Sunday, 25 July 2010

St. James - Primate urges or spiritual service?

James the Apostle

Today's Readings
2 Corinthians 4:7-15

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Matthew 20:20-28

The Request of the Mother of James and John

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘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.’


Alongside our celebration of the baptism of xxxx, today we also celebrate the apostle, James, the brother of John. James and John were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, and this is actually quite important because there is this suggestion that they were rather head-strong, and maybe even hot-headed. You might recall from not many weeks back that there was an occasion when Jesus wanted to go into a town in Samaria but was not accepted there.

On that occasion it was James and John who very helpfully suggested that, if Jesus wanted them to, they would call down fire from heaven on to the town as punishment. Jesus politely refused their request, but you get the idea. Here were two men who, perhaps like most of the disciples, did not exactly seem all that fit for duty as disciples of Jesus. Maybe that’s simply because they were red-blooded males rather than perhaps the rather insipid idea we have about what a Christian man should be like.

I find it interesting, therefore, that James was one of the first disciples we know to have been martyred. John, we think, had a strong hand in setting up a community, perhaps in Ephesus, from which came some of the deepest and most mystical of early Christian writings, the Gospel and letters that bear his name, and the Book of Revelation.

Truly these men changed, but that’s not where we start from. Our Gospel reading instead brings this suggestion that their mother, who was perhaps also travelling with them to make sure they were doing ok, maybe suggesting they were quite young at this point, was attempting to get them further up the social hierarchy.

Actually it’s not so much further up the social hierarchy, it’s more that she wants them at the top of it, ruling with Jesus as his Lieutenants. We perhaps rather despair at this display of a drive for power, yet those with observant eyes will see the same thing going on in the church today in every denomination as professing Christians continue to give in to their desires to be at the top.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when word gets back to the other ten disciples they were livid with James and John, although a part of me wonders whether they were also thinking, ‘Doh! Why didn’t we think of that first?’ They, too, were not immune to this attempt to climb the social hierarchy.

Why do we do this? I have a theory. I believe that it’s because it’s somewhere deeply embedded in our human nature. We are higher primates and if we look at one of our nearest neighbours, Pan Troglodytes, known to you and me as the Chimpanzee, we see a very similar kind of behaviour amongst both male and female as they work their way up to the top, using force if necessary, but also by political manoeuvring. The aim seems like ours: to be as far up the social hierarchy as possible, and if at all possible to become the alpha male or alpha female.

I think this may sometimes be the reason why difficulties can arise when a new vicar arrives in a parish, because other, perhaps more dominant characters, have to get used to having a new alpha male or female who has been parachuted in to the group, the church, without having worked their way up the local social stratus.
I’ve seen it happen to a number of my colleagues with some of them simply leaving because of the pain that has been caused them, and others whose ministry has been compromised, and all because of this primate desire to be the one at the top.

This is just a theory of mine, but I think we would do well to remember our evolutionary roots probably have a common ancestor with the chimps, and our group social behaviour is likely to be similar to theirs. I think this is what we see in this political move by the mother of James and John; she is trying to politically move her boys to be alongside the alpha male in the group, Jesus.

And then we hear what Jesus has to say on the matter, because he basically says, ‘Listen, you’re better than this. You’re more than an animal. Stop trying to rise to the top of the social hierarchy. That is not the way it is to be for God’s people’

And then comes the really radical teaching as he says,
‘...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.’

There’s a two step process there. If you want to be great in the church, then you have to become everyone’s servant; the word is diakonos from which we get our servant word, deacon. But Jesus goes one step further. If you want to be first; if you want to be the alpha male or alpha female, to use primate language, then you must become the slave of others.

That second word, slave, really is a different word, doulos, a much stronger word than diakonos. If you want to be at the top you must make yourself at the bottom; it’s the perfect antidote. Remember that elsewhere Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first. Ours is a very upside-down kingdom where all the social hierarchies are the wrong way around, and we really ought to get used to it.

But it’s not easy is it. It can be hard enough amongst other Christians, but how do we deal with this teaching out in the world? How do we hold ambition at work in tension was being servants? I saw two examples of this in the company I used to work for. In our group, one of my contemporaries was not above quietly claiming credit for the work of others.

We knew him to be quite Machiavellian in the way he would work supposedly alongside others only for them to later find that he was the one who was presenting the work in such a way as if he had managed the project. Sadly it worked for him as well as he gained recognition from those above him before moving on to a better paid position in another company.

In contrast, in one of the other groups was a very quiet yet conscientious man. He and I worked alongside each other on a number of projects. He would always share credit and I found my name alongside his on several papers that were published because he felt my share in the work should be recognised even though he had been the driving force and the work has been mainly his.

He was well respected because of his ability but I never saw him playing any political games or trying to work in a visible way that warranted promotion. So I checked the company website when writing this sermon to see what happened to him and was very happy to see that he is now Director of Research.

He wasn’t a Christian (to my knowledge), but he worked in a Christ-like manner; looking out for the needs of others and working to the best of his ability. He was a good scientist but he was also a trustworthy man without guile. I found this to have been a heart-warming outcome because it shows that you can hold in tension the ambition to be the best you can be with a Christ-like attitude of service.

What we should not, however, do is use political means to worm our way up. What James and John tried to do via their mother was quite simply wrong, and they were told as much. We should simply do our best with the gifts we have been given and if that means we do well in our employment, then we can thank God.

All of which brings us to xxxx as we come to her baptism. As her parents, yyyy and zzzz, you are choosing the narrow path for her, and those of you who are godparents have a strong responsibility to guide her in the way of Christian living. When we start really examining the gospels we find that they are not simply a belief system; they are about a way of living our lives.

What we believe about Jesus Christ should affect the way that we live. In fact I would go so far as to say, if it doesn’t then we really don’t believe it. Today we baptise xxxx into these beliefs and this way of life, and our promise as a congregation to you is that we will support her and you as she finds her way as a Christian, living a life of service. Amen.

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