Sermon preached on the Patronal Festival of St James Hockwold July 26th 2015
+ In Nomine
In the Gospels, two of the ‘twelve’ share the name James – James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. To distinguish between the two – James son of Zebedee whose feast we celebrate today is known as the Greater and the poor old son of Alphaeus is titled the Less – and yes, it does come down to ‘pecking’ order of a sort as James son of Zebedee was one of Jesus’ inner circle consisting of Peter, James’ brother John and James himself. These three were often singled out by Jesus to accompany him at special moments in his ministry such as the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration and Jesus’ agony in the Garden.
Yet these three had much to learn about the nature of Jesus’ mission. This morning’s Gospel shows up the pretensions of James along with his brother to share in what they believed would be Jesus’ worldly glory. They wanted to be Jesus’ right hand men, sharing in the pomp and power of an earthly conqueror. They interpreted the ‘cup’ as a cup of power – not a cup of sacrifice. Yet it was the latter of course that they were required to share with Jesus. Christian discipleship involved for them as it does for us a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. Christian discipleship was never meant to be easy and we read in Acts 12:1-2 that James suffered martyrdom at the hands of King Herod Agrippa probably around AD44.
In recent times, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out three important features in the life of St James the Greater that can continue to offer an example for Christians today.
- Promptness in accepting Jesus’ call even when he asks us to leave the ‘boat’ of our lifestyle and security and step into the unknown to follow him.
- Enthusiasm in proclaiming the Gospel in whatever way we are called.
- Readiness to stand up for Jesus with courage and conviction.
In other words we are called to follow Jesus throughout our life’s journey, taking up our cross and following Christ, witnessing to Him and ultimately coming to our journey’s end and entering His Father’s house, there to enjoy Jesus’ promise of everlasting life.
Various traditions exist claiming that James the Greater made an important journey in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, preaching the Gospel as far afield as Spain. It is claimed that after his martyrdom, his body was taken to Compostella in NW Spain. During the Middle Ages, the great shrine of St James at Compostella was one of the primary places of Christian pilgrimage, along with Rome, Canterbury and Walsingham. And indeed even today, thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino – the pilgrim route across the Pyranees each year- to this holy place to pray at the shrine of St James. Indeed he is greatly remembered though not perhaps in quite the way his mother had envisaged in today’s Gospel!
The Camino is not an easy journey, even in the 21st century. It’s a challenging walk – the climate is not always pleasant and the pilgrim accommodation en route is hardly 5 star! However an article in the Guardian tells us that pilgrim numbers are on the increase, even as church attendances decline. In 1985, 2,491 people received the certificate of completion of the Camino. Twenty five years later the number was 270,000. So what’s the attraction?
Church attendance numbers may be decreasing but this does not mean that the human spirit has lost touch with God. St Augustine tells us that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. And this is true. Pilgrimage reflects the heart’s restless journey towards Christ. Christians have always seen life as a journey – we come from God and we return to God – as TS Eliot says “in my end is my beginning” – death is the gateway to new life. Pilgrimage is a kind of symbol in action – we make an intentional journey to a holy place to focus our hearts and minds on the purpose of our whole life’s journey – to rest in God. In the middle ages people went on pilgrimage usually for two reasons. Chaucer tells us in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales that people sought physical healing at the shrine of a great saint. However it was spiritual healing that people sought as well – forgiveness for sins committed and a fresh start. As pilgrimages were risky – often taking many years and full of dangers en route – great faith was needed to undertake such a journey and it was generally not the junket portrayed in the Canterbury Tales.
So what do people seek today on pilgrimage? Well healing – spiritual and physical is still a major reason for people to undertake these journeys. However for many it’s a journey of exploration – of opening out to our Lord, of drawing closer to Him in prayer and through the company of others along the way as journey and life experiences are shared. Change is at the heart of pilgrimage – a deep desire for spiritual healing and renewal. Physical journey is instinctively linked with that inner journey of the soul seeking deeper communion with Christ. Sacred Place is also important. A journey to Compostella, to the traditional site of a great saint’s last resting place, to pray at the tomb of one who once walked with our Lord is powerful. To meditate on St James’ life – on how a fisherman listened to and obeyed the call of Jesus, who followed him, learned from him and even glimpsed his glory cannot fail to be instructive for the pilgrim seeking also to draw closer to Christ. And James was so human and imperfect too – just like us. He was hot tempered, ambitious for earthly glory and riches and yet he underwent that ‘metanoia’ – that deep change and orientation of the heart towards Christ that enabled him to follow his master and to proclaim the Gospel even to his own violent death.
Today, may we let the life of St James and that great place of pilgrimage which exists under his patronage, help us to deepen our exploration of Christ’s call to us on our journey of faith in this life. May the example of St James help us to change, to seek healing for all those sins that prevent us from drawing closer to Christ and continue on our journey refreshed and renewed. Not all of us can walk the Camino. But here in Norfolk we are blessed to have an extraordinary place of pilgrimage right on our doorstep – Walsingham. It was invaded by the Welsh when I was there on Wednesday – packed out with pilgrims of all ages seeking spiritual refreshment and renewal. These holy places continue to exist ‘where prayer has been valid’ and where prayer continues to transform and renew. Soon I’ll be asking people in this Benefice to sign up to this years ‘Healing Pligrimage’ – and you don’t have to be in need of physical healing to come along. Healing is about renewal – renewal of heart and soul towards our Lord. So today in this Eucharist, as we come forward to receive the body and blood of our Lord, let us pray for renewal as we continue on our earthly pilgrimage towards our Father’s home.