Saint Philip and Saint James’s Day


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(May 1) 

O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life…
James 1:1-12
John 14:1-14

The identity of James, son of Alpheus (or James “The less”) is difficult to establish because no words are attributed to him in the New Testament and he is irretrievably conflated with “James the Brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19), the author of an Epistle, the first Bishop of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and a “Pillar” of the Church (Galatians 2:9). He is said to have been martyred by the Jews in Spring 62 AD. Philip, on the other hand, is much better represented but only in John: his calling with Peter and Andrew (1:44); his part in the feeding of the 5000 (6:5-7); his mediation with foreigners wishing to see Jesus (12:21-23; his request to be shown The Father (14:8-9). He is supposed to have preached in Greece, Syria and Phrygia and to have been martyred by Crucifixion at Hierapolis. He is not to be confused with Philip the deacon and Evangelist (Acts 6:5; 8:4-40; 21:8-9). There is nothing obvious connecting the two Apostles.

James opens his Epistle with a bewilderingly hurried synopsis of major topics including temptation, faith, wisdom, constancy, liberality and salvation. Not surprisingly, given what follows, James is particularly concerned with practical benevolence and its connection with eternal life, a point of view so inimical to doctrinally radical Protestants seeking an artificial degree of polarity with Rome, that they said that he was unbiblical.

The theme of constancy in James links with the Gospel opening where Jesus tells His Disciples not to be troubled but, on this most ominous of nights, they clearly are. Thomas asks how they can know the way to which Jesus replies that he is “The way, the truth and the life” and Philip asks how they may know The Father, to which Jesus replies that anyone who knows Him knows The Father. The passage concludes with Jesus again reassuring his listeners by saying that whatever is asked in His name will be granted.

Although the theology of the two readings is largely identical, James can look back on the events leading up to the death of Jesus with a degree of tranquillity unavailable to John the narrator. Of all the letter writers James is the calmest, the most straightforward, the most comforting, the least doctrinal, in tune with the dilemmas of daily life; he even makes falling from wealth sound comfortable! John, on the other hand, can only realise his cosmic vision through an intense and often troubled theological enquiry unparalleled even in Paul.

The questions from Thomas and Philip deal with two of the recurring themes in the Gospel, the subjects which are the core of systematic theology, the nature of God and how we know. The answer to the first, the invocation of Jesus as the intermediary to the Father, is complicated in this context by his imminent death; what kind of intermediary can He be when He is no longer listening to His disciples and praying on their behalf to the Father? With our post Resurrection perspective, the idea that Jesus is our Heavenly intercessor is as familiar as was the experience of the Apostles that He was their earthly intercessor. Likewise, our response to the second question, in what way is Jesus “The way, the truth and the life”, has been given a radical post Resurrection meaning which the Disciples clearly could not grasp. To them Jesus was literally what He said He was; His leadership and mission was a matter of experience not doctrine.

Initially, doctrine emerged from experience but as the memory of Jesus became more distant, obscured rather than clarified by secondary sources, the danger increased of the two becoming separated. A Jewish tendency towards uniformity of observance, a Platonic tendency towards abstract perfection separated from rather than built on experience and the tendency of an emerging hierarchy to have its own way in matters great and small coalesced to rank the brokennness of experience below the wholeness of doctrine which was seen as a coherent set of answers rather than garbled questions. The 16th Century controversy over the connection between ‘Justification by faith’ and ‘good works’ is only one example of a tendency to elevate doctrine above experience, a neo Platonic tendency which diverts us from our true purpose as creatures. We were created to love God and, as creatures, this means relating our experience to our personal relationship with the Creator; our dealings with God’s children are dealings with God. We cannot have a doctrine of God which is radically different from our ethic of life. Thus, when we say that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” we must ask how that relates to the way we travel, the truth we tell and the life we live. Here, too, there has been a tendency to try to impose a doctrine of uniformity of response upon the infinite diversity of humanity. Jesus’ reassurance that His Father’s house has many mansions, can, however, be taken too far in the other direction to justify denominational wilfulness and individual self indulgence.

In the light of our tendency to substitute the uniform abstractions of doctrine for the diverse pressure of being human, Philip’s question about the nature of the Father and Jesus’ reply that He is the unique earthly manifestation of the Father, establishes a vital link between what we say as individuals and how it is heard. The incarnation is not simply a Chalcedonian device to square a Greek philosophical circle, it is the vital highway which allows us to walk towards God as he walks towards us.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What are the salient features of the Epistle of James?
  2. How would you explain the saying of Jesus that “In my Father’s house there are many mansions”
  3. In what way is doctrine a question rather than an answer?
  4. What is the proper relationship between experience and doctrine?
  5. Elaborate on Jesus’ saying that He is: “The way, the truth and the life”.

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