A slogan pinned on a church door once read: ‘Carpenter from Nazareth requires joiners. Enquire within.’ What does Jesus want from you? Not joiners in the sense of wood workers or chippies as I gather they are known in the trade today as that might rule the majority of us out. Neither do I think he just wants ‘joiners’ in the sense of those who will sign up for membership. I don’t know about you, but I belong to a number of organisations because they interest me and I like to read their literature but I am far from an active participant.
It is clear from reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry that there were many hangers on, many in the crowds who were attracted to Jesus by his teaching, by his power to heal, by miraculous signs but they remain just faces in the crowd. Their interest in Jesus is passing and transitory. It is only a few who on any given occasion are ready to respond to Jesus and are prepared to go the extra mile to follow him; like the one leper who returns to say thank you, or Mary Magdalene or Zacchaeus the tax collector. They all go on in one sense or another to be a disciple of Jesus.
We are familiar with the word disciple in the bible usually associating it with the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to work with him of which, James whom we think of today was one. But in the New Testament, the term disciple expands to include a much wider group of people who are committed followers.
It is the Welsh language that can help us better understand the meaning of the word disciple. In Welsh, ‘dysgu’ is the verb to learn. A learner or pupil is called a ‘dysgwr’ and the word used to translate the Greek word ‘mathitis’, disciple, in Welsh bibles is disgybl. Dysgu, dysgwr, disgybl. All of this leads us to see that a disciple is a learner, someone who is being taught.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus issues what we often call ‘the great commission’, his final instruction: ‘Go and make disciples from all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ (Matthew 28.19) As a church which puts emphasis on the sacramental, we often hear only the second part of that instruction from which we take our mandate to baptize. But as I try to point out to parents bringing young children for a ‘christening’, Jesus firstly talks about making disciples, creating learners, people of any age committed to learning from him, before he speaks of baptism. This is not an argument to deny baptism to the young, but it is an argument for children who are baptised to continue to learn both at home and in church if not in school about the Lord Jesus, even taught by him.
This was the pattern Jesus developed with his disciples, the twelve and many others who ‘had ears to hear’. Jesus worked in a similar way to many of the teachers of his day who each had their devoted band of followers. He was often addressed as ‘Rabbi’ for this reason. It was culturally part of the devoutly Jewish society in which he ministered and a part of Roman and Greek culture too. In our society, the phrase, ‘lifelong learning’ is popular. I am sure Jesus would have approved. Jesus wants more from us that just ascent and belief, more than church membership, more than simply to be converted. He wants us to be disciples, people who are on a lifelong journey of learning as his people, to proclaim the gospel and live his lifestyle. This is not just about courses and bible study, although they play their part. It is about walking close to Jesus in prayer, daily sensing his will in each situation in a way not dissimilar to the first disciples would have learnt as they walked the dusty lanes of Galilee and the road to Jerusalem, as they rested a while under trees or gathered for the evening meal.
James was part of that travelling band, one of the twelve. He was the brother of John, a son of Zebedee. Jesus calls both brothers ‘sons of thunder’. We can only guess that was because they were prone violence. There is an occasion when they are travelling to Jerusalem and try to find lodgings in a Samaritan village. They are refused and these two suggest to Jesus that they call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable inhabitants. (Luke 9.54)
We can picture James as straightforward fisherman, used to battling bureaucracy and the elements. He would have called a spade a spade and not suffered fools gladly. Yet he responds to Jesus’ call, he becomes a disciple and he becomes a learner, a student in the ways of the kingdom. Taking today’s readings from the New Testament together, we can learn at least four things that James would have learnt.
- The reading from Acts opens with a visit from a prophet, Agabus to the Christians in Antioch. He speaks of famine and the need to support Christians in Judea. Relief is then sent with Barnabas and Saul, later to be called Paul. Whether James was instrumental in giving or receiving is not clear but mutual support for Christian people wherever they live is a learnt way of life for these 1st century Christians. Do we need to do some learning in this area too? Are we supporting Christian people in need locally or internationally as individuals or a church?
- No Discrimination. The church in Judea would have been mainly Jewish by definition but that in Antioch would have included numbers of Gentiles. Later, we read of Paul organising similar support for Judea from the wealthy Greek churches in Macedonia and Achaia. Such financial support across the Jewish Gentile divide was an important sign of being all one in Christ. Jesus breaks down the walls of hostility between ethnicity, skin colour and the like as Paul puts it in the Ephesian letter. (Ephesians 2.14) It is something that does not come naturally. It must be learnt, especially by a son of thunder such as James. Are you up for that one?
- Moving to the gospel reading, we read how James or his mother speaking for him according to Matthew wants a top seat in the government that he believes Jesus will establish as part of the kingdom of God. This just shows how much he has to learn. Above all, he needs to realise that although Jesus is Lord of all the earth, he acts like a servant. This is God’s way which he too must learn. We saw the same counterintuitive thinking with David, Jesus’ earthly forebear last week.
- Jesus lays it on the line for James. Is he willing to drink the cup that Jesus himself must drink? (Matthew 20.22) James would have had idea what Jesus meant for drinking from a cup was an image of suffering and death in the Old Testament. Jesus makes it more explicit at the end of the gospel today: ‘The Son of Man came…to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20.28) The passage from Acts shows how James did ultimately serve with his life at the hands of Herod. His brother John would go into exile. Peter was next in line for Herod’s chop but God rescues him from prison to continue to serve. Hard as it may be, we too must learn the way of the cross and live in solidarity with brothers and sisters across the world who daily suffer for Jesus.
James, the disciple of Jesus. James the learner. How far he must have gone from being the rough and ready fisherman Jesus called from the lakeside to being an apostle, a spokesman for the faith, willing to stand in a place of danger for his Lord. How far have you come in you time as a disciple of Jesus? It’s never too late to learn.
Feast of St James 25.07.2021