By Steve Houghton
Purpose: Reﬂect on how God gives extraordinary purpose to ordinary people.
In the name of the One God, who is Lover, Beloved, and Love Overﬂowing. Amen (Br. Aiden Owen, OHC)
When I was much younger I was in awe of, some might say venerated, the saints. That was likely because I attended parochial school and it was expected of me. As I have become older I am bold enough, some would say brash enough, to consider the human side of the saints and wonder what the heck was God doing with that gal or guy. That wonder is particularly keen concerning St. James the Greater.
Our James was the Greater, in all probability, because he was taller than James the Lesser. We can consider some other possibilities as we go along. For the moment I think it should be enough to know that many historians consider James’ height as the reason for his title of Greater.
We are blessed with quite a number of passages in scripture that reference James and some of his actions. This morning we heard two of them. In the Gospel we hear of his mother trying to get him honor at Jesus side. The second one was in the Epistle and records the very end of his ministry.
You might recall that In the Synoptic Gospels, James and his brother John were the third and fourth apostles to join Jesus as he taught along the Sea of Galilee. All four were ﬁshermen. It might be helpful to know a little about ﬁshing in the area of the Sea Galilee at the time of Jesus and his apostles.
Fishing was and is hard work. The actual ﬁshing took place at night when the ﬁsh wouldn’t see the nets and swim away to avoid them. The boats were about 23 feet long and seven feet wide, capable of carrying around a thousand pounds of ﬁsh or 11 to 13 people. It held a crew of ﬁve, four to row the boat and throw the nets and one to steer, watch for storms and supervise the casting and retrieval of the nets. By the way, the fact that they sailed at night and had to have someone on the lookout for storms might add a little ﬂavor to some of the other bible stories with which we are familiar. Back to the topic. The throwing of the nets and hauling back the catch to the boat and then lifting it into the boat was really only a part of the job. Most of the day for the ﬁshermen was spent mending the ﬂax or linen nets; drilling holes in stones and attaching them to the nets as weights; drying the nets; and storing them for the next night’s sail. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot of down time. (1)
The most successful ﬁshing ventures were undertaken by families that had good strong sons. The more family members in the crew the less money had to be paid out to day laborers to serve as rowers and net tenders. There were also licenses to be paid for, tolls to be paid and the ever present taxes. So you can see that Zebedee, James and John’s father, had three ﬁfths of the crew as part of his family; a deﬁnite ﬁnancial advantage. There was also a partnership with Simon (Peter) and Andrew and their boat, as referenced in Luke (5:10). It is likely that they had a rather proﬁtable venture going in their joint ﬁshing partnership. (2)
So at ﬁrst glance, reading only Mathew (4: 18-22) and Mark (1: 16-20), you might scratch your head a bit when you read that Jesus just came strolling along the shore, saw the four ﬁshermen, and said they should drop their nets and follow him . . . and they did. In the Gospel of John (1: 35-40), he states that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist and heard John the Baptist say of
Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God”. We might be able to guess from this that Peter, James and John were familiar with John the Baptist’s message through Andrew. In fact we read in John that Andrew carried that message to Peter. And if you read Luke’s account (5: 1-11) you realize that Jesus has just performed the miracle of telling Peter to cast his nets, in the daytime, after a nighttime of catching nothing and retrieving so many ﬁsh they almost sink the two boats and split the net, it begins to make a little more sense.
My guess is that Zebedee was too stunned at the catch to protest losing near his entire livelihood to this itinerant preacher. I wonder what his reaction was the next day. For that matter, I wonder what James was thinking when he woke up the next morning traipsing after this miracle worker.
I am left wondering what sort of men these four ﬁshermen and James in particular, were and why Jesus invited them to follow him. To be honest, if I were trying to get a movement going and needed people to help build and grow that movement, I would be a bit concerned about relying on someone who would abandon his work so easily and abandon his father who needed his help to succeed.
Of course if I were looking for people who could work tirelessly for long hours and in the face of a disappointing night on the water, someone who would keep going when all seemed lost, these might be the very people Jesus was looking for.
Whatever the reason he was invited along, James found himself in the inner circle of the twelve closest to Jesus. Along with Peter and John, James was invited in to the healing of Jairus’s daughter. Again along with Peter and John, he was present at the Transﬁguration. Then in the Garden at Gethsemane, Peter James and John were with Jesus as he prayed before being arrested.
Both Mark (10: 35-40) and Matthew (20: 20-23) recount a story where James and John ask to sit beside Jesus when he comes to power. Pretty bold! Even if they were in the inner circle of the inner circle, you have to think well of yourself to make that kind of request. Do you think you could ever make that request?
Just to top that request we have James and John, in the Gospel of Luke (9: 51-56), asking Jesus if he wants them “to command ﬁre to come down from heaven and consume” a village of Samaritans because “they did not receive Him, because his face was set on Jerusalem.” Of course the lesson in this section of scripture is about the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans and about Jesus’ concern for loving all and having malice against none. This does, however, give us insight into the character of James and John. They are not timid about their support of Jesus and his teachings. They are, perhaps, a little over zealous given the fact that they want to bring down ﬁre from heaven on villagers who don’t want to listen to their cultural enemies. And Jesus corrects them on that point. I have to wonder, though, if Jesus didn’t smile a little to himself witnessing how headstrong these two were about his mission.
I believe we all have met people in our lives who act like James did. They passionately believe in their cause and they will not be swayed. When I was protesting the war in Vietnam and protesting for Civil Rights in the late 60’s and early 70’s I knew a number of people like James. I found myself caught between wishing they would tone it down and wishing I had the courage to speak as boldly as they did. Can you picture a person in your life who stands out like that? Might it even be you? When I ﬁnally got my voice in the protest movement it certainly was me. I remember standing in the middle of the gymnasium at North Adams State College at the beginning of the Student Strike and throwing my books down and declaring I would not pick them up until we were out of Vietnam.
You see God never has had anyone but us to carry his message to the world. When Jesus walked in Israel he used ﬁshermen and tax collectors and rebels and all sorts of humans. That was one of the things that the Sisters of St. Joseph in my high school taught me about saints that has stuck with me as a truth. We all have the potential to do God’s work. Heck we have a hymn to that eﬀect here in the Episcopal Church. We often give it lip service. We don’t always believe it. If the church continues or fails; if Jesus’ teachings continue or fail; that is on us. We adopt saints names for our churches to remind us of that fact. Those saints serve as a reminder that we are capable of doing God’s work and with his grace we will do it.
In the end, James was beheaded in 44 CE by Herod Agrippa because he would not stop declaring Jesus’ life changing message at the top of his lungs. I do believe that St. James, that brash young ﬁsherman speaks to a strength of voice from which we can gain inspiration. When you hear his name spoken in reference to this church or in any conversation, ask yourself, what has God planned for my talents today?
1 James Campbell, D Min “Biblical Fishing101 Reeling in the First Fishers of Faith” Loyolapress.com
2 Ibid James Campbell
I think we are doing the right thing when we don’t read the Passion of Jesus on Palm Sunday. The reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday began in 1954 when I was four years old. The church was concerned that the numbers of people attending services during Holy Week was dropping off and it was important that the faithful hear the story of Jesus’ suffering. So they changed the name of that Sunday from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday and made the principal gospel the reading of the Passion. For me, the impact of Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem is dwarfed into non-existence by the reading of the Passion. That is as it should be if this were not Palm Sunday.
I think Jesus and God and the church had a plan in mind when they structured the events of Holy Week the way they did. As a result, I like it when we “stick to the script” and follow the events of the week as they occurred. I think when we don’t stick to the script we run the risk of missing things as we rush to get it all out there. If you think about it, a week, well really four days, of nightly services in reliving Jesus’ final story on earth is not so much. Islam has a whole month of Ramadan in comparison. The Jewish Holiday of Passover is celebrated over eight day.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, a teacher and a monk, a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic respectively, were part of a movement undertaken in the middle to late 20th century to try to discover the historical Jesus. Together in 2006, Borg and Crossen produced a book called The Last Week in which they suggest, through scripture and historical record, the day by day, hour by hour activities of Jesus and his followers during the seven days leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus. A good deal of what I offer this morning comes from or is inspired by that book. It is a great read and raises some interesting considerations and I recommend it to you.
In order to experience Palm Sunday I think we need some background. When the Jewish people celebrate the Passover they do two things that are important to remember. First, they don’t just remember the Passover, they relive it in the actions of the celebration, much like we relive the washing of the disciples feet at the last supper on Maundy Thursday. Second, the Jewish celebration of Passover concludes with the words, “next year in Jerusalem”. A Haggadah is a book of the Jewish celebration of Passover. In the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with a new translation by Nathan Englander, Jeffery Goldberg says “Jerusalem is the symbol of peace, the destination of the Messiah, the holiest place on earth, the purest expression of the profound Jewish belief that the world will one day be a better place. It is this idea of Jerusalem for which we reach. When we reach it - and we will, for that is the core Jewish belief - there will be no more need for seders and Haggadot: We will live in a world in which the poor are fed and sheltered and the sick are healed; in which no one is persecuted or enslaved.”
Jerusalem, at the time of the crucifixion, was a city of about 30, to 40,000 people, pretty large for the period but only about the size of Northampton. At Passover the population of Jerusalem grew to somewhere between 80 and 120 thousand. Imagine packing the population of Springfield into Northampton. Normally only a cohort or 500 Roman soldiers were stationed in Jerusalem to keep order. During high holidays the crowd sizes really required a substantially larger contingency to maintain order and thwart any potential uprising.
Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and the bulk of the Roman soldiers assigned to the area of Judea were normally stationed in Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea Maritima was located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, west of Jerusalem. They were stationed there in part because it was cooled by the breezes of the Mediterranean Sea and made for much more comfortable living than in the near desert area of Jerusalem. During the high Jewish holidays, Pilate and two additional cohorts of Roman troops would travel to Jerusalem to insure Roman order. Pilate and his troops would be moving from the west toward Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith.
Off in the opposite direction, Jesus and his followers had been traveling toward Jerusalem from Galilee, east of Jerusalem. For most of the people traveling with Jesus, the goal of the journey was to arrive at Jerusalem in time for Passover. Jesus, however, had different plans. Jesus had been in Jerusalem for many Passovers beginning at least when he was twelve and gave his parents a scare by staying in the temple with the teachers after his parents had headed home. Jesus knew Jerusalem and how the population of the city swelled at Passover. He also knew that religious fervor swelled in the city at this time. He knew too that those who hoped to throw off the Roman yoke were at their highest number in the city at Passover and so tensions between the Romans and Jews were higher than usual.
We can guess that at least 3- 5,000 were traveling with Jesus based on our understanding of the feeding of the crowd not long before Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem. These were people who had followed his teachings for quite a while, and many were convinced he was the Chosen One who was going to liberate Israel. Word of what he was doing was well known in Jerusalem. It had motivated religious leaders from the temple to go out into the desert country to challenge Jesus’ teachings.
We also know that Jesus has been telling his closest friends that he is going to Jerusalem to die. If they had understood him clearly, he was telling them that he is going to die in a very unpleasant way.
When I got to this point in my exploration of the last week before the resurrection, with the help of Borg and Crossen, I began to see some pieces fall together. Somehow, even though I had heard all of the gospel readings about Jesus foretelling his death, I got the impression that this was something that was happening to him from outside. He was an unresisting victim. Then it started to dawn on me that Jesus had this all planned out. He knew how he was going to die, at least in part, because he was planning it. Some would say the donkey being ready for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem was a miracle or the hand of God. I think you could also conclude that Jesus had arranged for the donkey to be there. It was where he said it would be and the owners had no problem with it being taken away. A donkey was a pretty valuable possession and an owner would not easily let it be taken away. It makes sense that Jesus had already arranged with the donkey’s owner to allow his disciples to borrow it.
With that in mind, I think that if you approach Holy Week with an expectation that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and what would happen it offers a different way of looking at the events of that week. I think that the possibility is great that the last week was well planned by Jesus. But why?
Let’s go back to that Sunday the week before the Passover. It is about mid-morning. If we sent a drone up over the city we would see Pilate on a great horse, in full battle regalia, a thousand troops marching behind him also in regalia and the standards of the rule of Rome entering the west gate of the city. The occupants of the city are cowed and seeking shelter in doorways. Some of the children are trying to get outside to see what is going on as adults try to pull them back inside to safety avoiding the horse hooves and marching soldiers. No one speaks. The only sound is the tramp, tramp, tramp of the soldiers feet.
On the eastern side of the city, at the eastern gate, there are throngs of people lining the road into the city waving branches and cheering. They are cheering a young man on small donkey who seems to stand out from the crowd with a crowd surging behind him shouting cheers and dancing. They are jubilant. Mothers and fathers are hoisting their children on their shoulders so they can see this teacher from the wilderness. What a difference the west is from the east. What a 1 juxtaposition between the oppression of the existing order and the promise of a new order. And they are on a collision course. As Borg and Crossen say, this has all the earmarks of a pre-planned political demonstration. What clearer choice can there be between 2 preserving the oppressive political and religious establishment and the new world Jesus talks about where all are equal and all have free access to God.
Interestingly, Mark’s gospel says that after entering Jerusalem, Jesus walked through the city, looked around, then left to spend the night at his friend Lazarus’ house. It isn’t until Monday that Jesus returns, goes to the temple and causes quite a disturbance with the money changers. Luke and Matthew have Jesus going to the temple that same Palm Sunday and overturning tables. John says nothing about going to the temple at this time. I guess I rely on Mark in large part because his detail of that week is the greatest and because Mark’s account is the lead for Borg and Crossen. Which ever way you lean it is clear that not long after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem he is challenging the authority of the existing system. I think the bottom line in all three is that Jesus is in control of what is happening. Pilate, the chief priests and the established order are all reacting to what Jesus does. So what the heck is Jesus up to? That, I think, is the beauty of this week. We get to struggle along side Jesus’ followers in discovering what he is truly trying to say to us.
Kelly Brown Douglas in her article for Sojourners magazine entitled “A Christian Call for Reparations” says “That Jesus was crucified, and refused to save himself from being crucified, reveals that he emptied himself of all privilege that might separate him from the victims of the deadly political, cultural, and religious realities of his day.” Is that the lesson of this week? Is that the reality that Jesus was trying to lay down in a way that we would never forget it? How many lessons might there be in his actions?
The gift of this Holy Week is that we each get to struggle with what Jesus and God are trying to burn into our minds through Jesus’ actions during this week. As we walk with Jesus through Thursday, Friday, Saturday evening and Sunday morning we have the chance to listen and dwell on the words of scripture as individuals, and then collectively, to try to hear God’s messages. Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer who died far too young wrote “Inspiration is not about some disembodied ethereal voice dictating words or notes to a catatonic host. It’s a collaborative process, a holy give-and-take, a partnership between Creator and creator . . . . God is still breathing. The Bible is both inspired and inspiring. Our job is to ready the sails and gather the embers, to discuss and debate, and like the biblical character Jacob, to wrestle with the mystery until God gives us a blessing.” My wish for all of us this Holy Week is that we all take the 3 opportunity to wrestle with the mystery and on Easter Day find we have received a God given blessing.
1 Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (NewYork, HarperCollins,2007) 2-3
2 Ibid, 4
3 Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible 3 Again(Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2018), xxiiii-xxiv
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