“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem”
In the mercy of God’s “never-failing providence,” today is the Feast of St. James the Apostle as well as the Eighth Sunday after Trinity. The occasional intersection of the major Saints’ Days with our Sunday celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is, I think, most instructive. The commemoration of the Saints provides an illustration or example of what it means for us to participate in Christ’s redemptive work.
In the Maritimes, St. James is, we might say, a favourite saint. There are an enormous number of Churches, Anglican and otherwise, dedicated to the honour and memory of St. James. It is a feature of our Maritime and sea-faring traditions. St. James is one of the disciples whom Jesus calls from fishing to become a fisher of men. The Collect alludes to his calling. The Lesson from Acts indicates the radical cost of that calling. James is put to death by Herod the king. The Gospel teaches the meaning of that calling. It has to do with our going up to Jerusalem with Jesus.
Jesus explains exactly what it means to go up to Jerusalem. It means his passion, death and resurrection. What this means for us is seen in the lives of the saints, namely, our participation in Christ’s redemption of our humanity: drinking of the cup of which Christ drinks and being baptized into Christ’s baptism. We are consecrated to God by virtue of our incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ. Suffering and glory are all part of that story. As Paul tells us in the Epistle for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, “we have received a spirit of sonship.” We are “the children of God and fellow-heirs with Christ”. But there is a cost: “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him.” The martyr saints remind us of the suffering and the glory.
To be a martyr means to bear witness. The Saints are more than Christian heroes and more than mere role models. What defines them and what is meant to define us is the calling or vocation which we share with the Saints. What moves in them is the redemptive life of Christ made visible in them. They have found their wills in the will of Christ. It is “not I but Christ who lives in me”; that has to be the constant theme and struggle of Christian witness. It cannot be about calling attention to ourselves. It is not “look at me, look at me” but “look to Jesus.” See Jesus and see yourself in him.
Our liturgy calmly and consistently makes the point about our incorporation and participation in the life of God through Jesus Christ. The witness of the Saints complements the witness of the Scriptures to that divine life which the liturgy proclaims and provides for us sacramentally.
There are the Saints of the Scriptures; the Apostolic Saints, we might say and there are the Saints of the Tradition of the Church. Legends about both abound; sometimes quaint and edifying stories, sometimes not; sometimes invented and non-historical and sometimes with a certain weight of evidence and truth. Quite often we don’t have a whole lot of historical and biographical detail about the Saints, either of the Scriptures or the Tradition. And in a way, it is the idea of the Saints that captures most the imagination and holds our attention.
Our readings this morning, for instance, simply tell us about what is known about the end of James’ life – his death at the hand of Herod – as recorded in The Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Yet, it is presented almost as just a passing mention and more as indicating the inauguration of the further persecution of the followers of Jesus. The greater point about St. James and martyrdom is signalled in the Gospel.
It suggests the real meaning of our sonship and discipleship. “We go up to Jerusalem”, Jesus says and he tells the disciples what that will mean. Luke, in his account of this story, which we hear on Quinquagesima Sunday at the beginning of Lent, adds that “they understood none of these things”, the things of his passion, death and resurrection. Mark proceeds directly to the coming of James and John the sons of Zebedee to Jesus. This is similar to the Matthew’s account which we read on Passion Sunday; only Matthew has their Mother making the initial request. She is looking for special places of prominence for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom. Mark has James and John ask Jesus directly. In both cases, Jesus remarks that “you do not know not what you are asking.”
There is our desiring, our wanting something good and glorious, it seems, for ourselves and even for others. Jesus’ response is twofold. First, there is the paradox that we do not really know what it is that we really want. This is because of the disorder of our wills, our minds and our lives. Secondly, we don’t realise the cost; a cost greater than what we can pay, again because of the disorder of our wills, our minds and our lives. The cost is his passion and death.
And yet, there is the greater wonder of his grace, his gift to us, as it were. It is the privilege of participating in his redemptive work. “We go up,” he says, not “I alone go up” nor simply, “you go up.” No. It is, emphatically, “we go up.” At the heart of Christian witness and life is the fellowship between man and God in Jesus Christ. That is what our liturgy constantly proclaims and provides.
We go up to Jerusalem in the lifting up of our hearts in prayer and praise. We go up to Jerusalem in the reading and hearing of the Scriptures. We go up to Jerusalem in our getting up off our seats literally and going up to receive the sacrament of the altar. The Jerusalem of Jesus made audible and visible to us in the ordered pattern of the liturgy. Augustine, commenting on the psalms of ascent, the psalms that mark the ancient journey of the people of Israel to Jerusalem for the Passover, says that “we ascend in the ascension of our hearts.” Such is prayer.
This is supposed to be our witness, like the witness of St. James, who “without delay was obedient unto the calling of Jesus and followed him.” As the Collect suggests, it means “forsaking all worldly and carnal affections.” What is that about? It means the putting aside of our selfish ambitions and desires. In a way, what James and his brother John desire has to be purged of the pride and ambition that is self-serving and self-promoting. And which creates invidious distinctions because it seeks something for oneself at the expense of others. There has to be a learning about service and sacrifice. The phrase, “worldly and carnal affections,” also recalls us to our baptismal profession. What is going to define us? The devices and desires of our constantly wayward and wicked hearts? Or our wills and desires as purified and perfected in the love and service of Jesus?
The pattern of sainthood is the pattern of our Christian witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. It always means, first, the repudiation of all that stands opposed to God and his truth and, second, the recapitulation of what belongs to the truth of our humanity as redeemed in Christ. It means death and resurrection in our daily lives through our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, liturgically and sacramentally.
It is a life-long project and one in which we are meant to be constantly learning. “O Lord, make perfect my will.” Today, in the Providence of God, we celebrate the life and witness of St. James and are challenged to renew our commitment to Christ in his body the Church. We are reminded by the witness of St. James about what it means to “go up to Jerusalem,” trusting not in ourselves, but in the one who says,
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem”
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church, Windsor & St. George’s, Falmouth
July 25th, 2010