Acts 11:27 – 12:2
At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29 The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers[f] living in Judea; 30 this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.
2 Corinthians 4: 7-15
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Matthew 20: 20-28
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. 21 And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ 22 But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’[g] They said to him, ‘We are able.’ 23 He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Today we mark the feast of St James the apostle. We remember him in part out of respect for those who established and sustained St James church, incorporated into our parish when it closed for worship in 1979, a place steeped in 400 years of prayer.
Much of what we know about James is contained in today’s readings from Matthew and Acts. He and his brother John, sons of Zebedee and Salome, were amongst Jesus first disciples. They were present at his transfiguration. And then there is this rather undignified incident where their mother pleads on their behalf that they be ranked ahead of the other disciples when Jesus comes into his kingdom. We have no words of James – the letter of that name is linked to another James, the brother of Jesus.
James was executed, in around AD 41, by the forces of King Herod, in the first of many waves of persecution of the early Christian church.
Long after his death, James bequeathed to us one of the great medieval pilgrimages. A roman tomb was discovered by a shepherd in the year 813 in the North West corner of Spain. The local bishop declared that the remains were those of James the Apostle, brought there after his martyrdom. The first church of Santiago de Compostela was built and the pilgrimages began. Over the centuries millions have walked, along a network of routes, a bit like rivers, which converge on the city and the church. The number of pilgrims fell at the reformation but has increased again in the last 50 years.
So I want to reflect this morning on the pilgrimage of St James, on the experiences of those who have walked its ways.
Pilgrimage is one of the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith, but there is no obligation to undertake it. Those who do are often prompted by a very personal sense of call, perhaps on the death of a loved one, or following a point of change in their life, sometimes a healing.
I have never been on a pilgrimage, but I note from the experience of others some common themes:
The pilgrim leaves behind, for a short time, the cares and responsibilities of ordinary life, the home, work, family. There is liberation in this. People describe taking them back up again after the journey, but in a different spirit, with a lightness of heart which lasts sometimes for many years.
The pilgrim life is very simple. Possessions are few. One pilgrim I read described struggling after the journey was over with having again to choose between so many clothes! But we should remember that voluntary poverty, whilst in itself good for the soul, is not the same as the involuntary kind.
Pilgrimage usually involves walking. It is a physical discipline. Pilgrims quickly learn to pay attention to their bodies, especially their feet! To notice them, take care of them, to love them, to accept them.
Pilgrims search. There is an openness of heart to God, to meeting him on the journey – one describes the experience of the disciples on the Emmaus Road, Jesus coming alongside them, as very real.
Pilgrimage is communion. There is communion with others on the way. Friends describe walking with a stranger for a few hours, then parting company, then seeing them again a few days later. Conversations can have a depth, an openness which seems easier than back at home. There is a sense of common purpose – we are all walking the same way, and our reasons, though varied, often reveal common feelings.
And there is communion with nature. Pilgrimage takes place in the open air, across fields and hills. I came across an article by Gisela Raines, wife of a previous Rector, who walked the way of St James. She says:
There was for me something unexpectedly sacramental in the experience of simply walking day in, day out, through huge landscapes. RS Thomas concludes his poem The Moor with the line: "I walked on, simple and poor, while the air crumbled and broke on me generously as bread."
And lastly there is silence. Pilgrims walk many hours without speaking. Pilgrimage can be a time for new experiences and insights, but it is also a time for the mind to rest.
All of these are forms of prayer, of contemplation, in which we become aware of the everlasting arms of God, holding us, and open our hearts to his infinite love.
These themes run through all the spiritual disciplines, the life of prayer. So they are available to us all, to all who search, whether it be as literal pilgrims or in settled living, here and now.
Let us thank God for the riches of his grace which he shares with us in all these ways.