Following in the Way of Saint James

Following in the Way of St James: a reflection for the feast of St James

Paul Smith

Acts11.27-12.2;2 Cor.4.7-15;Matt.20.20-28
Jewish Joke:  Jewish people tell this joke: A non-Jew asked his Jewish friend, “Why do Jews always answer a question by asking another question?” To which his friend replied, “Why shouldn’t we answer a question with another question?” The mother of James and John, the twins whom Jesus nicknamed Boanerges meaning ‘Sons of Thunder’, came to ask Jesus a question. Well, it was more of a request, but it was to ask if her sons could have favoured places in his coming kingdom. Jesus replied by asking “Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” That may seem a bit of a puzzling answer, but we’ll see what Jesus’ response meant as we think more of the situation they

On the Way

This is the immediate situation they were in: Jesus and his followers (which wasn’t just him and the eleven men disciples but a considerable “camp following” as you might  call it: various women  folks who supported them and no doubt others apart from the twelve disciples) were on pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, something that devout Jewish people did when they were able – principally to celebrate the Passover near the Temple. Of course, we know that this was to be Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem because it was there that he was to be arrested, condemned to death and crucified. From there he would begin his journey back to his heavenly Father’s side and when he taught about the kingdom, it was this greater kingdom of heaven which he really meant. Despite his trying to emphasise that he was expecting the worst when they got to Jerusalem, the disciples were still unable to really take in what Jesus meant.

The gospels all tell us how often the disciples misunderstood Jesus and expected triumph  and victory as they followed him in feverish expectation. Just before James and John’s mother’s request, Jesus had taken his twelve disciples to one side and tried to get through to them what would really happen to him once they arrived in Jerusalem. The message didn’t really sink in and perhaps in private conversations the twin’s mother got a sense of something extraordinary about to take place. So she tried to get in before any rivals and put her request to Jesus. Perhaps it was at the behest of her twin sons, as the other ten disciples were angry with James and John for trying to shoulder their way in to the top jobs. Jesus stepped in and had a stern lesson for them all to try and take in, regardless of whose side they were on: whoever wants to be great in the kingdom of heaven must become the least, the servant of all. The only way to truly follow Jesus is to follow his example and be prepared to give up your life for the sake of others. The kingdom is always turning our human values upside down.

The Way of St James

There are many legends about the saints and some of the stories about St James take us a long way from what the Bible has to say about him. For instance, James is the patron saint of Spain and you know how keen I am on the pilgrimage to Santiago. Legend has it that St James preached on the Iberian Peninsula in 40CE and  then  his remains were transported to north western Spain after his martyrdom. Much later, his figure became a rallying point for a beleaguered Christian community who forced the Moorish rulers back to southern  Spain in the 12th century. Nowadays we find it hard  to understand  and impossible to accept that a saint should be used to support the idea of fighting battles and using violence, but people in those days saw things differently. We can see another way in which St James has been misunderstood in the many stories there are of him being prayed to for protection or intervention. It is a huge sadness and a great irony that on the day before St James’ day lastyear, the worst rail disaster to hit Spain for forty years, happened just outside Santiago, the city so dedicated to his memory. Why wasn’t he there to stop the tragedy happening? I’m sure you’ll recognise that the whole picture is much more complicated than that and it is perhaps best to leave it to the investigators to figure out why the accident happened. But we should pray for all affected, for those who lost their lives so suddenly and for those who’ve had to deal with the aftermath. After all, whether or not the legends are true, the cult of Santiago has been a way in which many people have made a journey towards finding faith, wholeness and a new meaning or purpose in life.

The Way of Christ

I  could  have shared  a lot  about  Santiago, pilgrimage and  the many meanings that James has in the lives of the millions who go on pilgrimage to Compostela. I have chosen however, to concentrate on what the Bible has to say about St James. I feel it is important to take the message of Jesus to heart and to make sure that if we follow the way of St James, it is only because we are following the greater way in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We need to remember his words that whoever would be great in the kingdom must be servant of all. Christ is the greatest because he gave his life as a ransom for many. Ultimately we are called to follow Christ, although the means by which we do that may vary and be enriched by other saints and spiritualties.

The Call to Follow, the Call to Listen

So what else do we know from the Bible about James? The first time he appears with his twin is when Jesus calls them from their father Zebedee’s fishing business to follow him. They were among the first four to be called along with Peter and his brother Andrew. They were part of the close inner  circle of trusted  disciples with whom Jesus shared some of his most intimate experiences. They were taken in to the privacy of the room where Jesus healed the daughter of Jairus. They were reprimanded for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritan village where they were refused hospitality. They were witnesses of the transfiguration and then James, along with Peter, played a prominent if brief leading role in the early Church. As our reading from Acts tells us, James was beheaded. Experts date this as 44CE. It isn’t clear from Paul’s writings whether he knew of James’ visiting Spain or not. In all of these scenes, the lesson is clear: humble service and not glory is the way to follow Christ. Even at the transfiguration, the real lesson wasn’t how glorious Jesus would be, but that it was a time that showed Jesus’ true glory was in the death of the cross. James, John and Peter wouldn’t truly understand what this was all about until after the resurrection. God’s way is sometimes hard to understand.  Why, for instance, did James get beheaded whilst Peter got out of jail by a miracle? We may not see it this way, but in the 4th  century John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, suggested that this was the ‘cup from which James would drink  or share with  Christ’.  This was the  honour  of being counted worthy of martyrdom. In the 4th century they looked at things the opposite way round to us!

They might  have asked:   “Why did  God  honour  James with martyrdom and leave Peter to suffer only years later?” We don’t know, but it is clear that Peter went on to have just as significant a ministry as Paul in the early days of the Church. For instance, through  the conversion of Cornelius, gentiles began to join Jews who followed Christ.


On the 25 July we celebrate the feast of Saint James, the patron of this parish. I don’t know why the name was chosen, apart from it being a popular name for parish churches throughout  Britain. But we can refresh what James can mean to us. There are three things in particular to draw from the Bible’s story of James. First, that he was called to follow Christ. Secondly, he witnessed some of the most important moments in Christ’s life and ministry on earth. Thirdly, he was the first apostle to be a martyr for his faith. How does this apply to us? Well, I’m not going to suggest that we are all for the chop in the same way as James! But we’ll come to how that third aspect of James may apply to us in a moment. Taking things in order, the first is the call to follow Christ. Have you, like James, heard the call of Christ in your life? “Follow me!” says Jesus. Does that describe your life? Even in the face of opposition or misunderstanding (similar to the things St Paul described in today’s reading : We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; 2 Cor; 7-15), would you say “I am following the call of Christ!” Second, James witnessed Jesus’ life. He had to learn the hard way that these things didn’t mean glory but led to humility and service. Those things led to the third: to be a martyr means to be a witness. The ultimate witness is to give up one’s life in order to stay true to what you’ve seen and live by. That is what it means to be a martyr. We can so easily drift off course, get distracted from our true path and forget what set us off in the footsteps of Christ in the first place. Let us resolve, both as individuals and as local church communities, to live faithfully after the call of Christ. As we follow him, we will witness his work in our lives and community. Let us ask not for prominent places but that we may be faithful to what we witness of the work of Christ in our lives! And may we humbly serve all whom we meet, who live in our community or visit us! And lastly, next time you ask me a question, I might just answer you with another question!


Paul Smith a CSJ member is vicar of St James, New Bradwell, Milton Keynes

Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 126 pp. 5-8

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