Among those many stories of Jesus that we love to hear, there are literally no examples of Jesus helpless with laughter. We know that he wept. We know he got angry. But we never ever hear that he laughed. This might, of course, be because we human beings often add a measure of unkindness to our jokes...or because he was never surprised by anything...or simply because the four evangelists didn’t think that tales of the Messiah sharing a joke with his friends would help them to win souls for God’s kingdom. I am not sure that's altogether right - but there we are.
But – we do know that he teased those same friends gently from time to time….particularly in his choice of nicknames for them. There’s Peter more rocky than rock-like – yet nonetheless capable of providing a firm foundation on which to build the Church...and then James and John Boanergese … the sons of thunder. Two men intent on making a noise – on being noticed – even when they were frankly missing the point and rather out of their depth.
So here they are – approaching Jesus. along with their mother, with a special request: to be marked out as particular favourites, with the best seats in the house when Jesus comes into his kingdom. They really should have known better. Perhaps you've read that Christian bestseller, "The Shack". I didn't love all of it, but I absolutely have to applaud the way that the author presents God, in each of her conversations with humanity, as reminding each individual
“You are my particular favourite”.
I guess Jesus was like that with his friends – but that wasn’t enough for the lads. Or their mum (but then, I recognise that pushy mother syndrome lurking in myself too – so I can’t be too cross with Mrs Zebedee) Much like the spiritual toddlers they were, they wanted recognition. "Jesus! Over here! Pick MEEEEE"…and Jesus wanted them to face up to this as he asked them
“What do you want me to do for you?”
It’s a question he asks again and again.
He asked it of those coming for healing.
He asks it of us too - as we come with our different needs.
"What do you want me to do for you? What are the deepest desires of your heart?"
Think for a moment. What would you say if you heard him ask you that question?
I suspect that actually our deepest yearnings are pretty much universal. Aside from superficial desires, we all long to matter – to make an impact on our journey through life – to know ourselves accepted and beloved for who we are. And God wants that s for us too – but he wants it for us in ways that are good for us, and good for the world. We’re not just here to make a noise – to be notable because of the fuss we make. We can stop jumping up and down and yelling to make God notice us...or practising attention-seeking behaviour ...worrying that if we don't we will be somehow overlooked.
We don’t NEED to be children of thunder for God to attend to us.
God sees us and God loves us...
God sees and loves you.
YOU absolutely and incontrovertibly matter to God – so let us try to abandon attention-seeking behaviour and relax into that truth.
And then we can listen, as God calls us to do great things, in sharing that love, in serving others, in building the kingdom in this time and this place, exactly where we are planted.
We can see in James and John’s desire to sit beside Jesus in his glory, how our deeper, spiritual, genuine, yearnings get tangled up with the ambitions of the world. And that’s kind of reassuring really, specially if, like me, you find yourself sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I know I like to be liked. Human approval matters more than it should...so I'm glad that we can see the disciples as, quite honestly, a pretty ropey bunch, as liable to fall over their own feet and create waves of chaos as to radiate the love, joy and peace that are the gifts of the Spirit.
But for all that, God works in them and through them…
James and John gradually get the message…as they watch Jesus live it out.
Though they have no idea what lies ahead when they eagerly protest that they CAN share their, Lord’s experiences and drink his cup, as they see him washing their feet, as they run and hide to avoid the way of the cross, they begin to understand what he has been talking about all along. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many"
Then they meet their risen Lord and in due time are transformed by the coming of the Spirit, empowered to make a big noise for Christ, in proclaiming the Kingdom.
And so today we celebrate the feast of James the Great. Not James the self-seeking. Not James the mother’s boy.
James the Great – apostle and inspiration.
And we think of the thousand upon thousand pilgrims who make their Camino, journeying across Europe to pray at his shrine. Let us travel with them in our hearts and minds, prepared to answer the question that our Lord still asks of each of us
“What do you want me to do for you?” and to answer honestly, knowing our own frailty, of course, but knowing too the reality of his surpassing love.