It is a strange world, isn’t it? When we were colleagues in the diocese of Durham, I once remember Alison coming to visit and saying that, as Local Mission Adviser to the diocese, she felt that she then had the very best job in the Church of England. Well, I remember responding, that can’t be right, because I feel that, in my role as Vicar of St James & St Bede Gateshead, I have the best job in the Church of England! Now she’s about to have a new job, and, for myself, why, I’ve probably now got one of the best jobs in the Anglican Church of Australia! For being a disciple of Christ, you see, may lead us into all kinds of different roles and places.
Perhaps that is part of the point of marking the feast of Saint Philip and St James today. For who are St Philip and St James?...
In Philip’s case, we know a little more. John’s Gospel is particularly helpful in saying that Jesus himself spotted Philip, although Philip, like the other disciples was still very slow to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ life and call. From the Acts of the Apostles, we also know that Philip was a powerful sharer of the Gospel with others beyond the Jewish Faith. Perhaps his Greek name suggests that this was a special gift he had and that Jesus chose him precisely because he could connect with people of different race, faith and language. Certainly he seems to have been instrumental in a powerful coming to faith of a highly significant Ethiopian man. The story goes that Philip also had three, perhaps four, daughters who followed in his footsteps and were powerful sharers of Christ’s good news with others. For it may have taken us a little while to get to female bishops but women have been at the forefront of sharing the good news from the start. As with Philip’s own very likely sticky end, we do not however know all the details.
So, how does that make you feel? Do you think it is a bit crazy to mark the feast of Philip and James when we know so little about them? Perhaps, it is, on one level of history, but I wonder whether our Faith hasn’t got it right. For our Faith is not just, or even mostly, about the big names but about every one of us who are disciples, who follow in the steps of Jesus. Like my friend Alison, it really doesn’t matter what we are doing: whether we are the lowest of the low in the world’s eyes, or the highest of the high. What does matter is whether we are followers: whether we centre our lives on Jesus. If we can do that, God will do the rest, and we may be quite amazed where that takes us. Every thing we do is then the best job of all.
The feast of Philip and James is also, to my mind, important today for another reason. For these days you will sometimes find people asserting that Jesus never existed at all and that all the stories, about him are mere fables – as are people like Philip and James. How very odd that is! For whilst people can rightly argue that there is no knock-down proof of God, the historical existence of Jesus is very clear. What we make of Jesus is another thing. We may need to interpret some of his deeds and sayings rather than read all of them literally. Yet if we were to doubt the historical records about Jesus we might as well give up on all ancient history. For there is as much good evidence for Jesus as there are for many other undoubted people of the ancient world. In Jesus’ case, this is all the stronger as some of the evidence comes from Jewish and Roman sources which were quite hostile to his message. Similarly, the varying amount of information we have about the 12 male apostles of Jesus is, for me, another convincing argument for the historical truth of the New Testament. For if the story of the 12 apostles had been made up, it would have been stitched up nicely and told in a clear way in our scriptures. Instead, we are given glimpses of many of the disciples, but we are not told much about many of them, and John’s Gospel doesn’t even tell us the names of all of them. This suggests to me, as a historian, that this is because their stories were not made up. Their lives were real lives and so only what needed to be told was told. To celebrate Philip and James is therefore to celebrate the truth of the Resurrection. It is to rejoice in all those who have become disciples because of the raising of Jesus Christ, whether they became big noises or not.
Who is called to be a disciple? The answer, surprising as it sounds, is any, and all of us. We need no special gifts. If we have them, God will no doubt use them. Yet we don’t need anything, only the willingness to open our hearts and lives to God and to let God’s love and grace live in and through us. Daily we are called, like Philip and James, simply to respond and God will do the rest. Who knows then what we may become. So dare to be a disciple. Dare to be a Pilgrim of God’s Love: in the name of Jesus who calls us, loves and empowers us, and helps us do more surprising things than we might ever dream of doing: in the name of our true guide, friend and lover, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, feast of SS Philip & James, 3 May 2015