Matthew 20: 20-28
Today we celebrate the feast of St James. James is one of our patron saints, following the merger of the parishes of St James, Birch and Holy Innocents, Fallowfield in 1978.
St James, Birch was by a long way they older of the two as a site of Christian worship – a chapel was first built there in the 1590’s, to serve the Birch family and their workers. They lived in Birch Hall, which stood nearby, where Manchester Grammar School is now. The current church was built in 1845, decades before this building. The village of Fallowfield used to be in St James’ parish but as its population grew it was carved out in 1873 for the new church of Holy Innocents. St James also provided the first Rector of Holy Innocents, the curate there, John Twist.
But, for all that, it was St James which was closed and sold off in 1980. I find a surprising connection with the teaching Jesus offers to James in our reading: The first shall become the least.
I am grateful to Michael for compiling the history of St James – and also Holy Innocents – in a fascinating document which I am sure he would share with you if you ask him.
Turning to our gospel reading from Matthew, the apostle James mentioned there is one of several James’s in the bible. He is the brother of the apostle John, together the sons of Zebedee. There is another apostle called James who is son of Alphaeus. And there is James the younger brother of Jesus, who played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem and who is linked to the letter of James in the New Testament.
In today’s story Matthew tells how the mother of James and John (her name is not mentioned) takes her sons and seeks out Jesus when he is alone. She pleads with him to give them a higher status than the other disciples.
Matthew gets this story from Mark’s gospel, as he does many of the stories of Jesus. In Mark, it is the brothers themselves who ask. I wonder why Matthew changes the story, introducing the figure of their mother? Was it to shift the blame away from the brothers themselves, to suggest that the competitive instinct was hers? But even in Matthew James and John are still implicated, for moments later they pick up the dialogue with Jesus directly.
Perhaps we can compromise by saying that competitiveness often passes from parents to their children. I recall when I was young, school holidays filled with sports and board games and cards, where no mercy was given, with my parents leading the charge. And according to my daughters, if you put me in front of a Monopoly board, I too become a ruthless competitor, however young my unfortunate opponents.
Jesus refuses their request, and then uses the opportunity to teach them and the other disciples.
Firstly, he makes it clear to the two brothers that the place of privilege they aspire to, close by him, is not as they imagine. If they really want to go where he goes, then they must drink of the cup which awaits him. Matthew’s readers, and the brothers themselves, would have understood that the cup Jesus was referring to was not part of a heavenly banquet, but the cup of suffering referred to in Jeremiah, in Lamentations and in Ezekiel – “a cup of horror and desolation.”
When the other disciples protest Jesus speaks to the whole group. He challenges them that their rivalry over status is mistaken. The pursuit of status – alongside success and power - is a given in the world. But the way of Jesus, the way of the Kingdom, is in the opposite direction.
If you wish to be great, you must be a servant, a slave, the least of all.
This is an important teaching of Jesus, which we also find in other places in the gospels. Many have reflected on what it means for our own lives. So I conclude by sharing some of my own thoughts.
Firstly, I do not think that what Jesus is doing is simply redefining success – that to achieve, you must display humility and serve the poor, taking your place among them – that this is now the way of reaching the goal.
For me this teaching has come, as I have got older, to challenge the very ideas of status, success and growth. These ideas are woven into my secular life – for venture capital is all about growth and success. And I find them also closely woven into the church. We have caught the bug of pursuing growth in numbers as a means of showing we are on the right track.
But these ideas have also infiltrated our inner life – for example when we ask God to make our faith bigger. For me, the inner struggle is telling – too often I have found that the person I try to impress most of all is an inner me – perhaps alternating with moments of thinking I am a secret failure and a fraud.
So I have come to the conclusion that at the heart of Jesus’ teaching is an invitation to let go of all my worries about status, success and achievement altogether. I have concluded that the way of Jesus is not ultimately about growth in any sphere of life. The faith I have been given may not be that powerful, it may be shot through with doubt, but it is enough, by the grace of God.
For we have nothing we need to prove, we are loved just as we are, forgiven and accepted. And this gives us a rare freedom to live our true lives, to the full. Others will pursue public success and they may well pass us by – or not, it doesn’t matter.
We are travelling a different way – our lives are not to be built up, but to be poured out for the sake of others, in unmeasured thankfulness, secretly replenished again and again by the spirit of God, who is love.
Richard Young (Rector)