James – Leaving It all Behind

Matthew 20:20-28

First Baptist Church · September 21, 2014

One of the most interesting church characters I have ever met was a man named Bob who was a member of the small church I pastored while in seminary. Bob was a good man, but, he had a number of quirky characteristics. He struggled socially, hated crowds, wanted no roles of responsibility yet loved to do behind the scenes chores and oscillated between being very involved one month and completely off the radar screen the next.

What was remarkable to me however was that most of the people in the church loved Bob and accepted him exactly the way he was while I struggled in my first year at the church to either figure him out or understand him. Yet, the longer I was there and the more I got to know Bob and his history, the more I began to appreciate him. As best I recall, he was an only child who had lived with his parents until they passed. He was a veteran of Vietnam and had seen extensive combat. Needless to say, he remained heavily affected by that experience. And, his only true love, with whom he had been engaged, died suddenly in a tragic accident.

Being a bit of a loner and living much of his life alone, struggling with depression from his war years and the loss of his fiancé had crafted him into the person he was. People in our church knew all of this and so they knew how to take Bob, how to love him and how to involve him in appropriate ways in our life together. For me, it was only as I learned more and more of his story that the daily actions of his life began to make sense to me.

In turn the more I got to know Bob, the more his life made sense. When he was gone for a several weeks in a row, I didn’t worry. He was just withdrawing for a time. When a committee opportunity came up, I knew not to ask Bob to participate even if it was something in which he was very gifted. Yet, when a small job around the church needed to be done that only required one person working alone, I knew it was a perfect job for Bob and that he would welcome it. And, when he eased into church, sat on the back row and left without speaking to anyone, I knew he wasn’t mad at me or upset with the service. Rather it was just Bob being Bob.

All of us have had these types of experiences and relationships. All of us know what it is like to meet someone that we are not sure how to relate to at first or who we quickly form opinions about because of initial, surface conversations. Yet, we also know what it is like to learn their background, history and story. When we truly know someone, we often come out on the other side with a different feeling and altogether different opinion of them and their actions.

Many of Jesus’ twelve disciples fit squarely into this category. In many cases, we know their names but we don’t really know them. In turn, it is hard for us to understand fully and completely the stories that the New Testament tells us about them. At the same time, what is equally interesting is that in many cases, the gospels drop clues to us about a number of these same disciples in regards to where they came from, what factors shaped the ways that they thought and acted and what led them to be the unique people that they were. As a result, when we recognize some of these personality traits from the gospels, they often help us to put the stories we do know about the various disciples into a much different light.

The disciple James is a classic example of what I am talking about. On the surface, it appears that we know very little about James. He is not really the star of any of the gospel stories where he appears. Even though, along with Peter and his brother John, James was one of the three disciples who made up Jesus’ inner circle, he as an individual remains a mystery in many ways. Sure, we see James at the transfiguration and James was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane during the night of praying and agony prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. But, again, he is more or less just one character among others in these stories while never really distinguishing his own self in any profound way.

Having said that, there is more in the gospels about James background than one might imagine and much of the information we have can help us paint a picture of him. From what we know, we can be fairly certain, that James and his brother John came for a higher place in society that many of the other disciples. Their father Zebedee was a fairly successful commercial fisherman. We base this on the fact that the gospels tell us that along with his sons that Andrew and Peter as well as other hired men worked as fisherman for Zebedee. In the Biblical era, this was unusual. It was far more common for one’s business to only include the members of one’s own family. Thus to say that Zebedee had outside peope working for him tells us a lot about his success and the environment that James likely grew up in.

It also appears that Zebedee had connections. Again, this comes from the gospel story. Whether through business dealings or because of social relationships, Zebedee and his sons apparently knew the High Priest in Jerusalem. This comes from the story of Jesus trial before the High Priest at the time of his death. According to the story as found in John 18, James’ brother, the disciple John, was allowed to enter into the court of the High Priest along with Jesus because he was acquainted with him. Most scholars believe this acquaintance came his way because of his father Zebedee.

What does this all mean? Well, it means that if James and John did indeed come from a family of at least some wealth and some privilege then it easily explains why Jesus referred to them as “sons of Thunder” or a bit of hotheads for they likely grew up getting their way and were predisposed to do whatever it took to maintain this type of status quo. It also explains our story for today where their mother Salome argued with Jesus that James and John should be seated at his left and his right in his coming kingdom which the disciples surely expected to be an earthly rather than a spiritual kingdom.

You see, the struggle of James was that he came from a high place in life and even though he was quick to embrace Jesus as the Messiah, he struggled with overcoming the temptation to see his relationship with Jesus as a way to benefit his own self and to help maintain his own standing in life. Rather than a discipleship focused on service and the advancement of God’s agenda for the world through his son, James apparently struggled with making following Jesus more about advancing his own agenda.

This morning, I want to make one basic point. The struggle of James is our struggle. It doesn’t matter if we come from wealth or power or not. Is our faith about giving our lives to pursuing and advancing the agendas of God through the leadership of the Holy Spirit or is our desire to follow Jesus really more about advancing our own agenda? Is our life of faith focused on what we can do for the Kingdom of God or is it focused on what God can do for us? Are we opening ourselves us for the Holy Spirit to go to work in our loves, changing us, shaping us, refining us and calling us to a deeper level of obedience and discipleship? Or, is faith merely a way for us to further our outer façade in a continual masquerade of looking good, appearing to be about the right things in life and positioning ourselves to receive the blessings, favor and approval of others?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Being a believer is in part about what a relationship with God can mean for us. And, it is about the good life that God wants to offer us. But, discipleship is also about advancing the name and work or our Lord not about advancing ourselves. Again, if we are honest, this is a struggle for most all of us.

There is a wonderfully powerful story that gets at this struggle. It is about a King who one day was preparing for a long journey. Before he left, he called his most trusted servant before him. He told this servant that he had only one request before he departed. He shared that he loved his home and his property more than anything else in his life. As a result, his only request was that his servant do everything within his power to protect his property. No matter what else happened, if he could come home and his land still be safe, he would be happy.

Many, many months later, when the King returned, he was stunned to see in front of him the most beautiful stone fence he had ever seen. The wall encircled his entire property. It was beautiful but it was also imposing and virtually unable to be penetrated. Smiling from ear to ear, the servant met him at the gate and the King thanked him and celebrated him for what he had accomplished. Yet, when the King walked inside the gate, he was so overcome by what he saw that his joy quickly faded to utter sadness. For the servant had almost completely dismantled the king’s castle in order to build the wall to protect the king’s property. The stones of the castle were the very rocks that had been used to construct the fence. A fence had been built, but once constructed there really was not all that much left to protect. (This story originates with Joel Gregory, professor of Preaching at Truett Divinity School)

Jesus said it this way, “if we gain the whole world yet loose our soul” what have we really gained? Said another way, if we allow the gospel to be about building a great façade for ourselves as we advance our worth, our standing our importance, yet slowly allow our soul to fade away on the inside what have we gained? Certainly we can build a great reputation and high standing, but, if we really have lost the soul of the gospel in the process have we really protected anything of any worth?

The wonderful thing about James is that he finally got over himself. He finally understood discipleship in the best way. Somehow, he finally recognized that while following was about discovering a good life for himself, it was also about obedience no matter where it carried him. How do we know this? We know it because of the twelve disciples, only one is mentioned in the Bible as having died for his faith. Sure legends have been built around the martyrdom of virtually all of the disciples. But, the Bible only mentions one explicitly. You guessed it – the death of James as found in the Book of Acts.

In the end, James was able to move beyond a gospel built on advancing his own name. The question is will our own lives of discipleship allow us to overcome the same dangerous possibilities? Amen.