I would like to express my thanks to the Dean of Trinity Hall for the invitation to preach at evensong today. We met last year at a symposium organised by Dr. Sarah Coakley on the subject ‘Towards a contemporary ars moriendi’. The symposium explored ways in which the traditional art of dying needs to be rediscovered and can help our theological reflection and pastoral practice concerning people who are living with dementia. My presentation concluded the verses from St John’s gospel in which Jesus speaks to Peter about his future, ‘ Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go’. (John 21:18) He then invites him to follow him more closely.
As we celebrate the feast of the apostles and martyrs, Saints Philip and James, these words help us to understand the act of surrender that is at the heart of Christian life; surrender to the Will of God and the painful stripping away of our own inadequate understandings and precious plans. Providence led them in ways that they may not have expected, and perhaps feared, as they discovered the meaning of being a follower of Christ. As ones chosen from the very beginning, they came to understand, albeit often in confused and vague ways, the meaning of Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life and the path of discipleship which would follow the way of the cross and lead to martyrdom.
Tradition holds that St. Philip preached in Greece, Syria and Phrygia and was martyred, either by being crucified upside down, or by beheading, at Hierapolis in Phrygia. James, son of Alphaeus, traditionally identified as James the Lesser (though disputed by some today), and described as a ‘brother’ of Jesus, died by stoning in Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus writes, ‘Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he (Ananus, the new high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.’ (Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9).
When Philip and James were called to follow Jesus, they could not have known where the path would lead and the sacrifice to which they were called. Indeed, for any one of us, setting out on a journey of vocation and call is a major choice, but in fact that needs constant renewal every day and involves constant letting go and purification. Choice and surrender link very closely together. The martyr makes a choice to follow Christ but then has to surrender his life as he faces opposition, persecution and death. It is the choice to hand over one’s life to the Will of the Father. For some martyrs, the final decision to surrender one’s life is the conclusion of a process which is founded in conviction of the truth. For others, perhaps a rather frightening invitation, the conclusion of which is not entirely predictable. For St Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, it was an existential decision of love and faith.
At the beginning of his call, Philip’s first reaction to Jesus is one of enthusiasm and spontaneous belief. He tells Nathaniel that he has met Jesus and that he has found the Messiah and leads him to Jesus. In the sixth chapter of St John’s gospel, Philip has to learn to believe in the miracles of Jesus. When Jesus tests him about how the large crowd will be fed, he replies, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ (John 6:7) Philip’s imagination has to be expanded to understand the power of Jesus to feed the crowd by means of the miracle. He discovers gradually the meaning of being faithful and true to his Master’s call and learns slowly about the mysteries of God into which he must surrender. In his final discourse at the Last Supper, Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied’. He expresses that deep heartfelt desire to see the Father and to be one with him and his yearning to grow closer to him in this life in the midst of fragility, brokenness, failure, struggle and sin. Jesus with almost a tone of exasperation replies, ‘have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’
I ask whether we are really very different from Philip. Our response to God is so often one which is rather timid, perhaps doubting, questioning, and seems not to be full of faith. The letter to the Ephesians reminds us of the power of the transformation which God brings about by lavishing upon us his mercy and treating us with compassion so that we are drawn into his embrace of love. We are called to be courageous because of the Holy Spirit sealed within our hearts.
St James is well known for this speech at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). He helps the council to reach its decision that they will not impose circumcision on pagans who become Christians but only ‘write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.’ St James helps the early Church to let go of deeply held convictions and expand its vision and understanding of the implications of the gospel. By surrendering to the Holy Spirit, new insight is gained. The lives of both Saints Philip and James are keen reminders that we rely upon the grace of God to transform our lives, to live truthfully and faithfully and widen the horizons through which we see the meaning of our lives.
As a final glimpse of that vision to which the lives of Saints Philip and James point, I am reminded of the wonderful painting to be found in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Gent; Jan Van Eyck’s, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. There we see a vision of the saints in heaven gathered around the Lamb of God who reigns from the altar. From the side of the Lamb, there flows the blood of the Eucharist into a chalice. In front of the altar flow the waters of baptism. The Lamb of God reigning in glory inspires the Christian to suffer, follow Jesus as the Way and seek to join the saints who sing their song of praise in heaven. As Saints Philip and James laid down their lives for Christ, so their example continues to inspire men and women to be his disciples, being humbler yet, even unto death, so that they may be raised high and given names which are above all names as adopted children of the Father whose name is Mercy. They are numbered in that vast body of saints who worship before the Lamb of God and sing the praise of God as described in the Book of Revelation: ‘Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!”’ (Rev 5:11-12)
The feast of apostles and martyrs today reminds us of those Christian Churches which are being persecuted and suffer on a daily basis in so many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East and the recent martyrs of Christian faith. The recent vote in the House of Commons identifying the persecution of religious minorities as genocide reminds us of the urgent need to pray for peace, build justice together with other governments and nations and the need for the end to violence. We are confident that whilst Good Friday may reign for a day, Easter Sunday will follow.