did in those moments that were so overwhelmingly difficult. What do we do in those moments? 

On a more positive note, it looks like James was present with the disciples in their grief and disbelief in the resurrection appearances of Jesus. James was restored along with the rest of the disciples on the beach. He received the Great Commission to go and make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

It would appear that he did. This Son of Thunder got his thunder back. James lived for a few more years, it seems likely that he was the first apostle to be martyred. His is the only martyrdom recorded in the New Testament. John likely died as a very old man, spending the majority of his life without his older brother. 

History and tradition claim that James’ body was taken to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where his shrine still attracts millions of pilgrims (Christian and otherwise). 

St James once again challenges my notion of the immediacy of the gospel of Jesus. He willingly dropped the fishing net, left a secure job and family honour to follow an unknown entity at the time. I wish that I could follow Jesus with that same abandon. James lived the rest of his life spreading the message of the Gospel with expectation and fervency.  

There is something about Jesus. James witnessed some amazing things, the raising of the dead, the Transfiguration and Jesus’ agony but still did not fully understand what this meant. He heard the teachings of Jesus directly from his mouth. Yet he struggled to remain present in the most difficult moments. Where do I go when it all gets a bit too much? 

James also experienced the magnificent love and grace of God and was restored to a right relationship. That love and grace, a life of hope has been made available to all of us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I pray that we too can grab on for ourselves. 

Proper 11: Sheep without a Shepherd


Proper 11/Trinity 8

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-24; 53-56

Compassion of Christ

In the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are presented with a very busy Jesus! Mark sets a tone and pace for his readers that is frenetic and fast – it presents a picture of Jesus going from one place, one person to the next – hardly stopping to catch his breath.

Mark keeps Jesus and the disciples in Galilee as Jesus preaches, teaches and heals the masses whilst spending time teaching the disciples. But the side of Jesus that we are presented with today is one who recognizes, honours and tends to his own tiredness. Jesus also responds to the tiredness and exhaustion of his disciples with care and compassion. His response turns into action as Jesus tries to do something about it.

To give this morning’s reading the right context it is important to look at the whole of chapter 6 to understand why everyone is so exhausted. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus in his hometown, where he was dishonoured and ended up amazed at their unbelief. Who were the unbelieving? His family, friends and those who had known him since childhood.

Hang on to that for a moment; the people who have known you the longest completely dismiss you and the work you are doing. How draining that would be; not to mention disappointing! Remember that Jesus was a human being, he felt things: experienced grief and rejection, felt frustration, was disappointed and let down. Emotional exhaustion by any other name.

After this visit home, according to Mark, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples in two’s (v 7) to start doing what he has been showing and teaching them to do – teaching about repentance, casting out demons and anointing the sick and curing them. The disciples have been given the authority to go out along with some rules about how they are to conduct themselves. This is the beginning of their ministries. You can maybe imagine the enthusiasm they set out with! Jesus would now appear to be on his own.

Mark then turns back to the ongoing saga of John the Baptist. Mark interrupts this part of the narrative with the news of John’s death. Jesus had sent the disciples out and they (now referred to as apostles) are back together. They seem to be very anxious to tell Jesus about all the amazing things they have done and taught.

They started off full of energy and enthusiasm and have likely returned shattered! Jesus recognizes this and wants to take them away to a deserted place by themselves. The apostles are tired, Jesus is mourning the death of his cousin. Very good reasons to get away. Jesus calls them to come away with him to a deserted place to rest a while. Not sure how long ‘a while’ is but Jesus wants to provide the rest and recuperation for the apostles and himself.

What do we learn about Jesus in this passage this morning? He was human – in some of the ‘throwaway’ lines in Gospel that usually precede the big events we see this humanity – his hunger, his need for sleep and food, his inclination to hide, the need for rest and solitude. Our God rests and it is important for us to know that. As we stand on ‘Freedom Day’ tomorrow and whatever that may bring, the need for rest will be even more important.

However, the plans for rest and refreshment go awry. Jesus is also like us in that his best-laid plans went sideways! The crowd, those sheep without a shepherd, follow Jesus and apostles to their supposed place of rest. I suspect that many a human reaction would be one of disappointment – to say it mildly.

This is where we see that Jesus is decidedly un-like us; he does not turn away or throw a strop. He has compassion, He recognizes that the needs of the crowd in the moment are greater than his. He begins to teach them. Not only does he teach them, he then feeds them. All 5000 of them! This is a sermon for another day but the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus and the apostles is set in the midst of their exhaustion and grief.

A second attempt after dinner is made to get away. Jesus sends the apostles back across the lake in the boat. He went up to the mountain to pray. Jesus then comes back down and walks on the water, across the lake to the boat – again a sermon for another day!

As Jesus and the apostles arrive on the other side of the lake, still searching for the rest that seems to be eluding them, they are met with the crowds. Once again Jesus is recognized, the crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed. Once again Jesus meets them with compassion, they might touch the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I think I envy Jesus and his stark understanding of need. I ashamedly find it easy sometimes to pass the buck on compassion when I am hungry or tired or needing some solitude. It is tempting to say that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not the last stop – am I? I think one of the big lessons this week is the tension between compassion and self-protection. Jesus lived with it too and that is good to know.

Debie Thomas – a writer and essayist I greatly admire writes: ‘On the one hand, he (Jesus) was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to blunt his compassion. Unlike me, he realized that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds — those sheep without a shepherd. Unlike me, he practiced a kind of balance that allowed his love for others, his own inner hungers, and the urgency of the world’s needs to exist in productive tension.

Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. Strive for balance? Recognize weariness when you feel it? Don’t apologize for being human? Take breaks?
Yes. All of those essential things. But maybe also — and most importantly — this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly.
While balance remains the ideal, it won’t always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will have to “err.” We’ll have to bend out of balance.
If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week’s Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. Seek rest, of course. But err on the side of compassion. Jesus did.’

Jesus lived a busy, frenetic life. His humanity shows in his need for food, sleep and time away; Jesus and the apostles shared common human emotions of grief, mourning and great excitement. Jesus also acknowledged the need for rest in those around him and worked to do something about it. His best laid plans didn’t work out – again – we see his humanity and the shared experience of disappointment when things don’t work out the way we wanted.

Yet – Jesus always responds in compassion to those around him. This isn’t the easy option! But it is to compassion we are called.

Proper 10: The Senselessness of it All

The Beheading of John the Baptist, artist unknown

Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

I am not sure if you expected to come to church this morning to be confronted with the dramatic and gory story of John the Baptist! As with most gospel stories, there are many threads to pull at and some interesting characters to explore.

John arrives in Mark’s Gospel even before Jesus does – he is first on the scene as the front runner to Jesus’ ministry. It is good to remember that John and Jesus are cousins, they are family. Their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins. As adults they meet on the banks of the River Jordan and after a brief discussion, Cousin John baptizes his cousin Jesus which signals the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is on the up and John’s ministry begins to decline. Jesus goes off into the wilderness immediately after his baptism to face temptation by Satan; John gets arrested by Herod.

If you read the first few chapters of Mark you will see that Jesus is very busy. He travels around Galilee, gathering his disciples, encountering the Pharisees; begins his preaching, teaching and healing ministry. All the while John is sitting in prison. Jesus heard about John’s arrest and Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he withdrew to Galilee. We don’t know how long he withdrew from his activities but so overwhelming was this news that Jesus needed to stop for a moment.

In Matthew 11 we are told that John sent a message to Jesus asking: ‘if he (Jesus) is the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’ You can almost hear the ‘come on cousin! Get me out of here!’ Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with the message to tell John what they hear and see: the blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, the poor are receiving the good news. Everything that John had prophesied about is happening. So – yes – John – Jesus is the One.

The next we hear of John is that he has been killed. Why?

Herod is not a good man, nor is he a good leader. He is no Gareth Southgate! John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother (Philip’s) wife (Herodias) illegally. They were in breach of the Torah (Jewish law) and John kept pointing this out to them. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him.

Herod is confused, on the one hand Herodias wants John dead; on the other Herod knows John to be a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us that Herod feared John. Herod liked to listen to John even though he was publicly criticizing him and calling him an adulterer. Little wonder Herod was perplexed!

Herod’s confusion only grows when his teenage niece/step-daughter Salome dances for the crowd and this is pleasing. Pleasing here means pleasing of a sexual nature. A teenager is dancing in an erotic fashion for a group of drunken men. Does that still happen today?

The death of John the Baptist is one of the most shocking accounts in the Gospels I think. His death is a senseless one! Lost his head for a dance from an over-sexualized teenager and her rotten mother. So meaningless!

Herod proves himself to be a weak leader, total lack of conviction to do the right thing. He won’t lose face in front of the crowd. Even though he knew, had seen something of the truth in what John had been saying. Herod was deeply grieved, and still did the wrong thing.

John is one of those people – and I’m sure we know them – who does the right thing and suffers anyway. His death accomplishes nothing – no one is saved or converted. It’s an injustice that hasn’t been solved. This is one of those situations that begs the question, where is God in all of this?

There is always the temptation to rush an explanation: nothing happens in this world unless God wills it, everything happens for a reason, or my personal non-favourite ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’. I really can’t believe that God wills teenagers to dance for the sexual gratification of old men. I can’t believe that God wills the senseless death of any of his precious children from beheading, starvation, genocide or Covid.

Giving us more than we can handle? You will not find that line anywhere in the Bible. It also suggests that if a person was less than who they are, less personality, less strength, less them; then whatever has happened (sudden death, illness, crisis) would not have happened to them. Again – not true!

The essayist, Debie Thomas, wrote this about the death of John the Baptist:

Maybe in John’s story we are meant to learn something about how God works. Maybe “the point” of this Gospel story is to show us that all forms of transactional Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behaviour. Maybe the point is that God doesn’t exist to shield us from pain, sorrow, or premature death — however much it offends our sensibilities to admit this.
Maybe the point is that we don’t need to slap purpose or meaning on all human experience. Maybe some things are just plain horrible. Period.
It’s tempting to read a story like John the Baptist’s and tell ourselves that it’s old fashioned — that it comes from a rougher, cruder, and more barbaric time. But of course the opposite is true.

We still, right now, today, live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm. We still live in a world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed.

We still live in a world of sudden and random violence. We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.’

Maybe the story of Herod is here as a negative example for us; to show us what is at stake when the good news of Jesus and gospel is rejected. Maybe there is something about how we approach God, maybe a little too casually, too neutrally.

We may come with our questions and doubts but then get stuck and never move on. We live in a world of fake news, doctored images, relativism, live your truth and blatant lies. Why is it that when we hear the truth it is precious, it gets our attention.

What do we do with this? Ephesians 1 is a remarkably powerful statement about the glory of the risen Jesus. I want to be careful, I am not saying that this is the answer to the question of why John the Baptist died or to explain away the senselessness of some deaths. This is about knowing who we are in Christ; we were chosen before the foundation of the world, destined for adoption as God’s children, we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven of our trespasses.

In Jesus we have been given the greatest inheritance and have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. All things will be gathered up in Jesus in the fullness of time. If we can hold onto this and come to understand who we are in Jesus, where we fit, what he has done for us then we have hope and truth. We have something to hang on to when the senseless things happen. We have someone to take our grief to, somewhere to hang our uncertainty and confusion.

We also have to work out that God may not operate the way we want him to either – that his sole purpose is not to make our lives easy and pain-free – again this is not mentioned in the Bible!

We might not know why things happen the way they do and we might never know on this side of heaven. But we do need to know who we are in Jesus and be reminded of what He has done for us. We see this in the life and death of John.
If you are not sure who you are in Jesus – or that sounds weird or strange – I will gently suggest that you might want to look into that! It might be time to read some new books or think about things in a new way – take some time to contemplate your relationship with Jesus.