Reading Matthew 20.20-28
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
An old sermon of mine reveals an international survey conducted in 2004 about religious attitudes. One question asked, ‘Would you die for your beliefs?’ Pakistan, largely Muslim, scored highly; so did Nigeria, where you find a mixture of Muslims and pretty committed Christians. The UK scored – more modestly.
The poll was taken after the invasion of Iraq but before the July 7th bombings; before Boko Haram in Nigeria, before Fusilier Lee Rigby in London, before Syria and the so-called Islamic State. How would the scores turn out now, I wonder? And what would they signify, when the question may be a good indicator of present mood but no predictor of the future? How do you know whether, in the event, you really would be prepared to die for your beliefs, if you had any choice in it? Perhaps some who said Yes would find that they could not, whereas some of the Noes might surprise themselves.
I once met an Army chaplain who had been part of the first Iraq war. When they went to draw their kit before deployment the quartermaster told the chaplains they had a choice of shirt: the usual, bespoke one with a cross, the chaplain’s insignia, sown on to the lapel; and a standard issue shirt with a detachable metal cross. the quartermaster explained that, if they were captured by the Fedayeen, who would single out Christian ministers for special treatment, they could – well – detach it, and improve their chances. He chose the sown-on one because he didn’t want to have the choice of laying down the cross.
This evening we celebrate the Feast of James the Apostle (the actual feast day was yesterday) and we meet him in the reading with his brother John. First, though, we meet the lads’ mother, the pushy parent (a species not unknown in these parts) who asks Jesus if her boys can have the best seats in the kingdom of God as Jesus’ right-and-left-hand men.
This does not immediately mark out James and his brother as contenders for the Courage award at speech day (in Mark’s version of the same story they do at least ask Jesus themselves) but anyhow, when Jesus hints at what this means, James and John tick the Yes box: they assure Jesus that that they will commit themselves to him: ‘Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?’ ‘Yes, we can.’
Really? Soon Jesus will be offered a cup of drugged wine, given to the condemned to dull the pain of execution.
He will be nailed up on a cross, but those at his right hand and his left will be two other criminals. James and John will be nowhere in sight.
God wants you and me to be committed Christians, to commit ourselves to Christ with no holding back, to drink whatever draught is put in our hands because we walk with him. Each of us can make that commitment, many of us have. But if I offer my heart to Jesus with no holding back, I cannot make that decision once for the whole of my life. So weak is my heart that what I give wholeheartedly today I may take back faintheartedly tomorrow.
Trusting God is a thing that has to be learnt. As a Christian of our own era has put it, ‘Many tears, much shame, continual repentance, this is the lot of those who pledge themselves to God.’ It is a pledge you learn to keep by breaking it, because that is how we learn to distrust our own strength and trust in God’s alone.
And God does not let us down. I cannot nail my colours to the mast and commit myself to God, with no going back. But God – nailed undetachably to the cross – committed himself to me and to you; and on that day there was no going back. And it is by going back, again and again, to the foot of that cross that we find our true strength.
Perhaps James (whom we especially thank God for today) found that strength. Eleven terse words in the Acts of the Apostles tell us of his fate (Acts 12.1-2): the cocky disciple who dodged the draught his master drank was indeed to die, by sword of king Herod, who ‘laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.’ James was among them, because in the event he was known to be a committed Christian.
Many tears… Austin Farrer, ‘Committed Christians’, The Essential Sermons (SPCK, 1991) page 183.