Sermons & services

Sermon for the Feast of St James

Published Sunday 24th July 2022, at 3:19 p.m.

During my talks in Lent and Eastertide I spent a lot of time asking people to think themselves back in time, into the years of the early Church, the time closest to the person of Jesus. So here’s another one. Imagine yourself, if you will, as a visitor to Jerusalem in around the year AD40. You've been living in another part of the Roman Empire, but you've heard stories about this guy called Jesus who was executed by the Romans about ten years before. And the weird stuff that is said to have happened after. So you travel to the Holy City, to find out more about this person called Jesus. Where do you go? Where do you start? Who do you speak to? Surely, the first place to start is with those who actually knew Jesus: the Apostles. Some of them are still there: in Jerusalem. If you want to know about Jesus, go to those who knew him, travelled with him, listened to him, spoke to him. Saw what he did. Those who were with him in the great events of his life. The teaching. The healing. The miracles. And then the arrest. The Passion. The crucifixion. The death. And then. And then. The Resurrection. These are the people who witnessed it all, so go to them first. To the Apostles. To people like our patron saint who we celebrate today. St James was alive in AD40 when my fictional visitor went to Jerusalem, though he was executed four years later. To visit James and to listen to him would have been to listen to the words of one of Jesus’ closest followers. I mean, what a privilege? James. Brother of John the Evangelist, the Beloved Disciple. One of the first followers of Jesus and one of his inner circle. One who was there in all the central events of this thing we call the Incarnation. That God became a human being: Jesus of Nazareth. Two thousand years on, the question still remains: how do we encounter this Jesus? How do we learn about him? Come to know him? Well the answers are the same: We go to the Apostles, or to those who directly knew the Apostles. And we do that by going to the Bible: to the Gospels. Over the last couple of centuries, there's been a lot of talk about whether we can believe and trust the Gospels. Were they really written by the people whose names they carry? How can we trust their words? Thankfully there has been a lurch back recently to a more orthodox view that the Gospels were written by the people whose names they carry. St Matthew – the tax collector, Levi, who left it all to follow Jesus. Like St James, one of the Twelve. St Mark – the follower of St Paul who learned the Gospel at the feet of him and then, probably, Saint Peter in Rome. St Luke – who was also with Paul and spoke to many of the witnesses of Jesus, including his Mother, St Mary. St John – the beloved disciple, brother of James: the faithful one through the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. The only faithful one of the apostles, as it happens. And this is what it boils down to: the Apostles like St James are so important because they are the witnesses of this thing we call the Resurrection. And that’s vitally important for this simple reason. As I tried to explain during my talks in Eastertide, Christianity stands or falls on the reality of the Resurrection. If the Resurrection is a lie, if it didn’t happen, then Christianity is nothing but morality and moral teaching: albeit pretty good moral teaching. As St Paul says, if the Resurrection did not happen, then our faith is in vain. But if the witness of St James and the other Apostles – the Gospels – is true, then everything changes. Everything else is true. Jesus – everything he said, everything he did – must be true. So the existence of God must be true. And the belief that that God is love must be true. Eternal life must be true. That sin and death have been defeated must be true. Because Jesus rose again on the third day and appeared to his followers who became the apostolic witnesses to the event that changes the world. That changes everything. It is the validation and vindication of everything Jesus said and did. It is why we honour St James: as one of the witnesses to those life changing events. But also why, as followers of Jesus in our own times, we re-commit ourselves to proclaiming Christ, crucified and risen. In the modern Eucharistic rites, there is a proclamation of faith after the consecration: we proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again. That sums it up. That’s our task: like St James, to proclaim the death and resurrection of the Lord. Because from it, life changes. Because Jesus is alive. And because he is alive, we can share in his victory over death and sin, and so share in the divine life through faith and through baptism into the life of the Church, which is Christ’s body. This is about an encounter with the risen Jesus. An encounter with his Word. The Apostles left us their words and we can still read them today in the Gospels. And in them we can meet and encounter Jesus. And we can encounter Him in the sacraments. That person visiting Jerusalem in AD40 would not have met the physical, incarnate, Jesus. Obviously. They would have encountered him in the word of Scripture, the word given to and preached by the Apostles. And in the sacraments, passed down from those first days through the Apostolic succession of bishops and their priests. In particular, in this meal that Jesus commanded to us to do in remembrance of him. Take, eat. Take, drink. This is my Body. This is my Blood. From the very beginning the Church was aware that this encounter with Christ was not a simply a memory of the Last Supper, however sacred that would be in itself. It is a presence. Of Jesus to us and for us. And of us to and for Jesus. We need to be present at that Supper, to be able to hear his voice, to eat his Body and to drink his Blood. We need Him. Why? Because I am Nicodemus living in the darkness of untruth. I am the Samaritan woman at the well, the man possessed by demons at Capernaum, the paralytic in the house of Peter, the sinful woman pardoned, the woman afflicted by haemorrhages, the daughter of Jairus, the blind man of Jericho, Zacchaeus, Lazarus. I am the thief on the Cross; I am Judas who betrayed his master: I am Peter who denied him. I am all these, and more. I need him and I find him in word and sacrament, in this liturgy. The Lord Jesus who is risen and ascended continues to pardon us, to heal us, to save us with the power of the sacraments. Not only through the sacraments, but through them, in a tangible, physical way by which, through which, he continues to pour out his love for us. From the very beginning the Church, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, grasped that that which was visible in Jesus, that which could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, his words and his gestures, had now passed into the celebration of the sacraments. So for 2,000 years the Church has proclaimed that in the liturgy of the Eucharist, which we celebrate Sunday by Sunday, we encounter Jesus. In table of his word. In the table of the his body and blood. And this encounter is the portal, the doorway, into everlasting life. Because to encounter Jesus and to believe in him, is to encounter the Father. And to encounter, to know, the Father is eternal life. Amen.