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Sunday 25 July 2021: James the Apostle

Service and greatness

Jeremiah 45:1-5; Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20–28

by Peter Moger

Priest-in-Charge, St Peter Stornoway (Scottish Episcopal Church)

Context: a small (30-35), gathered island congregation of largely older people at the Sunday Eucharist

Aim: to draw out Jesus’ teaching on service as the mark of greatness

Seating plans can be a nightmare. There are established conventions for formal dinners—the most important guest on the host’s right hand, and the second most important on the left—and for wedding receptions, though there are always tricky political decisions to be taken as to which guests should, or shouldn’t, be seated together.


Today’s Gospel sees the mother of James and John ask Jesus to grant her sons the favour of sitting either side of him ‘in his kingdom.’ We can imagine James’ and John’s acute embarrassment: they are adults, established members of Jesus’ circle, and along comes their pushy mother, making an exhibition of herself by kneeling in front of Jesus to plead their cause – and a spurious one at that!

The Gospel writer doesn’t record, though, that James and John complain; it seems that they were quite happy with their mother’s claim for superior status in the kingdom. Jesus sets the record straight. He asks whether they are able to drink the cup he is about to drink. They reply that they are, and Jesus confirms that this will indeed be the case. James - whose festival falls today - was martyred, probably in AD44: killed by the sword on the command of Herod Agrippa in an attempt to wipe out the Christian faith by assassinating its leaders.



It’s clear, though, that James and John have little idea at this stage that God’s kingdom is about the world’s values being turned on their head. Jesus might have taught that ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’ (Matt:19.30), but the penny simply hasn’t dropped.

The other ten apostles feel righteous anger at James and John’s claim for superior status. Jesus, though, appears to be less angry than concerned that, despite having shared in his ministry and heard his teaching, the apostles still don’t understand what genuine service looks like. Jesus contrasts the values of the world (‘rulers of the Gentiles’ who lord it over their subjects) with the values of the kingdom. Among them, he stresses, whoever wishes to be great must be a servant (20.26).


The word Matthew uses for servant is diakonos, from which we get the English word ‘deacon’. A deacon, in church parlance, is a minister of Christ. ‘Minister’ is itself a Latin word, used to denote a servant, inferior assistant, or attendant. This sense of inferiority is important: minister comes from the same root as minus meaning ‘less’. In other words, servants (or ministers) are those called to be less (not more) important than the ones they serve: a timely message for any following a calling to ordained or licensed ministry.

But, more pointedly, Jesus goes on to say that whoever wishes to be first among them must be not only a servant but a slave (20.27). The Greek word used here is doulos, which resonates strongly with the ‘Song of Christ’s Glory’ in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:

[Christ Jesus] ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness’. (Philippians 2.7)

This self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ – forsaking his heavenly glory to share fully the human condition – is the most powerful expression of upside-downness that there is. In his exchange with James, John and the other apostles, Jesus underlines this by pointing to himself as the prime exemplar of service:

‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,

and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew: 20.28)



Jesus has made his point, and Matthew doesn’t record the apostles’ reaction. We can imagine, though, that it might have been one of stunned silence, as the profundity of his words sank in, and the shallowness of their disputes and jockeying for position are seen for what they are.

It would be some time, though, before James, John and their companions would begin to understand the full significance of Jesus’ words. The extent of Jesus’ service and self-emptying becomes clear only when we hear his words in the light of his death and resurrection. We know that James was a witness to that resurrection, and it seems that in the ten years or so that followed, Jesus’ words had taken root and bore fruit.

We have the advantage of reading Jesus’ teaching in the light not only of Good Friday and Easter but of 2000 years of Christian history. Human nature, though, remains as it ever was, and the lesson learned by James is still to be taken to heart.

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