Sunday 1st May 2016
Philip and James, Apostles
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Isaiah 40.27-31
John 12.20-26

Last week my 84-year-old mother fell backwards from the 4th of a steep flight of stairs and bashed the back of her head. The bottom-most stairs were not covered by a grab rail so we naturally shut the stable door after the horse had bolted but, shaken though my mother was by her fall, she insisted that the new rail must not be white whereas she has taken months not to buy a lamp because she cannot find one with a white flex. As she gets older she becomes ever more particular about the nature and arrangement of physical objects, showing me what I will become if I don't watch out. I'm quite bad enough now!

This obsession with pattern is the 'down' side of our greatest strength, just as the exaggeration of most virtues or strengths becomes a vice: we can love too strongly, strive too hard or say too much just as we can love not strongly enough, fail to strive or keep silence when there is something we should say. To be passionate about moderation might be dismissed as a cliché but we would all, individually and collectively, be better off if we held to clichés instead of ridiculing their glibness.

But the pattern obsession is, I think, more than a genetic propensity; it is part of our need to control our lives and our environment and so, taken to excess it is a very particular kind of pride bred by a culture which is obsessed with precision, which cannot live with ambiguity or mystery.

To this world, the Apostle James, whose Feast we celebrate this evening, is an irritating enigma. For a start, there are two Jameses in the list of Apostles: James the Son of Zebedee who had a brother named John and James the son of Alphaeus, who is our James, neither of whom should be confused with James The Brother of The Lord although, consulting Biblical commentaries on the internet, there are many which fail properly to distinguish between the three. This James, often referred to as "The Lesser", or by some other diminutive, is only mentioned in the Gospels in lists of Apostles, and is supposed to have been crucified in Egypt. Philip, on the other hand, has some lines of his own in the Gospels although he hardly shows to advantage. Tradition says that he was crucified upside-down with Saint Bartholomew in Hierapolis from which position he preached with such effectiveness that the two saints were pardoned but Philip refused his reprieve. I should mention, particularly for the benefit of those who are deeply sceptical of tradition, that Philip's tomb has been found recently in a re-discovered basilica in Hierapolis.

Now the acute among you will have noticed the serious flaw in Philips's story because, in effect, he was made a saint for committing suicide by insisting on remaining on his cross when he should have got off it to go on preaching the Gospel but it is that very inconsistency which should attract us because, as I said earlier, we can have too much of a good thing. Too much consistency leads both to rigidity and to pride, an obsession with control over our surroundings, over other people and, ultimately, over God. To parody Desert Island Discs, if all but one of the Seven Deadly Sins were swept away, which would we have to keep as the root of all the others, and the answer for me would be pride because all sin asserts our implicit or explicit assertion that we know better than God or choose not to follow God's will.

But, conversely, we can have too little of an attribute as well as too much: thinking again about the Apostles, we tend to think of one individual as being the John who ran to the tomb and the John who died at the beginning of the 2nd Century on Patmos; we tend to think of one person called Paul writing all those letters; and we tend to lump all the Apostles together, other than Peter and, if you count him, Paul. But to generalise unduly from inadequate data is yet another manifestation of control and imposition which, if anything, is worse than the obsession with detail because it is much more easily and widely accomplished. A case in point is the current tendency to generalise about Muslims subtly, or not so subtly, associating them with terrorism. A much more long lasting and widespread generalisation is that which associates the poor with fecklessness, which blames them for their own poverty. I loathe the term "hard working families" because it implies that the unemployed are responsible for their enforced idleness but I also deplore it because it marks out "family", by subtle implication, for praise and, in the term "hard working" it fails to acknowledge the large number of wealthy people who don't work at all and the vast number of the wealthy who work much less hard than the poor on the minimum wage. We can see, from these cases, that the way to unpick wild and self-justifying generalisations is through the presentation of detailed evidence. It isn't enough to say that the division between the rich and the poor is widening, you have to grasp the arguments of Wilkinson & Pickett*, Thomas Picketty* or John Kay.

And so, as in so many other things, there is a middle way between an obsession with detail and an obsession with generalisation but, perhaps because of my temperament, I am less worried about the first than the second. And when I think about those whom Jesus left behind, I have a soft spot for those who went on their perilous ways to death without the benefit of the chronicler.

Incidentally, the acute among you will also have noticed that it would be more logical to pair Saint Philip with Saint Bartholomew rather than with Saint James 'The lesser' but, what the heck! Amen

Wilkinson & Pickett: The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Good for Everyone, Penguin, 2010
Piketty, Thomas: Capital in the Twenty-first Century` Harvard University Press, 2014
Kay, John: Other People's Money: Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People? Profile, 2016