Saint James’ day.  Our Saviour, Florence, SC.  25 July 2021.

Saint Matthew 20, verse 21 – Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

There are two apostles named James.  The apostle we recall today is the brother of John.  James and John with Saint Peter appear to be our Lord’s three most favored followers, in that they only are with Christ at the Transfiguration and on several other occasions.  The gospels tell us of the calling of James to be an apostle at the beginning of the public ministry.  Our lesson from Acts today tells of James’ martyrdom after the Ascension. 

Our gospel story for today occurs, of course, between the calling of James and his death.  The basic story is given in the twentieth chapter of Saint Matthew and in the tenth chapter of Saint Mark.  There is an immediately noticeable difference between these two versions.  According to Mark, James and John themselves ask Jesus for the best seats when he comes into his ‘glory’ (10:37).  In Saint Matthew’s version, however, the brothers put their mom up to the task, perhaps reckoning that their self-seeking will seem a little bit less selfish if somebody else, albeit their mother, asks on their behalf.  In the subsequent conversation, however, our Lord cuts through the pretense and speaks, not to their mother, Salome, but to James and John themselves, directly.  That is an implied rebuke here, as if Christ says, ‘Why do you drag your mother into this?  We all know who is really asking for promotion here.’  Chutzpah is not a Christian term, but it does seem to apply in this case. 

If that first rebuke is merely implied, a second one seems more direct when our Lord tells the brothers that promotion and leadership in his kingdom require service and suffering.  It means drinking a ‘cup’, whose nature will become clear at Gethsemane, when our Lord begs his Father to take that cup away from himself.  Leadership under Christ means sharing Christ’s sufferings, not the kinds of reward James and John seem to want.  It is true that the brothers here say that they are willing and able to drink the cup.  That, however, it not yet clear.

To continue for a moment with this idea that our Lord is rebuking the brothers for their presumption, we might see a third rebuke in the immediate aftermath of today’s lesson.  The next and final incident in chapter 20 of Saint Matthew’s gospel concerns a little story of a healing miracle.  Matthew writes, ‘And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.’ (20:30)  Please notice that there are two blind men involved in the healing.  The blind men are, I think, personifications for the spiritual state of James and John in today’s lesson.  I think what is going on in this story is that our Lord is implicitly suggesting that James and John required correction and a kind of healing of their spiritual confusion and blindness.  If this is right, then our Lord in effect has rebuked the brothers twice in speech and then once in a symbolic deed by healing physical blindness.

We have now briefly considered our Lord correcting two brothers, who want to sit ‘one on [his] right hand, and another on the left’.  We also have read about him immediately thereafter healing two blind men, as if to illustrate his correction of James and John.  Let me remind you of one other occasion when Christ teaches two men who are in dangerous straits.  In the familiar story of our Lord’s crucifixion you will recall that ‘Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.’ (27:38) 

The ‘cup’ of our Lord’s sufferings is filled to the brim on that occasion.  His Father in heaven has not removed that cup.  James and John confidently asserted that they were able to drink the Lord’s cup, and therefore perhaps deserved the thrones they requested at the right and left hand of the Lord.  But on Golgotha James is nowhere to be seen.  Here we might see a fourth and final rebuke for the pushy brothers.  Later Church legends tell us that most of the apostles eventually died for their Lord, so we need not despair of James.  John by the time of the crucifixion seems to have learned the lesson:  he is the only apostle who remains to the end at the foot of the cross.  And perhaps it is significant that later Church legends also suggest that John was the only one of the Twelve who did not die by martyrdom.  By standing steadfast with the faithful women, John drank the cup the Lord gave him to drink.  In any case, today we note that Saint Matthew carefully notes of pairs of men – James and John, the two blind men, and the two malefactors at Golgotha – a subtle rebuke to the prideful blindness we see in today’s lesson.

The basic point of the lesson is clear.  Whatever may come for us in the kingdom of heaven, when God’s will will be perfectly and fully done, here and now in this world Christians are called to lead by serving, to live by giving up our lives for others, and to be saved by abandoning ourselves to God’s sometimes alarming providential care.  This lesson is simple to state and difficult to absorb, easy to assert and hard to fulfil.  Most of the most important things about Christianity are that way:  ‘Trust God.  Forgive.’ – three brief little words that imply a lifetime of effort and learning.  In Saint Matthew’s gospel among other things our Lord is teaching his apostles.  He slowly selects, rebukes, corrects, warns, shapes, and blesses them.  Saint James, whom we honor today, did not begin as the great apostle, one of our Lord’s three closest followers.  Only little by little was he formed into that character.  And so it still is with us today.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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