The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
: Jeremiah 45.1-5; Acts 11.27-12.2; Matthew 20.20-28
The lyrics of some songs just stick in your mind whether or not you’ve ever sung them. One song made popular by one hit wonder, Sylvia, in 1974 are these
Oh this year I'm off to Sunny Spain y viva España
I'm taking the Costa Brava plane y viva España
If you'd like to chat a matador, in some cool cabaña
And meet señoritas by the score, España por favour.
That catchy little number has been recorded in so many languages but we Brits love it. Normally at this time of the year I’d be packing my bag and heading off for the Costas to enjoy the Spanish sunshine and all its delights. But not this year for obvious reasons.
So it was wonderful on Friday evening when Spain came to Southwark Cathedral. The Cathedral has been illuminated for this weekend by the Spanish Tourist Board to remind us of just how important a destination their country is. But this weekend was chosen because of the feast that we celebrate today.
St James is the Patron Saint of Spain and for the simple reason that his shrine is in the region of Galicia in the city of Santiago de Compostela – St James in the field of stars.
A few years ago a group of 60 of us from the Cathedral congregation gathered in the basilica. Some had arrived on foot, walking the English route of the Camino. Others had flown in specially to join us, but most of us had been following the route of the Camino, mainly by coach but some of the way on foot. Now I know that there are some in this community who are real pilgrims on the Camino, having walked huge distances in order to arrive at the shrine just as pilgrims have done for centuries. So I blush when even talking about the experience. But one of the joys for us as we walked some of the picturesque stretches were meeting pilgrims on the way.
They’d come from all over the world and were travelling for all manner of reasons, some religious, some simply because they wanted to do it, but all of them equally committed to the journey, however hard it was proving to be. It was humbling and so encouraging to meet these people, some walking alone, others with friends, others with new friends they’d met on the way.
On a number of occasions now I’ve sat in the square in front of the great basilica where St James is enshrined and watched people emerge from the end of the Camino, into the bright sunshine of that space and fall to their knees and weep. Rucksacks and walking poles are cast aside, but what they cling to is the shell that they have been wearing, the symbol of the apostle, the cockle shell that denotes the pilgrim. They’ve walked the path, followed the way, and arrived in this little bit of heaven.
Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road that led from Galilee to Jericho – a long road – a chance for everybody to talk about what it was going to be like when they finally arrived at Jerusalem – their ultimate destination. So when the mother of James and John saw her chance she went up to Jesus and knelt there in the road in front of him.
Can you imagine the embarrassment! There were her two sons holding back – there was their mother on her knees before Jesus and everyone else had stopped walking and was listening in. Parents can be embarrassing at the best of times – but this was dreadful and they knew what everyone else was thinking.
But who could blame her – she only wanted the best for them – she only wanted them to get the best seats, the positions of power, the place at the table. She was only thinking, like anyone would think – but in fact she hadn’t quite got it. She hadn’t quite got this Jesus thing – that the kingdom that he was speaking about all the time wasn’t anything like the kingdom that she had in her imagination; that the power of which Jesus spoke wasn’t the kind of power that she’d experienced up to now.
‘Do not seek great things for yourself’ says the prophet Jeremiah. She wasn’t seeking those things for herself, of course, she was seeking them for her sons, but the principle remains the same. We’re not following Jesus because of what we can get in this world’s terms – we’re following Jesus because we understand that the kingdom that he speaks of is nothing like the kingdoms of this world.
Of course, it was right that this significant moment happened on the road. If you read any of the gospels you get the distinct impression that they’re stories about journey – in fact that’s how the whole of the Bible is. What we read all the time is dynamic – people moving on from place to place – always travelling. Sometimes like Abraham not knowing where they’re going but travelling in faith nevertheless; sometimes like Moses travelling to find freedom, to find what God has promised; sometimes like Paul travelling urgently because they want to spread the good news as far as they can; and sometimes like Jesus travelling because they have nowhere to rest their head and they’re looking to a homeland that is at some distance but which is held out to us.
We are pilgrim people – all Christians. We’re all people who are on the move, people of The Way, as we were known as the early days of Christianity, on a journey and Jesus is always going ahead of us – leading us on. Pilgrimage, journey is our way of being.
The mother didn’t know what she was really asking and neither did her sons – but there on the road as they paused on their journey the truth came home to her, to them and to all the disciples. They were travelling a hard road on which they’d drink from the same cup of Jesus. They were travelling to a kingdom in which power would be exercised in a different way, in which the servant would be the greatest, where the first would be last and the last first. They were journeying to a kingdom in which the Son of Man would kneel at his disciples’ feet and wash them, in which death would lead to life, in which victory looked to the world like defeat. They were travelling to a kingdom in which James would be the first apostle to witness with his life.
No wonder the mother of James and John couldn’t understand, no wonder she got it so wrong. After all so do we! We so easily forget that we’re strangers and pilgrims, with no abiding home – just the one to which we’re looking in the far distance, the one that lies at the end of the road we travel, we forget that the journey can be hard and not the one we were expecting.
And if we want to know what that place is like, that kingdom place, then the greatest description for me is to be found in R S Thomas’ wonderful poem, simply called ‘The Kingdom’.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only, and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
We purge ourselves of desire, the false desires that James’ mother exhibited and simply offer up our need – our need for God, our need to be at home – and the God who travels with us takes us to where we belong.
And to help us on the way God gives to us what we do now – God gives us a foretaste of what things will be like - for this is our staging post on the journey and this is where the kingdom breaks in. This is the pilgrim banquet and whatever your journey is like at the moment, this is the meal for you.