Where is the right side of Jesus?
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, … just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Today, we are celebrating the Feast of St. James, our patron saint. There are other men named James in the New Testament: James the Just, the half-brother of Jesus, who came late to discipleship; James, son of Alphaeus, one of the twelve disciples named in all three synoptic gospels; James the Less, who well… might be one of the above, but no-one really knows for sure.
But our James, the one for whom this church is named, is James the Great. He is James, a son of Zebedee, and the brother of John. He is the first James of the two Jameses in the twelve disciples.
Jesus found James and John by the Sea of Galilee. They weren’t obvious choices for greatness. They led simple lives as fishermen. Mark and Matthew tell us that they were in their boat, with their father, mending their nets.
Look at the bottom of that window on your left. Do you see three seashells near the bottom? These scallop shells are the symbols of St. James. In the narthex is a small red with three more shells. That stained glass is the featured image on our webpage.
“Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And with those words both James and John left everything behind. The brothers were often ambitious and emotional and suggested that their enemies be dealt with through violence. Perhaps this is why Jesus nicknamed James and his brother John the “Sons of Thunder.”
And although the Twelve Disciples comprised an exclusive group among the many followers of Jesus, James, John, and Peter formed an elite inner circle around Jesus.
This trio of apostles witnessed things that the other disciples did not. They saw the raising of the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official who sought out Jesus for her healing. They witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. And only these three—James, John, and Peter—were invited by Jesus to accompany him for private prayer and conversation at Gethsemane.
Perhaps this special status contributed to the rather large egos of James and John, much to the annoyance the other disciples. In Mark’s gospel, the sons of Zebedee approach Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Their sense of entitlement is so great that they believe that they should sit directly beside Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In today’s gospel reading, it is their mother who does the asking. You may have heard the expression “helicopter parent.” Helicopter parents hover over their children, intervening in various circumstances to ensure that their children are given opportunities and accolades. In what might have been the original helicopter parent episode:
The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and she asked for a favor. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
To sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus. Do they even know what that means? Greatness? Sure. Glory? Yes. But perhaps not the greatness and glory they have imagined.
Soon enough Jesus will have men positioned on either side of him. Two bandits will be crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
To sit next to Jesus, is to follow him on a path of humiliation, and pain. “Can you drink from the cup I am about to drink.” Jesus asks. You better be sure because this is the cup of suffering and martyrdom.
To sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus, is to follow him on a path of lowliness, humility, servanthood.
Today’s gospel passage comes on the heels of the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard, when Jesus tells them that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” And just before that, Jesus tells them the Parable of the Rich Young Man and assures that “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This is a radical message that seems to turn conventional thinking upside down. And Jesus repeats this message over and over.
When the disciples wonder about whom among them will be the greatest, Jesus steps in to tell them that they have it all wrong. True greatness, Jesus tells them is “whoever becomes humble like a child.”
He warns them of the scribes who like to walk around in their long robes, and everything they do is done for show. Jesus offers another vision of humanity. He offers a model of servant leadership, which has nothing to do with power or personal gain. It has everything to do with humility and service.
Jesus was not saying that hierarchies of power did not exist. They did, and they still do, exist in the world of humans. It’s just that Jesus measured greatness differently. What Jesus was doing was creating a complete reversal of cultural values.
To measure greatness by lowliness is as much of a countercultural statement to us in the 21st century, as it was for the disciples.
We live in a culture, which values status, power and wealth. We define success in politics, business, careers, academic achievement, etc. is by such things as power, pay scales, pecking order, and grades. Humility and servitude are most definitely not how we define success. We admire strong leaders; not servants.
Now power and privilege are not inherently bad things. Power and privilege can be used to the great benefit of society, to bring about social and economic justice.
However, the competition for power, wealth and status can lead to dangerous thinking. It can distort our perception of those who are different from us. It reinforces a dichotomy between the “haves” and the “have nots.” It creates divisions between those who are like us and those who are not, between those who share our values and those who take a different worldview. The pursuit of earthly power and status can blind us to the value of every human being.
But that’s not the way it will be with you, Jesus told the disciples and tells us. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant of all… just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
James started out as a humble fisherman and ended as a humble martyr. And in between, he learned that to sit at the side of Jesus is a lowly place. Ego and pride must be sacrificed. Greatness is indeed found sitting near Jesus, but Jesus lowered his right and left hands in service to all of humanity.
Are you able to drink from this cup? Indeed, James drank deeply from the cup.
Tradition tells us that after the death of Jesus, James took his ministry to the Iberian Peninsula and brought the good news of the Gospel. To this day he is considered the Patron Saint of Spain. And while his brother John died of old age, James was the first among the apostles to be martyred. He was arrested in Jerusalem, by orders of Herod Agrippa, and publicly executed.
The Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—in northwest Spain leads to the shrine of James the Great, where legends holds that the remains of our patron saint are buried. Pilgrims have humbly walked this journey for millennia.
James the Great may be our patron saint, but he is not featured on the great window behind me. Nor is he on the back window. Nowhere in this sanctuary does the image of James appear at the right hand of Jesus. For all of this greatness, you will not find an image of him anywhere in this nave.
You must walk to the narthex. There in a small and unassuming window is the solitary figure of James. You probably have walked by it many times without noticing him. But there he is, the first window on your way into this sacred space and the last window on your way out into the world.
And is that fitting? The humble small image of James is marking the boundaries for us between this church and the world, because the Way of St. James is not inside this building but out there, in the communities of Hendersonville and beyond. The right and left hands of Jesus are out there at the Hendersonville Rescue Mission, out there at the Storehouse, the Thursday Thrift Shop, Safelight, the Carpenter’s Club. Out there at the Interfaith Assistance Ministry, Medical Loan Closet, the Boys and Girls Club, at hospitals, hospices and home. Out there at all the places and in all the ways where the people of this congregation faithfully and humbly serve.