Call to Worship/Psalm 7:1-10 (NRSV)
O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me, or like a lion they will tear me apart; they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.
O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my ally with harm or plundered my foe without cause, then let the enemy pursue and overtake me, trample my life to the ground, and lay my soul in the dust.
Rise up, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake, O my God; you have appointed a judgment.
Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered around you, and over it take your seat on high.
The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me.
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end, but establish the righteous, you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.
God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart.
O Lord Jesus, your disciple James longed for a special place in your reign, a place close to you. You had a special affection for him: you took him with you when you entered the house of Jairus to heal his daughter and when you went up Mount Tabor to pray. But you made it clear that friendship with you includes suffering with you. When you asked him if he could drink the cup of suffering, he said yes with the same ambition with which he desired a special place in your reign. Because of your love for James and the other disciples, you taught that service, not power, was the standard of your reign, and slowly you changed his heart from one set on influence into one searching for the deepest place. He responded, followed you, and drank the same cup you drank, becoming the first apostle to die for you. O Lord, as we worship you this day, change our hearts as you changed the heart of your disciple James, that we might learn the meaning of discipleship, and take seriously the cost of carrying our cross. Amen.
Scripture Reading/Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Message/James the Greater
In many ways James, the son of Zebedee, ought to be remembered as one of the greatest of the original twelve disciples. As we remember the exploits of the vociferous Peter and the sharply etched personality of John, it seems that we should have a more vivid picture of James as we view him as part of Jesus’ inner sanctum who, along with Peter and John, was a witness to some of the most vital moments of Jesus’ life—including the glory of the Transfiguration event and the drama played out in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, however, any picture we have of James is relatively obscure.
We do know a few things about James’ background. He was a Galilean from Bethsaida, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. Along with his father and brother, James was a fisherman and may have had some sort of business alliance with Peter and Andrew and their father, Jonas. It seems that he was engaged in the wholesale business in deep water fishing, an enterprise that called for heavier boats, strong nets, and a capable crew. But it seemed that the business of fishing, while generating a modest income, wasn’t enough to satisfy James’ spiritual curiosity. When he heard of the eccentric, locust-eating, fire-breathing wilderness preacher, John the Baptist, tradition holds that James made the quest to go and see him, entering into the waters of repentance that the preacher offered in the Jordan River. Through this experience, James was drawn into a deeper relationship with God than he had ever had before. Little did he know what more was yet to happen!
One day, Jesus appeared, inviting Andrew, Peter, John, and James to lay aside their nets and follow him, commissioning them as “fishers of people.” Almost immediately, James seems to become part of the inner circle, those whom Jesus trusted the most and relied upon for leadership. The New Testament reports three occasions when Jesus took the smaller group of Peter, James, and John with him. Once was during a time of great need, the visit to Jairus’ daughter. The atmosphere of this scene was redolent with unbelief—unbelief that actually bordered on scorn. Jesus shut everyone out except for the three disciples and the child’s parents. In that room, James witnessed the raising of the little girl back to life.
The second event was the transfiguration itself, when Jesus was bathed in holy light, standing between Moses and Elijah. James, along with Peter and John cowered before the light, seeing Jesus exposed in all his heavenly splendor. The third time the inner sanctum was involved was during the crucial hour of payer in the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before Jesus’ arrest and trial and eventual crucifixion. James joined with Peter and John in a battle to remain awake and stand watch as Jesus had instructed them to do while he struggled with the terrors that lay just ahead.
Considering these important experiences, where does James fit into the larger picture? We know of Peter and his penchant for speaking into a moment when silence would have been the better choice. And certainly we know of John whom scholars believe to be the “beloved disciple” written about in the Gospel of John, who was the only one of the twelve addressed directly by Jesus from the cross, offering his mother into John’s care. But what had Jesus seen in James that he was allowed to witness such key events and yet so little seems to be known or written about him?
One thing is sure, James desired to be a leader. Jesus gave a nickname to James and his brother John after they had joined his band of disciples: “Sons of Thunder,” he called them. As a kid, I remember having many nicknames, some of them complimentary and some of them bordering the humiliating. Growing up in the 70’s with the name Morris led a great deal of kids on the bus to call me “Morris the Cat,” an homage to the cat who pitched Nine Lives cat food on the television commercials. Then there was “Morris the Beaver” because, before six years of intensive orthodontia, I had a terrible overbite. As a kid who wore glasses and later braces, you, of course, had the obligatory nicknames of “tinsel teeth,” “metal, mouth,” and “four eyes.” It really wasn’t until high school, when I was finally able to shed the braces and change to wearing contacts that I garnered the moniker “Flash,” a term of endearment given to me by several friends in the Radio Production class I was taking my junior year. Now that was a nickname I actually appreciated. It was kind of an amalgam of my last name with the frenetic pace and enthusiasm in which I engaged the projects before me, writing, producing, and narrating radio programs on a variety of musical themes. Several of these friends still use that nickname when we correspond on Facebook. The nicknames we wear typically come from a particular personality trait, or personal style, or habit. It seems to me, then, that Jesus may have seen something in James that James hadn’t seen in himself. “Sons of Thunder” implies a kind of loud rumbling, something bubbling up that is about to burst forth to the surface. Jesus uses the Greek word boanerges [boh-uh-nur-jeez] which comes from the Hebrew literally meaning “Sons of Thunder.” If you look up this word in the dictionary, you will find that it has come to mean “a vociferous preacher or orator.”
Ah, perhaps now we’re getting somewhere with this mystery James presents to us. The gospels share two stories in which James plays a special part. These events happen in the last weeks of Jesus’ life after the disciples had been with him for several years. In the ninth chapter of Luke we find Jesus and the disciples headed toward Jerusalem, sending messengers on ahead to a village in Samaria to find a place for them to stay. The disciples may have already been upset at Jesus for wanting to have anything to do with the Samaritans because of all the bad blood that had existed between Jews and Samaritans for over six hundred years. In this story, the Samaritans refuse Jesus’ request to provide hospitality for the group. Wow. That’s a slap in the face. Hospitality was of high value in near eastern culture and even given the animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans, most of the time they were able to somewhat coexist even if relations were a bit prickly. No doubt, the disciples felt indignation from not being received. When the messengers came back with their report, James and John in their umbrage, brazenly lash out: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” “Sons of Thunder,” indeed! Now we’re beginning to see the logic behind the nickname. However, in the next verse it says: “But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” “Them,” in this case, meaning James and John. How often we resort to anger and hostility when we find ourselves insulted and our honor impugned. And yet Jesus, rather than allowing the situation to escalate into some sort of vengeance-fueled reprisal, rebukes James and John for their outburst and then simply moves on to another village.
The Sons of Thunder again make their feelings heard not much further along in the story. As shared in this morning’s scripture reading, we find Jesus and the disciples drawing ever closer to Jerusalem. Anticipating that something large was looming ahead and the possibility of Jesus establishing an earthly kingdom, James and John ask for a moment with Jesus. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them to make their request known. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Our first reaction may be to marvel at the audacity of James’ and John’s cheekiness. But, given that they were already a part of the inner circle, perhaps they felt that they had the right to approach Jesus with their hopes. Jesus had fueled those hopes by including them along the way and now, at the precipice of such possibility, they gathered the fortitude to ask for such positions of authority. They were confident that Jesus was about to ascend to an earthly throne and that they wanted to be part of the core leadership team.
We also must consider the circumstances in which this request was made. By this time, opposition to Jesus was growing to the point of a head-on collision. Rumors and rumblings, whispers on street corners accompanied by anxious glances—the fuse on the powder keg was nearing ignition. Considering all that was whirling around them, James and John seized the opportunity to make their desires known. If we’re going to act, now is the time to do it, especially before the other disciples attempt to take their share of the spotlight. The amazing thing in our story is the way Jesus receives their request, especially given their lack of modesty in approaching him with such an arrogant proposal. Jesus, perhaps, saw beneath their arrogance the very elements of character that would some day be crucial to the survival of the fledgling Christian movement. Fortunately, Jesus quickly turns the situation from an uncomfortable power play into a teaching moment, reminding them that true greatness comes from selfless service and the giving up of power rather than ambition and the acquisition of power. While the other disciples find their hackles raised by James’ and John’s request—probably because they didn’t think of it first—Jesus graciously moves the group towards his greater purposes of living lives that reflect the sacrificial and unconditional love of God.
An important sidebar as we continue our series on the first apostles is to offer a clarification as to why we call this James, “James the Greater.” We call this James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, “James the Greater” or sometimes “James the Elder” in order to differentiate him from the other disciple named James who we will meet in our weekly message two Sundays from now.
While James remains silent figure for the remainder of the Gospel stories, we re-engage his work and ministry in the book of Acts. Most scholars agree that James became a leader of the church in Jerusalem and was active in ministry there in the year’s following Christ’s ascension. Around 44 AD, King Herod Agrippa the First launches a new persecution of the Christian church in Jerusalem and the surrounding region. In the twelfth chapter of Acts, we read that James is arrested along with several others, including Peter. James is then executed by the sword, becoming the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom for his faith.
While Acts offers a simple reporting of James’ arrest and execution, other stories began to circulate out of which legends were birthed. For example, in the third century AD, Clement of Alexandria reports that a man named Josias brought the accusation against James that caused his condemnation. Upon seeing and hearing James’ fearless expression of his faith in face of betrayal and death, Josias was so moved that he declared himself to be a Christian. As they were then both led away to suffer death by the sword, Josias asked James for his forgiveness. The story shares that James assured Josias with the words of Jesus when he had entered the upper room following his resurrection and appeared to his disciples for the first time: “Peace be with you.” James then kissed the man who betrayed him. James the Greater was the first of the original twelve disciples to follow his Lord to the place of death for the faith. And when James died, he did so as Jesus did, praying for the forgiveness of the very person responsible for his death. Indeed, James had taken the lesson from Jesus that day to heart. And I wonder if Jesus’ question echoed in James’ mind as he approached his end: “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Prayers of the People
O Lord our God, you hear our prayers, the prayers not just what we say to you, but also the prayers of what we do and who we are. Hear us as we join our hearts to pray for your church. May we be united in your truth, committed in your love, and sanctified by your grace, that with one heart and one voice we might proclaim your gospel in word and deed, praising you for your abiding presence in our midst as a community of faith.
We pray for our fellow creatures, this world which you lovingly made, and the people of earth with all their diversity and commonality. We lift to you those in our world who weep, and those who cause their weeping; those without food, clothing, shelter, or a means of sustaining life with the dignity of one whom you have created. We pray for those who distort the good news of the gospel, who make gods out of things, out of themselves, out of systems, institutions, or structures.
We pray for those who live without meaning and hope, who live as objects of the whims of others, and those who suffer from strained or broken relationships. Lead your church toward a new vision of our mission to them in Christ—the vision of shalom—a kin-dom of Christ’s peace.
Tender and compassionate God, enable us with your guidance to be your church and to do your will in our common life together. Pour out your Spirit on those who are suffering, as we lift to you our own needs and the needs of those whose lives are intricately linked with our own (silence)…
Bless us to follow in the paths of the saints and mentors who have gone before us in faith, whose steps were taken in the sure and certain comfort of your presence, that we may faithfully glorify you now, in your church and your world. For these prayers we offer in the name and spirit of Jesus, who taught us these words—
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Closing Thought & Benediction
James the Greater has been claimed as the patron saint of hospitals, orphans, and pilgrims. While he probably never set foot there, Spain has adopted James as its patron saint. According to legend, the remains of James the Greater were taken to a place in northeastern Spain, named Santiago de Compostela (Santiago is Spanish for “St. James”) which is now the site of a cathedral and key destination for Christian pilgrims since the time of the Middle Ages. This pilgrimage of nearly 500 miles is called the Camino de Santiago or “The Way of St. James.” Its path marked with the image of the scallop shell, a symbol of this “Son of Thunder.” And as many of you know, our we have friends in our own community like Ron and Ann Angert and Victoria Stone who walked the Camino in recent years as pilgrims have done for centuries ever since.
May your faith in the God of all Creation be your guide and strength along faith’s pilgrim way.
May the Lord Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, bless you with compassion and humility.
And may the Holy Spirit, inspire and empower you to find meaning and joy in the service of others to the glory of God. Amen.