Next Friday is the feast day of St James the Apostle. We venerate saints; even name our churches after them because saints are examples for us. Their personalities are full of virtuous qualities; their lives are models of principled behaviour. Well, that’s not quite true if we’re talking about Saint James son of Zebedee. In his early life, he was violent, self-seeking and manipulative. I doubt that his careers teachers would have recommended him for an apprenticeship as a saint. Let’s look at some passages from the Bible.
In Mark’s account of the calling of the Twelve (Mark 3:17) he notes that Jesus gave the name “Boanerges” to James and his brother John which means “Sons of Thunder”. Language used in the Bible sometimes loses its impact because we read it in “holy book” mode. Try this instead; imagine that a friend of yours is telling you about his new neighbours and he describes the children of the family as “Sons of Thunder”. Get the picture? You’re already advising him to sell up and move house.
We get further insight into how James and John operated in a story recorded by Luke (Luke 9: 51-55). Jesus was planning to visit a Samaritan village. He sent messengers ahead to prepare, but the villagers refused to welcome Jesus. James and John suggested calling down fire from Heaven to destroy the place. In modern language; “Let’s just bomb the village!” Not the kind of people that you’d want to tangle with or owe money to.
In our Gospel reading (Matt 20:20-28) we heard the account of James, John and their mother going to Jesus to ask for the top jobs in his kingdom. The other disciples were understandably enraged. James and John had gone behind their backs to seek personal advantage. Hardly the behaviour of a prospective saint.
The bid for power on its own would have been unacceptable but in the context of what Jesus had been teaching about immediately before, it was appalling. In Matthew 19 Jesus had spoken of heavenly rather than earthly rewards for his followers. He had emphasised that the principles of his kingdom were different; that the last would be first and the first would be last. He had explained that his own suffering and death would follow shortly after their arrival in Jerusalem. We can only assume that James and John were deafened and blinded by their naked ambition; so focused on gaining personal advancement that they hadn’t been listening to what Jesus had said.
The reading from Acts chapters 11 and 12 takes us forward in time probably to around AD 42. King Herod Agrippa I, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Jewish community, decided to execute James and imprison Peter. King Herod Agrippa I was continuing a family tradition of persecution. His grandfather, Herod the Great, tried to kill the infant Jesus and his nephew, Herod Antipas, had killed John the Baptist and examined Jesus on Good Friday.
The execution of James is noted almost in passing as the writer, Luke, focuses on Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison. I wonder what had happened to James in the intervening years. I wonder why he stayed around after he realised there was no advantage to be had. He must have seen the writing on the wall; the Romans becoming suspicious of the Christians; increasing hostility from the Jews. Yet he stayed with the Christian community to the end and went quietly to his death. Why? What had happened to explain this change?
We are not sure what happened to James but we do know some of the things he witnessed. He saw the glorified Christ when he was present with Peter and John on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1). He witnessed the anguish and determination of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). We may assume that James met with Jesus after the resurrection; was in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit brought the church into being on the Day of Pentecost; saw the Gospel of Christ born in the lives of thousands of new converts as the church grew.
It seems that as he observed the death and resurrection of Jesus and shared his life with the community of the early church he was transformed. Selfish ambition and a tendency to violence gave way to selfless service and a willingness to submit to martyrdom.
So what do you think of the biography of St James has to say to us? The answer to that question depends on what you think about saints in general. Quite often people think that saints are barely human. They are superhuman ethereal figures that drift slightly off the ground, always distanced from the mess and chaos that characterizes the lives of normal human beings. The life of St James holds the candle to that lie. More often saints are everyday, common or garden human beings. And some of them, if alive today, would have had criminal records running to several pages. They would never have got clearance to work in the church. Saints are united in one common experience. They encountered Jesus Christ and in that meeting everything changed. They experienced the love of God and were transformed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Saints are ordinary people whose lives have been changed by an extra-ordinary Saviour.
Most human beings have a clear sense of their own brokenness; it stares back at us every time we look in a mirror. We know our past failures and current weaknesses. Sociological studies suggest that our lives are shaped by the families we were born to; the areas that we were raised in; the schools we attended. Our educational achievement and our career paths define us. While there may be much truth in social statistics, the life of St James shows that we are not defined and limited by our past. There is another factor to consider and build in to the analysis: God is great. His love for all of his creation is immeasurable. God is in the business of redemption and transformation. He takes selfish, violent scheming men and with them builds his church. He takes people from Aston, Colwell and Cradley; some distinguished; others extinguished and with them builds his church. We are all saints. Our future is not limited by our past but filled with exciting possibilities because of the love and grace of God made known by our Lord Jesus Christ.