St. James the Great

Jeremiah 45 : 1 – 5, Acts 11: 27 – 12:2, Matt.20: 20 -28

Thank you for your welcome. For those of you who haven’t met me before, - I’m Jenny Arnold, the Associate Vicar of Aston and Nechells and although I came to Melanie’s licensing, - this is the first time I’ve been to Colwall for this celebration as we celebrate our Patronal festival of St. James the Great.

I was listening to the Today programme on radio 4 earlier this week and they interviewed a former Welsh rugby player who’d been forced to give up rugby because of a serious shoulder injury. He was talking about his ambition to climb the highest mountain in each of the 5 continents and travel to both North and South pole of the poles - all in one year. And he’d done it! And he was talking about his experiences on the radio. His ambition had come about partly because his grandmother, his father and his uncle had all suffered with cancer and he wanted to raise money for the Marie Curie cancer fund - but as much as anything his ambition was fired by his desire to prove himself - that even though he could no longer play rugby for Wales he was still capable of an amazing physical feat - just think of it! the highest point on each of the 5 continents and both North and South pole. And all in one year! An amazing ambition achieved.

What fires you? What’s your ambition? In our gospel reading today we hear of the ambition of James and John, - or was it was the ambition of their mother, - certainly she asked Jesus the question, - and all mothers are very ambitious for their sons, - aren’t they? Well, - I know I am, - mine has just finished university and I’m very proud of him and ambitious for his future. But I’m concerned for my son to have the right ambition. And Jesus challenges the ambition of james and John with a greater ambition. It’s not that ambition itself is wrong, - it’s just how that ambition is focussed.

James and John are brothers, the sons of Zebedee, Galilean fishermen and apostles, two of the first followers of Jesus - and it is this James, who is St. James the apostle, who is also called St. James the great to distinguish him from St. James the less, the half brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church and possibly the writer of the letter of James. And this St. James the apostle, who is the patron saint of our churches, St. James in Colwall and St. James in Aston. Well, - back to St. James the great in our gospel reading. He has an ambition to live up to his name, - to be GREAT. The disciples are expecting the Messiah to drive out the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom in Israel and are hoping that they, as Jesus’ 12 important followers, will have important roles in this new earthly kingdom. So Mrs. Zebedee asks Jesus on behalf of her sons, - when you become King, - please can my 2 sons sit by you in your glory, - have 2 thrones one at your right and one at your left. Matthew records that the other disciples were angry when they heard this request. Were they angry at the suggestion that following Jesus would lead to importance and glory - or were they just angry because they hadn’t got in there first with their request for such important places in Jesus’ kingdom?

And Jesus challenges them. Perhaps in the request of James and John, Jesus is reminded of the words of Jeremiah to Baruch him ambitious secretary that we heard read in our Old Testament reading. Jeremiah speaks to Baruch the words of the Lord: “and you, Baruch, do you seek great thinks for yourself? Do not seek them, - for I am going to bring disaster on every living person.”

Jesus doesn’t say ambition is wrong, - but he challenges the focus of the ambition of James and John, - as the Lord had earlier challenged Baruch, so Jesus challenges an ambition that is about seeking great things for ourselves. Jesus says - You want to be great do you, - well, - if you want to be great then you must be a servant. If you want to be first you must be a slave of all. The honour in my kingdom will go to those who drink the cup that I will drink and accept the baptism with which I will be baptized, - and Jesus was talking about the cup of suffering - the baptism of shame and rejection and the cross.

If James wants to be truly great, James the great, then his ambition will be one of service rather than personal glory. And James’ example, as is the example to all of us, is to be the example of Jesus. Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The ransom money was the payment to free a slave, - including all those like James the great and so many today, perhaps including ourselves at times, who are slaves – slaves of our own selfish selves, imprisoned in the grip of lust for our own power and position. But we follow a Messiah who, as Paul puts it in Philippians, - though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Jesus - our servant King, - who calls us to be ambitious to serve and to give ourselves for others just as he did himself.

But when we hear Jesus’ words that we are to take the form of a servant or a slave - for some, particularly those who find it hard to love themselves or think they have any value, - perhaps some here who have been treated as worthless by others, - we can misunderstand Jesus’ words. To become a slave! Does this mean we are to become doormats that everyone can walk over? NO!

When we read the gospels we don’t see Jesus as a doormat, - He was in command of the situation, - he taught and healed with authority. He wasn’t trampled on by anyone - he wasn’t at everyone’s beck and call - fulfilling all their expectations of him. He was totally clear that he was there to do his father’s will and this was his guiding principle - not crowd pleasing.

Jesus the Son, knew he was deeply, deeply loved by the Father. At his baptism he had heard those words from heaven as the dove descended on him - you are my beloved son, - with you I am well pleased. He had total self worth as the beloved son of the father and it was out his self worth and love that he chose to empty himself and be a servant and be obedient even unto death. His service came out of his self worth, knowing he was the beloved of the father. That’s why he was in command of every situation – even his death on the cross - because he chose to go the way of obedience and suffering, - he chose to lay his life down. It wasn’t the nails that held him to the cross, - but his love of the world.

Yet sometimes we get things the wrong way round. Instead of serving others because we know we are a deeply loved as a son or daughter of God, and our self worth is in our identity as a child of God, - we serve others in order to be loved by them and to gain self worth. Does your service, your ministry, my ministry in the church, come out of self worth as child of God or does our self worth come from our ministry? Let me ask that again in a slightly different way, - because I think it is such an important question for all of us. Does our ministry, our service come out of our identity as a child of God or does our identity come from our service? We need to know first and foremost that God loves us and that there is nothing we can do to make him love us more or love as less, - and then, when we know that, - then we serve others. Our self worth is in who we are as a child of God - and when we know that we are able to die to self and serve others And when we serve in that way, - serving not through our human effort but through the love that God has poured into our hearts, - then we won’t want external rewards, we won’t mind whether or not anyone else notices what we do, we won’t hold jealously onto our particular ministry in church, we won’t mind if we’re not publically thanked, we won’t mind if someone else gets the recognition for what we’ve done. That’s true Christian service.

But when we get it the wrong way round and serve out of our own needs, - serve so that we feel good about it, - then we’ll resent the service after a while and will feel we’re being used. “I do all the work around here and no-one helps me!” We’ll jealously guard our area of ministry - whatever it is, - the music, or the flowers, or the children’s work, or the tea rota, or being the Vicar, or leading this or that group, - whatever it is - we need to hold on to it as this is what gives meaning and worth to our lives. We will only be satisfied when people notice what we’ve done and give us the praise. ……… And that’s not serving the Jesus way, - that’s being like James the great, - and wanting greatness for ourselves.

The question to ask ourselves is - “who am I doing this for?” If we’re doing it for Jesus we don’t need human reward or recognition, - our reward will be when we meet him face to face and hear him say, - well done, good and faithful servant.

As Christians we live a life of service. Sometimes that will be more active than at other times, - and the specific way we serve will be different in each context.

If I can briefly tell you about a specific initiative we’re developing in Aston and Nechells. We’re about to start a Foodbank. There are many people throughout the country that are in desperate need in the current financial climate and the Foodbank project that was started by Trussell Trust over 10 years ago aims to have a foodbank in every town and city throughout the UK, so that people in crisis can get emergency food. This is a very practical way of showing Jesus’ love and I’d love to talk with you a bit more about this - as I’d love this to be one way that our church link can result in practical serving, - so do ask me as I’ve not got time to go into it now.

And as I tell you more about Foodbank over the day, you must tell me how you’re serving your community in Colwall. It will be different, - Colwall is a very different place to Aston, - different ways in different places of showing the love of Jesus by serving our neighbours.

And we never retire from serving. Whatever our age, whatever our state of health - whether we can be actively involved in projects like Foodbank or not, - we can show love to our neighbours in very simple everyday ways as we serve them and pray for them. It’s not so much what we do, - but our attitude in serving others - having the same attitude as Jesus, - our servant king.

But service comes with a cost. The apostle James lost his life for following Jesus. As we heard in the Acts reading, he was put to death by King Herod Agrippa.

Hopefully in neither Colwall nor Aston will we lose our lives physically, - but as we grow in the attitude of Jesus it is like little deaths every day, - deaths to self, - as we daily take up our cross and deny ourselves. Death to our selfish ambitions of wanting power and glory for ourselves, death to our desires to want people to notice how good we are and praise us for the good things we’ve done, - rather than praise God. Death to putting ourselves and our needs first.

So as we celebrate today the link between our 2 churches lets remember St. James, - St. James the Great, - and his ambition for greatness and Jesus’ challenge – both to his apostle James and to ourselves today as his followers at St. James Aston and St. James Colwall - that if we want greatness and glory we will find it service, - just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And let’s encourage each other to be servant churches in Colwall and Aston for His glory.

Amen