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
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