St Stephen Lewisham

Year B, Week 29

22nd October 2006

James & John

Just imagine how those two brothers, James and John bar-Zebedee must have felt when Jesus turned down their request to be the two Top Dogs in the Kingdom of Heaven!

Worse than his refusal, they’d made themselves thoroughly unpopular with their fellow-apostles.

St Matthew says that the whole idea had been thought up by their mother, Mrs Zebedee. Like most mothers she doted on her two sons and ‘wanted nothing but the best for them’. What better than the two top places in the Apostles’ League? So, as Matthew describes it, Mrs Zebedee approached Jesus herself. ‘I think my boys are worth much more than being fishermen for the rest of their lives’ she told herself. ‘Let’s really push our luck and ask Jesus for the Supreme Prize. Ask for more than you expect and you may get something worthwhile’.

Now you may have wondered why James and John should have allowed themselves to be party to this shameless piece of place-seeking by their mother, especially since only a short time before, Jesus had made it clear that he wanted St Peter, with all his shortcomings, to be their leader whilst he, Jesus, was still on earth..

Well, here’s a possible explanation. It only comes from my imagination but using our imaginations is a vital component in understanding the Christian faith.

My suggestion is this: Peter had already made so many mistakes during his discipleship that some of the other apostles, not least James and John, were beginning to have serious doubts about his fitness to lead them. Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’ when he tried to argue him out of facing death in Jerusalem; on Maundy Thursday Peter would prove himself an abject coward by running away from Jesus; three times he would deny knowing him at all; later still, visiting the Christians at Antioch, he would sett a thoroughly bad example by shunning the Gentiles’ company and earning St Paul’s stinging rebuke; and when faced with death himself at Rome in 64AD, legend tells that he started to run away from his fellow Christians to save his own skin till a vision of Jesus made him turn back and face the music. All of which add up to the kind of man you simply can’t rely on.

These are just some examples of Peter’s unreliability – doubtless there had been many previously. Wouldn’t it be understandable if his fellow apostles found themselves wondering if Jesus hadn’t made a huge mistake by placing such a weight of responsibility on a pair of such inadequate shoulders? So their suggestion to Jesus, whether it came from them or their mother, may have come from a long series of frustrations about St Peter’s inadequacies.

You and I may have been in this position, having to work under or with someone whose abilities have fallen far short of what we think they should be. Our mistake is to suppose, like James and John did, that the Kingdom of God is a human oragnisation in which ability is all that matters..

Now there are two things to say about this.

The first is that the Bible tells us time and again that God’s Kingdom, though it includes humans, isn’t always like human kingdoms. He often chooses weak and (in worldly terms) insignificant, people to do the most important jobs at critical points in the unfolding of his plan for the salvation of the world – the Virgin Mary is an obvious example.

Or remember what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is lowly and despised in this world… to bring to nothing thsngs which presently exist. I Corinthians 1:27—28.

It follows from this that there are no ordinary people in God’s Kingdom even in such an ordinary place as St Stephen’s, Lewisham. It is just as likely that God has created you – yes you – to play some vital role in his scheme of salvation. It may be just one thing, it may be several, or even many things for which God, in His wisdom, has singled you and me – yes, you and me – to be his fellow-operators in making it happen. What we mustn’t imagine is that we are too unimportant, too ignorant, too simple too sinful, or just too ordinary to be any use to God.

Like you and me, both James and John had a crucial role to play in God’s Kingdom-strategy. James was to be the first Apostle to die for being a Christian. John was sent into exile on Patmos Island – a sort of early Penal Colony. However, that gave him the time and to oppoertunity to write the Fourth Gospel – which adds so much that the Synoptics don’t even mention, as well as his three letters and, perhaps, the Book of Revelation.

Neither James nor John was, in fact, ‘cut-out’ in God’s mind to assume the role which had been allotted to Saint Peter. So it shouldn’t surprise us if some of those whom He chooses as leaders should all far short of our expectations of them. The miracle is that somehow, either in spite of, or even because of, those very shortcomings and weaknesses, the Church of God continues to grow and flourish down the ages!

Call it a miracle; but it’s perhaps not so surprising when we look at what Isaiah foretold about the coming of God’s Saviour into the world. Remember those words from the first reading:

  • The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering.
    If he offers his life in atonement,
    He shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life
    and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.
    His souls anguish over
    he shall see the light and be content.
    By his sufferings shall my servant justify many,
    taking their faults on himself.

  • If God’s way of reconciling the world to himself is by becoming incarnate and taking the form of a despised and suffering Servant in the Person of Jesus Christ, is it really so surprising that He should choose at least some people whom the world and the Church considers ‘of no account’ to play a critical part in bringing ‘many sons to salvation’?

    Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no place for clever, wise and gifted people (as the world understands these words) in God’s Church. Both James and John as we have seen had vital roles to play in His plan of salvation – James suffering death for Jesus’ sake, and John as ‘the Disciple whom Jesus loved’ using his exile and his unique relationship with Jesus to interpret that experience in a way which helps his fellow-Christians, both then and now, to ‘make sense’ of them. He was the theologian in the Apostolic company. but it was not God’s will that either he, or James, should be their chief spokesman – at least not during those formative days of the Young Church.

    So before you or I decide either that we can’t possibly be of any serious use to God, or that we know better than God what sort of people ought to be Leaders on earth of His Heavenly Kingdom, let’s pause for a moment to consider the possibility that He is in the process of training you or me up to play some critical part He has chosen for us, large or small, in His great Plan of Salvation which he has been revealing to us, little by little, day by day and week by week from the day you and I were born – and that role may turn out not to be the one we would ever have imagined ourselves being the right people for, either in our wildest dreams or in a month of Sundays!

    Return to Sermon Salad

    Return to Trushare Home Page