Sermon for St James the Apostle: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 25 July 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Acts 11: 27 – 12: 2; Matthew 20: 20 – 28)
In the little side chapel in Milton Abbey there is medieval sculpture in the form of a bust of St James. He wears a pilgrim hat with a scallop shell badge, so we know who he is. When I first arrived there as Chaplain to the School, he had a hand missing, lost, one presumed in the mists of antiquity, quite possible at the Reformation, which nonetheless he had clearly survived. Some years later, before I left, the Bursar was digging in his garden, a couple of hundred yards away, and unearthed a piece of stone which was without doubt the missing hand: it was the right size and shape, and had the same traces of ancient paint as the rest of the statue. It fitted perfectly and was restored to its arm, so that now St James had a hand that was raised, either in greeting, as befits a pilgrim on the road, or in blessing, or in preparation for the day’s work. This was – and is – a significant hand, and completed our picture of St James, no longer benevolently passive but active in important aspects of the Christian life.
The story of St James’s preaching in Spain – or even that his relics were brought to Santiago di Compostela, that great centre of pilgrimage (not least today) – sadly cannot be authenticated. But it is of interest to the story of St James of Milton Abbey that, in pre-Reformation times, Reading Abbey claimed to have his actual hand preserved as a relic; that would suggest a separation of hand and body at a far greater distance; and as far as I know, no one tried to match them up. Well, it would not have made economic sense.
St James in the gospels – especially in Matthew’s Gospel, form which we have just heard – is an enigma. We see him and his brother John, via their mother, requesting (pretty strongly) a special privilege or preferment above the other apostles: “Command” she says (note the word) “that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Well, what cheek! The other ten also thought it was. But see how Jesus responds: you may ask this, he says, but you don’t understand the implications. It is not a question of lording it over others, but of drinking the cup that I shall drink, and becoming the servant of others. Being great is indeed an exercise in humility.
James and his brother John, together with Peter, may not have grasped that important fact. After all, shortly before this they had, as the favoured trio, witnessed Jesus’ Transfiguration – an exhilarating spiritual experience. But what of the “cup” that he had spoken of? We need to go with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. Here he prayed earnestly and in anguish that he might not have to drink the cup of death; but adding, “Not as I will it, but as you, my Father, will it”. He had taken the same three disciples with him; but they fell asleep. So James, with Peter and John, did not, even on that occasion, discover its full meaning. That would come later. The next day they witnessed the crucifixion; and some years afterwards James and Peter themselves were martyred for the sake of the gospel, fully realising what it meant to accept Jesus’ words: “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is a study in ambition and humility, and we in the Church might well heed it. If we think, in a rather superior way, that we are always right, that, like the gnostics, we are in the know; if we have an ambition only to expand, rather than to minister to others and be alongside them in their woes and in their joys; if, instead of proclaiming God’s love, we thrust His work at people indiscriminately, we have not been listening to Jesus’ teaching with enough care. As he says, in his kingdom preferments are not to be attained by the forward and the ambitious, but by the humble, the laborious and the patient.
Let St James’s raised hand guide us: to greet others on the way; to bless them; and to work alongside them. But let the final word be Michael Ramsey’s – that deeply spiritual archbishop, whose words still echo down the decades: “If the Easter faith is to prevail in the world it will not be through a ‘triumphalist’ Church, but a Church which has the marks of sacrifice.”