Our patron St James

Sermon at St James church

Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20-28

To listen to the recording of (most of) the sermon as you read:

The purpose of our patronal festival is twofold – to praise God and give him thanks for our patron saint, St James, and also to praise him and thank him for our church building and church family which bear his name.

We don’t know much about the person of James, beyond that he was a fisherman, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, and that Jesus called the two of them Sons of Thunder, which must say something about their character. But when you add that he was one of the Twelve, a close and constant companion of Jesus, sharing his ministry, and then, after the Resurrection, part of that team of Apostles who spread the Good News and without whom there would be no church, then we know a tremendous amount about him. And there’s a very great deal for which to give thanks.

As there is for our church building and church family. The lockdown, when for so long we were denied the opportunity of coming to worship God in church and also of meeting with our fellow believers, has, I think, made us value both all the more. There’s nothing like missing something or somebody that’s important to you, to make you later on appreciate them afresh.

Well, it’s not a great church building, not an architectural masterpiece; it’s not in Simon Jenkin’s Thousand Best English Churches, but it’s a homely church, with some fine features, and we love it. It feels like and is our spiritual home. And when we remember that it is here that the people of Colwall have been coming to worship and to pray through 800 years – what an awe-inspiring thought that is! – when we recall all that faith and hope and thanksgiving and joy and sorrow, then we know for sure that this is a holy place, a house of God indeed.

And then there’s its setting. It would of course for several reasons be better placed in the centre of the village, but what a truly delightful spot this is, and we rightly rejoice in that.

As to the church family, well they’re our friends, aren’t they? We care for them and they care for us. But it’s not an inward-looking circle of friends, but an outward-looking one, with a mission, like that of the Apostles, to spread the Good News by word and deed and by the example of our daily lives in our community.

One thing that’s sadly missing today of course is our annual meeting with our fellow Christians and friends at St James the Great, Aston. It would have been our turn to go there this year. Let’s hope we can meet up again next year, and in the meantime we thank God for them and pray for them.

Now when churches started having a patron saint, which was in the 4th century, it was not so much to give the church a name as to claim a benefactor in heaven, a saint well placed to intercede with God on your behalf. The choice sometimes depended upon an historic connection, or maybe you had a relic of the saint in your church, or perhaps you thought that a particular saint was especially good at something or other, or maybe sometimes nowadays it’s just a matter of choosing a saint simply because you like the sound of his or her name.

So why centuries ago did Colwall plump for St James? He was and is the saint for pilgrimage. This came about through a highly doubtful legend that after Jesus’ resurrection James went to evangelise Spain before later being beheaded, as we heard in the reading, by Herod back in Jerusalem. Then some of his Spanish converts, forced to flee, returned home and took his body with them. Later, in the 9th century, it was claimed that a knight on horseback and in shining armour who led the Christians to victory over the Moors was none other than St James himself.

Highly doubtful indeed, nevertheless St James’ shrine at Santiago – that’s St James – Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain became the third most visited place in all Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome. By the 12th century, when of course travel was both arduous and dangerous, two million people a year were making a pilgrimage there along well-established routes from all parts of Europe, including Britain. Most of them carried a stout stave with a gourd attached for water and wore a broad-brimmed hat decorated with scallop shells, St James’s symbol, which of course is why here we have those carved shells on the front of our altar and lectern and prayer desks.

It’s been said that in medieval times our church also was associated with pilgrimage, not a destination but lying along a pilgrim route. Exactly from or to where isn’t known, but that connection would make James the obvious choice as patron. And imagining weary pilgrims – they’re usually weary – centuries ago stopping off here to rest and be refreshed adds to our perception of this sacred place.

We are pilgrims too. It’s fairly commonplace now to speak of our Christian life as being a journey – it was one of Carl’s favourite themes, and the root of the word journey means a day – the French jour. Unless we’re setting off on a prescribed pilgrimage, perhaps the best way for us to tackle it is as a day-by-day journey, one day at a time, simply doing what we can to worship and thank God and to give service to others. It’s simple stuff, but if each new day we put our mind to it and remember we’re on a pilgrimage, we might find we’re making progress, a pilgrim’s progress.