Sermon, St James’s Day, 25 July 2021, the Vicar

Did you have an embarrassing aunt when you were young? I was brought up with many aunts, more than I could count, and they are all gone, they all had wonderful names of a particular type, Freda, Mavis, Joyce, Phyllis, Nora, Nora, Lucy, Hester, Muriel….. One of the Noras had seen Queen Victoria. They were great aunts really, most of the normal aunts were post 60s and did not want to be known as Aunt. None of them was embarrassing, but I was little and they were quite a collection, as my grandparents were cousins, most of this collection were related to one another.

It’s just possible that James and John’s mother, Salome, present at the crucifixion and on Easter morning, was Mary the mother of Jesus’s sister, making James and John Jesus’s first cousins. Salome was Jesus’s embarrassing Aunty, from Capernaum, wife of the wonderfully named Zebedee.

Aunt Sal puts Jesus and her boys in pretty sticky situation in today’s Gospel. The disciples are heading towards Jerusalem, and she asks Jesus a rather difficult question. “Go on boy, will sit your cousins either side of you in your kingdom?

There’s a bit of background needed, which might help.

The people in Qumran about whom we know a fair amount from the Dead Sea Scrolls, like Jesus, were into nice meals. There’s a lot of stuff about their Messianic banquets in a text called the Messianic rule. It was all very ordered, who came in when and sat where. A Messiah-Priest was to sit in the middle, with the next most important to his right and the next again to the left. Although the Qumran community was made up of radicals, they were not democrats or egalitarians. We don’t know, but Aunt Sal probably knew something about what was going on there, and connected what her nephew had been saying about Kingdoms and reigns and supplanting the current order, and wanted to get in a word for her boys. Can you feel your toes curling?

It’s made all the more sit-com like because Aunty is so ridiculous. Interestingly the older version of this story in Mark, has James and John themselves doing the begging. In both stories the other disciples are pretty narked by it, not because of how crass it is, but because they are kicking themselves for not having thought about it earlier! It’s a laugh a minute in this narrative. And then it suddenly all gets very serious indeed.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I shall drink of and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” They say they are, but when it comes to it, after the last supper, when he has taken the cup, and then gone to Gethsemane and prayed that that same cup might pass, where do the disciples go? James and John, the so-called “sons of thunder”, who would have called down fire onto Samaritan villages that would not hear, vanish into the night. Their thunder got stollen pretty quickly, and the cup passed them by.

In today’s story Jesus is very clear, Aunt Sal has herself melted away. All the other ways of being, whether it is Qumran or the Gentiles are rejected. “It shall not be so among you: whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” The son of Man is THE servant, just as Israel was called to be from the time of the prophet Isaiah.

Early views of suffering and exile and humiliation are summed up in the idea of the cup: “Take the wine cup, and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it.” Jer 25: 15.

This cup is a very dense image, therefore. There are strong echoes of the exile and defeat, at the same time as the Paschal image of the cup blessed at the last supper, which in turn spells Jesus’s passion, which in turn is his identification not just with the suffering of the world but the ancient suffering of his people. Binding all of these images is the strong sense of release, ransom, salvation from bondage. The Servant’s suffering brings release, a sharing in that cup, an identification with captivity and loss.

James and John are on this path, whether they like it or not. James, as we hear in our reading from Acts dies in 44 AD. His younger brother will live a very long life. Although he did suffer persecution and exile on Patmos.

Today we commemorate St James, whom Luke tells us in Acts was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44. The latter was the grandson of Herod the Great, nephew of Antipas and Philip and son of Aristobulus. He had a strange Aunty, in the shape of Herodias, who did for poor John the Baptist. He was a friend of Caligula, a dangerous thing to be, and Josephus tells us he was instrumental in the coming to power of Claudius, so a king-maker. Unlike most of the Herodian family he gets a good write up by the Rabbis, but he met a curious end, soon after he put James to death. Luke is the only one to tell us was eaten up by worms, but the other accounts do suggest it was not pleasant.

James, poor chap, having been beheaded by Agrippa, did not exactly get to rest in peace. The Armenians think they have his head in St James’s Monastery in Jerusalem. There is a very strong belief that by one of several means, James’s relics managed to get to the Atlantic coast of Spain, either by a rudderless boat guided by Angels or even that his followers walked them there, after his execution. The legends abound. Sir Thomas Kendrick, former Head of the British Museum, archaeologist and one time lover of the novelist Barbara Pym, said in the way that post-war scholars did, dismissively “even if one admits the existence of miracles, James’ presence in Spain is impossible.”

There’s something about sanctity of place and person that casts remarks like that into the shade. Santiago de Compostella has been a place of pilgrimage since the 9th c AD. In 2019, the last normal year, it had very nearly 350,000 pilgrims who did the Camino. It will be interesting to know how many travel this year. Today, I imagine the famous church with its incense burner weighing about 13 stone and standing at well over 5 foot high, made of solid brass, will test Covid security. Near continental Finisterre – land’s end, the pilgrimage to St James’s relics represents the goal of many people’s striving after holiness and has done for over 1000 years. At the very heart of that holiness is what Jesus says to the self-serving James and his brother John, and their dizzy Aunt, as they are on the road to Jerusalem about power and authority “It shall not be so among you, whosoever shall be great among you let him be your minister (servant) and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your slave.”

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