Sermon for the Feast of St. James
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
July 25, 2010
For many people, poetry is one of those forms of communication that speaks on so many levels, and reaches the depths of one’s soul. It has taken me a long time to allow poetry to speak to me, and I must be honest in saying that it is still on a very elementary level. Some of the more obscure poetry still leaves me wondering what on earth the author was even attempting to say, and rings hollow with no meaning to me whatsoever. However, there are some great poets who possess such a command of language that they are able to evoke such great emotions even among those who would not admit that poetry speaks to them at all.
One such poet that I have become recently acquainted is the late Blessed John Keble. In 1827 a selection of poems and writings appeared anonymously under the title The Christian Year. Soon after its publication it was discovered that Keble was the author and was appointed to the Chair of Poetry in Oxford in 1831, a post which he held for a decade. One scholar proclaimed, The Christian Year was “…the most popular volume of verse in the nineteenth century.” Keble was also a leader of the Oxford Movement in England attempting to reinstate much of the High Church ritual and theology that was displaced from the Church of England in favor of more Low Church Protestantism.
The Christian Year contains poems especially suited for each Sunday of the Kalendar, and if you look at your bulletin insert, you will see that I have included the one for today, the Feast of St. James the Great. He does such a wonderful job summarizing the Gospel lesson we just heard that I could simply read the poem through and then sit down to allow those thoughts to sink in. However, I will offer a few thoughts after we hear the words of Blessed John Keble from The Christian Year:
Sit down and take thy fill of joy
At God's right hand, a bidden guest,
Drink of the cup that cannot cloy,
Eat of the bread that cannot waste.
O great Apostle! rightly now
Thou readest all thy Saviour meant,
What time His grave yet gentle brow
In sweet reproof on thee was bent.
"Seek ye to sit enthroned by me?
Alas! ye know not what ye ask,
The first in shame and agony,
The lowest in the meanest task -
This can ye be? and came ye drink
The cup that I in tears must steep,
Nor from the 'whelming waters shrink
That o'er Me roll so dark and deep?"
"We can--Thine are we, dearest Lord,
In glory and in agony,
To do and suffer all Thy word;
Only be Thou for ever nigh." -
"Then be it so--My cup receive,
And of My woes baptismal taste:
But for the crown, that angels weave
For those next Me in glory placed,
"I give it not by partial love;
But in My Father's book are writ
What names on earth shall lowliest prove,
That they in Heaven may highest sit."
Take up the lesson, O my heart;
Thou Lord of meekness, write it there,
Thine own meek self to me impart,
Thy lofty hope, thy lowly prayer.
If ever on the mount with Thee
I seem to soar in vision bright,
With thoughts of coming agony,
Stay Thou the too presumptuous flight:
Gently along the vale of tears
Lead me from Tabor's sunbright steep,
Let me not grudge a few short years
With thee t'ward Heaven to walk and weep:
Too happy, on my silent path,
If now and then allowed, with Thee
Watching some placid holy death,
Thy secret work of love to see;
But, oh! most happy, should Thy call,
Thy welcome call, at last be given -
"Come where thou long hast storeth thy all
Come see thy place prepared in Heaven."
This day we commemorate one of the Major Feasts of the Year – The Feast of St. James the Greater. When we speak of Jesus’ special affinity for three of his Apostles, Peter, James, and John, this is the James we speak of to distinguish him from James the Less, the one to whom authorship of the Epistle is given. James was certainly privy to some of the most intimate aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, and was present at the Transfiguration, at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. He is also brother of John, the sons of Zebedee and the two have been called the Sons of Thunder.
On this his Feast day, we read of his martyrdom in our Lesson for the Epistle, and his rebuke in the Gospel lesson. Not exactly texts of a glorious nature to remember one of our Lord’s Apostles. However, I think the glory comes in our remembrance of how Jesus handled this somewhat vain request for seats of glory, and the record of James’ ultimate receipt of that place of honor.
As we heard from our Gospel, James and John’s mother approaches Jesus, and asks that her two sons might sit on His right hand and left in His kingdom. The scene shifts away from the mother’s request, and then to the disciples themselves when he inquires of them whether or not they can actually drink the cup that Jesus is about to drink. Are they going to be able to partake of that cup that Jesus must steep with his tears? He asks them the question, and they reply that they will be able to do just this. They say that they are able to drink deep of that chalice, “in glory and in agony, to do and suffer all thy Word.”
St. Peter makes almost a similar declaration when he says that he fears nothing, not even death itself, and will meet his death if necessary in service to his Lord. Jesus replies to him and declares that the cock will not even crow before he will deny three times that he even knows Jesus.
And so, after James and John’s declaration that they could in fact share our Lord’s cup, he tells them that they have answered correctly, and they would in fact drink of that same precious chalice. If I were to guess, I would think they might have felt pretty good about their mother’s request, but Jesus continues to speak and tells them that their request fell out of His hands, and that he could not grant them seats on His right and left, but that only his Father could do so.
We have no idea what must have been running through these two disciple’s minds, but I’m sure they had no idea what they were in for. They have just been told that they were going to be baptized with the baptism that Jesus was baptized with. As we heard in the Epistle lesson from Romans two weeks ago, here is what James and John’s request just bought them, “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:”
Of course, they didn’t have Paul’s fleshed out theology to fall back upon, so I’m sure they had no idea what being baptized into his baptism meant. We on the other hand do know what it means.
It means that accepting Jesus’ baptism, and his name, Christian, we must begin to look different, act different, talk different, live different. I’ve heard it said that the worst thing anyone could ever say to a Christian is that we don’t look any different than the world around us. What a tragedy if someone ever said that of us. Unfortunately, there are times that is a true statement, and we must constantly strive to never hear those words again.
I knew someone who died not long ago who had someone come up to him before his death and say, “I want what you’ve got!” In earthly terms, I believe that might just be the equivalent of “well done, thou good and faithful servant.” To have someone recognize a newness and amendment of life, that we are different people and why would be the greatest compliment we could ever be paid. And the true beauty of that recognition would be the ultimate knowledge that our seats are procured at our Lord’s right and left hand. Those seats came with a price and they still do. They required our Lord’s death on the cross, and they continue to require our death to sin. They came on the shoulders of one who bore them with all humility, and we are bidden to show that same humility to others. Jesus’ words at the end of our lesson declare that he came to not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many. That is our calling as well – to minister to those around us, the stranger in our midst, and our closest loved ones. To accept a place of lowliness and meekness and humility so that when we receive that final invitation to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb the master of household will come to us and say come up higher and receive the seat of honor and glory that has been prepared just for you.
But oh, most happy, should Thy call,
thy welcome call at last be given –
“Come where thou long hast storeth thy all
Come see thy place prepared in Heaven.”