Sermon: The Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) – 3rd May 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   Isaiah 30:18-21; Psalm 19:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; John 14:6-14

 Today is the feast day of two apostles: St.Philip and St.James, and I thought I would begin with a quick quiz about them. You don’t have to write down answers or even call them out. Just see which questions you know the answer to.

Firstly Philip. Which Gospel tells us most about Philip? In the Book of Acts, to whom did Philip speak on a road in the desert?

And then there’s James. What was the name of James’ father, and his brother? Which Gospel tells us most about James? And which book of the New Testament did he write?

I have to confess that these are trick questions. For there are actually three or four James in the New Testament, and there is a similar number of Philips. There is James the son of Zebedee and brother of the apostle John, both of them amongst the closest of Jesus’ apostles. And there is James the brother of Jesus, who became a great leader of the early church in Jerusalem, and was probably the author of the letter of James. And there is James the younger or James the Less, who is referred to in Mark 15 as a son of someone called Mary. This may be the James we are thinking of today. We don’t know for sure.

Apart from that, we just find James’ name in the lists of apostles in Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. This James is almost an anonymous apostle, an also-ran.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you would have to say the same for Philip: quite a different person from Philip the deacon in the Acts of the Apostles. This Philip is simply one of the apostles, undistinguished beyond that.

But in the Gospel of John, he turns up on a few occasions.

In Chapter 1, Jesus calls Philip to come and follow him. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and brings him to meet Jesus. Before the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, Philip informs Jesus that six months’ wages would not be sufficient to feed the huge crowd. Jesus however seems to have that under control! In John 11, some Greeks come to Philip asking to see Jesus. Philip checks this out with Andrew, and only then do they take these Gentiles to see the Master.

And then we have our Gospel reading for today, from John 14. Jesus has said those famous words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He goes on to say: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Philip is a bit baffled by this. I think he has worked out that Jesus is saying that God is his Father in a special way. But he still doesn’t get it. “Lord,” he says, “show us the Father, and then it will all make sense to us.”

Jesus is obviously disappointed how spiritually slow Philip and no doubt the others seem to be. “I’ve been with you all this time, and you still don’t really know me! To see me is to see the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. What I say is what the Father says. What I do is what the Father does. To pray to me is to pray to the Father.”

Philip seems to be earnest and devoted, but he also seems not to be quickest on the update amongst the apostles. In fact we would have to say that nothing that we know about Philip and James suggests that they were outstanding apostles. Perhaps we are not surprised that they don’t get their own feast day each: they share this day with each other!

But I’m glad that there are people like Philip and James amongst the apostles. I suspect that most of us are more like Philip and James than Peter or John or the other James! We are ordinary followers of Jesus, not outstanding leaders. We struggle and get it wrong and misunderstand: Jesus often has to be patient with us. But he continues to love us and to stick with us. And let’s remember of course that even the outstanding apostles had feet of clay – we know that.

However, there are also traditions indicating that both Philip and James proved to be faithful and effective witnesses for the risen Jesus. Stories suggest that Philip served in Greece, Syria and Turkey, and was martyred for his faith in Hierapolis, a city near Colossae and Laodicea which we may be familiar with from other parts of the New Testament. Similarly there is a tradition that James served the church in Egypt and was executed in that land for his faith. Each of the apostles had their own stories: some of these we know, and many of them we do not know.

The important thing to keep in mind is that we are all different. Some followers of Christ do great things: they lead great churches, they do outstanding missionary work, they become respected public figures, they achieve great things as they serve people in need. But by definition, most of us are not outstanding. We just trust in Jesus. We seek to follow him in our own circumstances – to help others, and to bear witness to Jesus in our own way. We don’t claim to be particularly special. We don’t try to compete with those who are outstanding. If we’re wise, we are thankful for these people rather than resentful if they attract more attention than we do.

After all, we need to keep a healthy perspective. Our significance, our real value doesn’t depend on how outstanding we are. We all matter. We are all made in God’s image; we all have the Holy Spirit at work in us. We all can serve Jesus in our own way, and Jesus is happy to do his work in the world through us, and people like us. We don’t have to be outstanding before Jesus can use us for his glory, and for the blessing of others.

It is good to give thanks for those of whom we read in the scriptures, and for those who have brought blessing to many as outstanding servants of Christ. As Anglicans, we remember those who are traditionally described as Saints, but we also remember that according to the scriptures, every follower of Christ is a saint – one of God’s special people. We honour the great saints of old, and we appreciate what they did, and we seek to learn from their faithful and effective examples. But we remember that they are only saints, just as we are.

We don’t pray to them, because we can pray freely to God our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ his Son. We don’t devote ourselves to them, or put our faith in them, because it is Jesus who is our Saviour, and theirs. They are fellow members of Jesus’ family, but it is Christ whom we trust and serve and follow.

We might learn from them, and obviously do learn from those saints who were authors of the scriptures. But what we learn points us not to them, but to God our Father and Creator, to Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, and to the work of the Holy Spirit, God with us and at work in us day by day.

In our reading from Isaiah, we read of the teacher who will truly show us the way, and call us to walk that way. Ultimately Isaiah points not to himself as God’s messenger, but to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life, the one who truly reveals God to us.

In our Psalm, we look at the created universe, and especially the heavens and the sun, and acknowledge how they speak to us of God the powerful and wonderful Creator. If we continued through the rest of the Psalm, we would see how the Psalmist points to the law and teaching of Moses, and to the scriptures, as telling us more about God and his purposes for us. And again, ultimately they point us to Jesus, who reveals God to us uniquely in his very being and life.

In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we are reminded of those who were witnesses to the resurrection. Here James is mentioned amongst those who saw the risen Lord, but this is probably James the brother of the Lord – fairly sceptical about Jesus’ claims during his ministry, but convinced by the resurrection that Jesus is indeed Lord.

And then in today’s Gospel, we see Jesus as the one who reveals God to us, and indeed opens up the way to God for us. We have not had the chance to see Jesus face to face, but through the Holy Spirit, we have God’s presence with us always.

Let’s appreciate the apostles, and learn from their example and their message. But let’s focus on Jesus who is truly Lord and Saviour. Let us faithfully respond to his call to trust and follow him. And let us rejoice in hope, looking forward to that day when we too shall see Jesus and his Father face to face, and share fully in the life and love of his eternal kingdom. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver