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An homily for St James July 2013

Little Paxton Church remembers its patron St James on a Sunday near to July 25th every year.

Here is the sermon I preached on July 28th at St James, mindful of the train crash in Santiago a few days before.


For James, son of Zebedee and brother to John, there was no indication that this was the day that his life would change.

 The dawn for him was the end of a long and fruitless night of fishing. As he sat mending his nets with his father and brother, he must have watched in wonder as his fisherman friend Simon brought in nets loaded with fish, caught at the command of this new Jewish teacher who was on the scene.


What did he think when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew walk away from this huge catch and follow Jesus in an instant. What were his thoughts when Jesus then approached him and John and asked them to follow him too, leaving behind their boat, their father and all that was familiar to them?

 We know that James and John, like Simon, soon to become Peter, followed Jesus with no hesitation. Just maybe they had heard about this man before; maybe they were at a point in their lives when they were ready for a new direction and a life lived more closely with God.


 What we do know is that from that lakeside moment onwards Jesus was the focus of James’ life,and it is also evident that James had a special place in Jesus’ life


He was chosen of course to be one of the twelve apostles, given authority to heal and drive out demons as were the other eleven.  But he was often present with Jesus at key times in his life when some of the others were not.


When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, Jesus only allowed Peter, James and John to come with him. At the time of the transfiguration, Jesus only wanted those three present alongside him.

 At the very least Jesus greatly respected and trusted his friend John.

 It is then, perhaps no great wonder that along with John, he goes to Jesus and asks him if he will give them whatever they ask. They have given their commitment to Jesus, surely he will oblige them with any request they might have.


They asked him for the privilege of sitting, one on his right hand and one on his left, when he came into his glory.

Let’s note that in Matthew’s gospel, which we heard this morning, it is their mother who does the asking for her sons. Lest we think she is being very pushy, we must remember that she too had followed Jesus  and provided for his needs, and was one of the  women who was to stick with him at the cross when the apostles, including her son James, fled.


Whether it was James and John who asked, whether it was their mother, the other apostles were furious at the request.

 But rather than rebuke the, Jesus uses it as an opportunity to teach them a deep them a deep spiritual truth – that in order to be truly great, one must be a servant of others. He also took the opportunity to fore warn them that one day they would indeed drink of the cup of suffering that he was to drink.

 Despite this rather tense exchange, which hadn’t endeared James and John nor their mother to the other disciples, it was still James, John and Peter that Jesus chose to be with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, even they were to let him down by falling asleep.


James was indeed to drink of the cup that Jesus drank, all too shortly after the resurrection. Acts 12 v 1 tells us that James was one of the first martyrs of the church. King Herod Agrippa 1 ( grandson of Herod the Great who tried to kill the infant Jesus)  killed him with a sword in an early church persecution c AD42.

James is only apostle whose death is recorded in the  N.T


James is often called James Major of Greater to distinguish him from other New Testament persons called James.

 Tradition has it that he made a missionary journey to Spain, and that after his death his body was taken to Spain and buried there at Compostela (a town the name of which is commonly thought to be derived from the word “apostle”, although it may derive from  “field of stars”, which in Latin would be campus stellarum).

 His supposed burial place there was a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.Indeed from the 9th century, his shrine in Santiago became a great international attraction. Europe wanted to believe that the remains of the apostle were buried there and kings and queens, bishops and noblemen, peasants and knights – thousand of people made the pilgrimage to Santiago every year.

By the 12th century the pilgrimages to the place were more popular that Jerusalem or Rome. The popes of Roman gave their official sanction to the pilgrimage and of course the peoples of Santiago made a fortune from the tourist trade – souvenirs were numerous – not unlike those of our tourist trade today.

Pilgrims on their way to St James’ burial place were a common sight on the roads of medieval western Europe. They travelled  mainly by land through  a road network that crossed  France and Northern Spain called “ Camino Frances” or The French Way”. The knock on effect of this pilgrimage trade was far reaching for European civilization.

 Pilgrims from all over Europe shared their cultures and fashions and took back to their own homelands a piece of Spain. St James and Spain.

 Many churches were built and dedicated to St James. We are sitting in one right now. I wonder who decided to make St James patron here? Maybe someone who had made that pilgrimage and it made a deep impression on them?  The scallop Shell of St James became the international symbol of the pilgrim to St James’ shrine.

With the Protestant Reformation came the downfall of the pilgrimage from the 16th century onwards but since the late 1970’s Spanish governments have revived with great success the St James’ way and the city of Santiago was inscribed as a word heritage site in 1993.

 Normally on July 25th, the feast day of St James, there is a  public holiday in the city with much festivity and a state mass in St James Cathedral.

And so, how  sad and how ironic that the day before the City of Santiago Compostela was to roll out its annual festivities to honour St James news spread across the world of the devastating train crash just outside the city.

I don’t know if any of the people on board were travelling to the city for the festival, but of course the obvious reaction to this tragedy was to halt the festivities this year and indeed the city has had three days of public mourning.

This weeks news carried by the media reminds us of one great truth. Life is such a complex mixture of joy, happiness  and contentment  on the one hand and sadness and loss on the other, with a lot of  grey and monochrome areas in between.

We had the news of the arrival of the new royal baby and the “ nation rejoices” to quote the tabloids.

Three days later several hundred miles across  Europe, a nation is in mourning as images of the train crash come into our sitting rooms.

I began these words by saying “For James, son of Zebedee and brother to John, there was no indication that this was the day that his life would change”

For those who boarded the train to Santiago, there was no indication that this day would change their life in such a dramatic way.


For James, our patron saint, he had no idea when he said he would follow  Jesus that he would end up beheaded at the hands of a ruthless tyrant and lose his life in the service of his dearest friend.


Jesus never said to his friends and followers follow me and you will always find yourself walking in a rose garden. He was quite clear that one day they would have to suffer for the sake of the gospel. He certainly knew where his path lay.


When people say to me, how could God let a dear one die in such a way, or let a tragic accident happen, I have no clever answers.


 But simply suggest that when Jesus was dying on the cross, and  endured the worst that humanity could throw at him, he had complete trust in his Father God

to redeem him and transform the darkness of pain and death into resurrection light and new life. “ Endless in the victory thou o’er death has one” as runs the hymn thine be the glory.


That victory is what we celebrate Sunday by Sunday, indeed every day of our lives. That’s where our hope lies, that’s where our faith finds its source. That’s is how our patron saint found the strength to endure all that he had to face at the end of his life, and where Christians for generations have found the courage to continue when all around them seems bleak and hopeless.


Jesus’ overcoming of death also gives us every reason to celebrate whenever we can. I am so sorry for the people of Santiago and hope that their faith in an intensely Catholic country,  brings them hope out of this trauma. Maybe they will feel they can celebrate their patron saint next year with a memorial to those who lost their lives. 

 May we, mindful and realistic about the hard things we have to deal with, find the inner joy and peace of God, which nothing can destroy.

May we celebrate the honour of our church community being named after such a loyal and brave servant of Jesus Christ.  James The Greater.


August 3, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment