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The Servants of all: obeying Christ’s call to discipleship

A sermon preached at the 101st Patronal Festival of the Parish of St James the Great, East St Kilda, by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of St James, 2015:

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I bring you warm greetings from the congregations of St Paul’s Cathedral: your home church at the heart of our city. It is a joy to be with you on your patronal festival, as you celebrate 101 years of the foundation of the parish of St James East St Kilda, and to reflect with you on the ministry of your patron, St James. My predecessor, Dean Hussey Burgh Macartney, was, of course, both Dean of St James’ Cathedral and of St Paul’s Cathedral; so the example of St James stands at the very beginning of our story as a Cathedral. It is therefore a delight to be explore together what the example of St James the Great may mean for us today as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ in this generation.

St James was one of the great apostles. Among the first four to be called, together with his brother John, and Simon Peter and Andrew, for the writers of our Gospels, he is one of the examples of what it means to follow Jesus to the cross and, following his glorious resurrection from the dead, what it means to lead God’s people. Before he met Jesus, and responded to his call to leave his former life behind and follow him, James was firmly established in his family’s fishing business on Lake Galilee. A partner together with his brother John and their father Zebedee, they were moored near the shore of Lake Galilee, preparing their nets to fish, when Jesus called them to leave their nets behind and instead to go, follow him, and become ‘fishers of men’. Peter and Andrew, James and John, responded immediately to Jesus’ call. So insistent was Jesus’ call that James and his brother ‘left their father in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him’ (Mark 1.20, Matthew 4.21).

Andrew and Simon, James and John were not only the first four disciples to enter into discipleship, but from the moment of their call they became Jesus’ key witnesses. They were among the ‘chosen witnesses’ who saw Jesus transfigured on a high mountain, they walked alongside Jesus at his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and were taken aside by Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to be near him in his agony (Mark 9.2-8, 13.3, 14.33). They sought to be like Jesus, and promised to follow him even into the darkest moments. And as they promised to follow, they clearly expected great rewards, today’s Gospel story suggests. A chapter earlier, Peter had already questioned Jesus whether there would be a reward for their discipleship: ‘We have left everything and followed you; what then will there be for us’ (Matthew 19.27). And Jesus assured them that ‘at the renewal of all things’ they would be seated on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’, adding, ‘but many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first’ (19.29). Having been promised great reward by the one who called them to follow, today James and John openly ask for an even greater reward: to share the seats of honour when Jesus came to reign.

Simon and Andrew, John and James serve as much an example of godly leadership and faithfulness, as they are an example of human fallibility. Perhaps it was because they had been witnesses of glory – had been among the chosen four to see Jesus transfigured in resurrection light – that they were unable to grasp the fact that Jesus’ kingdom might not be ushered in by glory but through suffering. In spite of the fact that Jesus openly speaks about the suffering he will undergo at the hand of those who oppose him; that his ascent to Jerusalem would be an ascent to the cross, the disciples still hope to shield Jesus from suffering, hope to enter the kingdom in glory, not through agony and pain. They still hope for a reward of glory, and have not yet understood that the reward they will gain is sharing in Jesus’ suffering.

How could they understand? They had seen Jesus’ deeds of power; had seen him heal the sick, command the elements, raise the dead to life again; had seen him transfigured in glory and confessed him as God’s Son. How would the all-powerful God let his Son not enter into glory, save him from his enemies. And the glimpses of the divine glory they had perceived in Christ to them were signs of the reward they would enjoy. So convinced are they still that Jesus will accomplish his triumph in Jerusalem, that they were arguing among themselves who among them would be the most worthy; who would be allowed to take the place occupied by Elijah and Moses on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Who was greatest among them; who would be seated at the right and the left of their transfigured king on the thrones he had promised them all.

And at each stage of their conversation about greatness and glory, Jesus had stalled the discussion, either by reminding them that his intent was to go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, or by telling them that the hierarchies of his kingdom were not those they had hoped for: ‘the first will be last, and the last first’. Obtaining the prime thrones promised them, then, would require diplomacy and skill. Which is why it is the mother of James and John put in the request for her sons’ glory. Commenting on Matthew’s gospel in the Fourth Century, St John Chrysostom suggests that James and John were too ashamed to ask for themselves. Their mother kneels before Jesus in humble submission, like the Canaanite woman when she begged Jesus to save her daughter’s life (Matthew 15.25), or the woman who knelt before Jesus and anointed his feet with her tears. The posture may be the same, but otherwise the two pleas couldn’t be more different: James and John were not asking for transformed, healed, lives; but for glory and power.

Jesus’ response to the two is charactistic: rather than grant them their request, promise them glory; he promises them suffering. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am to drink’, he asks them; can you drink the bitter of cup of suffering and death that I will pray the Father to let pass from me in my inner agony in Gethsemane? And the two still do not understand, assent to gain glory, and are told that they will indeed drink deep of the draught of suffering, and die for their discipleship; are told that discipleship will mean carrying the cross before entering into glory. ‘The Son of Man’, says Jesus concludes, ‘has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Where in the Hebrew Scriptures God had promised to give rich nations, the local superpowers in ransom for his people, here Jesus tells the disciples that he will give his own Son in ransom so that his creation may, once again, be called ‘very good’.

‘The Son of Man has come to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20.28). Jesus has not come to rule the nations in glory; his ‘kingdom is not of this world’. Jesus is not one who ‘seeks great things’: the reverse is the case for God’s servant. For in reflecting on his own servanthood, Jesus recalls the role of the Servant of the Lord from the prophecy of Isaiah; God’s chosen who ‘makes himself an offering for sin’ (Isa 53.10). The humble servant who will take on ‘our infirmities and bear our diseases’ (Mt 8.17); the innocent victim who made no answer to his accusers (27.12); God’s lamb whose blood is ‘poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins’ (26.27-28). God’s Son who gives his life as a ransom for God’s people, who gives himself to die, so that all may have life forever.

I sometimes wonder how much James and John understand of Jesus’s calling to be a victim, a ransom for many. I wonder whether they understood his invitation to follow him in terms of that calling. Their behaviour in the Gospel stories suggests little such understanding. James and John wanted to bring down fire, St Luke tells us, upon the Samaritan village that rejected Jesus (Luke 9.51-56). James and John, were called the ‘Sons of Thunder’ for a reason: the name suggests impulsive characters, people who are ready to repay agression or rejection with like coin. People who understood well what it meant to claim an ‘eye for an eye’ but who had yet to learn what it may mean to ‘love one’s enemies and pray for those who persecute us’. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’, Jesus asked the Sons of Thunder (Mt 20.22). Yes we can, they replied readily, but naïvely.

Of the two only John lived to reach old age in Ephesus. James drained his master’s cup far sooner. In about 44 AD, Herod killed James ‘with the sword’ (Acts 12.2). James received the Roman sentence of a political troublemaker. Ten years after Jesus’s death, the brother we commemorate today was still a Son of Thunder. But at the same time, he will also have known that to be at Jesus’s side on his throne in glory meant to suffer, on his left or his right, like the thieves at Calvary (Mt 27.38). He will have known, like the righteous thief, that the way into paradise was by asking for God’s mercy rather than to enter into God’s glory without first taking up our cross: the mercy that led God to give his only Son as a ransom for many; the glory that shines forth from the cross, where Christ is enthroned as King of all nations.

Today we give thanks for James’ witness to the service that is revealed in suffering. The martyrdom he suffered shines as an example of what it means to exercise true leadership: not the leadership that seeks ‘to lord it over others’ (Mt 20.25), the leadership that is based on good connections and the intercession of intermediaries. On the contrary, the reason we give thanks for the leadership of St James the Great is because he came to realise that the way of ruling among the people he lived was not the way of God’s kingdom. There, to be first among people meant to be the slave of all (20.27). There, to serve God in his people was the only way to experience perfect freedom. As we give thanks for the example of St James, we pray that we, too may be equipped with grace to follow Christ on the way to the kingdom, that we may be given grace to follow in his spirit humbleness and gentleness, by seeking to be servants of others, by seeing the image of Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters, and so to share in building up his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Let us pray:

O gracious God, we remember before you today your servant and apostle James, first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the Name of Jesus Christ; and we pray that you will pour out upon the leaders of your Church the same spirit of self-denying service by which alone they may have true authority among your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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