Sermon from Archbishop Fred Hiltz for the Feast of James, the Apostle
Sunday, July 26, 2020
The Feast of James, the Apostle
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Assisting Bishop of Moosonee
“O blessed communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet all are one in thee, for all our thine.
Today in that blessed Communion of all Christ’s saints we remember Saint James. He was a fisherman from Galilee who with his brother John was called by Jesus. They had such boisterous personalities that Jesus nicknamed them “Boanerges” meaning “sons of thunder”. Having followed Jesus for some time and having with Peter witnessed how he was clothed with glory on the Mount of The Transfiguration they began to contemplate his future and their own with him. Caught up in the hope of an overthrow of the occupying power of Rome, they see their Master as the new king and imagine themselves as having seats of high rank and privilege. In Mark’s account of the gospel they may ask themselves. In Matthew’s account they make it through their mother. It evokes an awkward silence, broken only as Jesus quietly and intently poses a question “Can you drink the cup I am about to drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” With no thought as to how penetrating that question is and driven by mere impulse and raw ambition they say ”We are able.”
Little do they know at this moment that the cup they will drink and the baptism they will live will be akin to Jesus’ own...a cup of suffering and a baptism of obedience . Jesus uses the moment to teach all the disciples about the nature of life in leadership in the kingdom he is announcing. It would not be about lording authority over others and “putting them in their place” from seats of high rank and privilege. Rather it would be about announcing good news for all, “down on the floor” ministries, humble service.
In time James and John and all the rest would indeed drink a cup and live a baptism akin to their Master’s. Because of their allegiance to Him and his Gospel most of them would suffer the death of martyrs. James was the first to die. In his book “For All the Saints” Stephen Reynolds references a legend that the body of James “was miraculously transported across the Mediterranean Sea and came to rest at Compostella in Spain.” His shrine is a destination of pilgrimage for thousands of people to this day. Honored by all Christians James is especially revered among peoples of Spanish descent throughout the world.
Jesus asked “Can you drink the cup?”Posed for James and John and indeed all the disciples it is in fact for all who would seek to follow him. So the question becomes “Can we drink the cup?”....the cup of trust in Him and obedience to the way he would have us live...Upon reflection it seems to me that this image lies behind the promises asked of us in baptism...
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour ?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?
“Can you drink the cup?” This soul searching question with respect to a life in Christ is the very stuff of a faithful living of our vows in baptism, and of movement into ministries reflecting those vows. It is the very stuff of discernment of calls to ordained ministries and vocations to monastic life. Lovely yet loaded this question is an invitation to consider our life in Christ and all the delights and struggles, joys and sorrows, graces and hopes that come with it.
Pondering the question in the last couple of weeks I reached for a book in my study written by Henri Nouwen. Taking Jesus question as the very title for his work Henri reflects on the cup as a metaphor for the spiritual life.
He begins by recalling his ordination as a priest in July 1957 at St Catherine’s Cathedral in Utrecht, Holland and the moment when he was allowed to touch the Cardinal’s golden chalice. Then he tells the story of his Uncle Anton who was also a priest giving him a chalice adorned with gems from his grandmother’s jewellery. He received it with the condition that he pass it on to the next member of the family who would be ordained a priest. At the time of writing this little book that chalice was still in the sacristy of the chapel in the L’Arche community of Daybreak here in Toronto.The rest of the book is a reflection on what he was learning in L’Arche about accepting the cup of our lives....”holding it, lifting it, and drinking it”. With great delight he shares how the residents of L’Arche were continuing to teach him about what it means to be human, and to be in relation with others.
Of “holding the cup” Nouwen speaks of the “importance of contemplating our life”. He writes “the greatest joy and greatest pain come not only from what we live but even more from how we think and feel about what we are living.” Contemplating our life is an invitation to look at it grateful, critically and bravely.
It might well move us to consider how Jesus held the cup of his life, of his obedience to The Father. It might move us to think of how he held the cup of his own suffering and his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. It might move us to think of how he saw in his own cup the suffering of others who are overlooked, ostracized , racialized, exploited, rejected, abused and trashed. It might move us to hear voices of protest, cries for deliverance, and prayers for mercy with a justice that lasts.
In James and in holy men and women of every age we see a grace and a courage to hold the cup of their own lives and in it to hear their call to tend those who suffer indignities and injustices of every kind.
While Nouwen speaks of the suffering and sorrows in the cup of life he also speaks happily of the joys one sees there- of the occasions for celebration and song and dance. He tells us the importance of parties in L’Arche- of to toasts to this person’s special day or another! to this wonderful moment in the life of the community or another ! to cheers on arrivals and farewells! And to commitments made and renewed! L’Arche has much to teach us all about embracing and celebrating our life together. “For in lifting our cup together “writes Nouwen “we pledge to support one another in our common journey.”
In Jesus act of lifting the cup given him Nouwen suggests we see the promise of God to be in covenant with his people in a very particular way through his Son and the people to be in covenant with one another in Him.
In James and in holy men and women of every age we see servant leaders who enable life in holy and life-giving covenant with God.
Of “drinking the cup” Nouwen helps us to see it “as a hopeful, courageous and confident way of living” , of “accepting one’s life and finding one’s vocation and living it to the fullest...trusting that God will fill it with everlasting life.”
In Jesus we see a drinking of the cup given him not as mere “resignation” but acceptance of all the Father wills for his children through his life, death, and resurrection.
In James and in holy men and women of every age we see how those whose drinking of the cup given them has formed and transformed communities, marked and renewed societies in accord with the breadth of God’s goodness toward all and the depths of the justice and peace he wills.
“Can you drink the cup?” That ‘s the question asked of James and John by Jesus. It’s the question asked before us. I appreciate Nouwen’s honesty in saying “it is the question that will have a different meaning every day of our lives. Can we embrace fully the joys and sorrows that come to us day after day? At one moment it might seem so easy to drink the cup and we give a quick ‘yes’ to Jesus’ question. Shortly afterwards everything might look different and feel different and our whole being might cry out ‘no’...We have to let the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ both speak in us so that we can come to know ever more deeply the enormous challenge of Jesus’ question.”
Well many of you may be thinking we have heard a lot more of Henri Nouwen this morning than of Fred. While I concede that to be true I really believe that on this question Henri is really worth hearing.
In the final analysis Jesus question is an invitation to be in communion with him- not only as individuals, but as communities of faith formed and nurtured in his Gospel for the world. For the invitation and every grace to embrace it afresh, Thanks be to God.