First Evensong of S James Sunday 24 July 2016 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for First Evensong of S James Sunday 24 July 2016

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

The bones of apostles ended up, according to tradition, in unexpected places: St. Andrew on the coast of Fife in Scotland; St. James the Great in Compostela, almost at Cape Finisterre, the end of the earth, in rainy North West Spain.

During the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela, was one of the great pilgrim shrines of western Christendom.  In recent decades the pilgrimage has been revived. Each year tens of thousands make their way there on foot or bicycle, staying in pilgrim hostels along the way. Others get there in air-conditioned coaches – but the real pilgrims tend to look down on them as mere tourists doing it the easy way: spared the sweat and sore feet! 

Those who go to Santiago, do so for a whole variety of reasons; some explicitly religious, others more vaguely spiritual, others still because it is a way of having a cheap walking holiday. There is nothing new about this.  As we know from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales, medieval pilgrims were a pretty mixed bunch too.  Courts could even sentence offenders to go on pilgrimage for various crimes.  In an age without a prison system, it was a sort of medieval ASBO (an Anti-Social Behaviour Order); a way of getting trouble-makers out of a community for a time so that they and those they had offended against could cool down.

In iconography, saints who died for the faith are usually depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom: the sword which we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles. “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.  He killed James the brother of John with the sword….”  Acts 12.1

But in churches along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago, you encounter two different images of St. James:

1. As a pilgrim; portrayed with hat, staff, water bottle and bag, cloak and the scallop shell which identified the pilgrim.  Even after the Reformation in England, this was still sufficiently remembered for Sir Walter Raleigh to use it in his poem “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.             Sir Walter Raleigh

Today’s pilgrims with their rucksacks and Goretex and Norwegian walking poles, or their mountain bikes and lycra,  may often have less clearly religious motives than their medieval forebears, but many still carry the pilgrim scallop shells.

2.  But in Spain, you encounter another and very different image of the saint: Santiago Matamoros – St. James the Slayer of the Moors.

According to legend, Saint James appeared as a warrior mounted on a white horse and holding a white banner to help an outnumbered Christian army defeat a much larger Moorish force at Clavijo in the 8th century. So James became known as “Matamoros”. He became the patron saint of the Reconquista – the centuries-long struggle to retake the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim Moors, which would only be completed with the fall of Granada in the 15th century.  

Such an image is increasingly seen as controversial and insensitive today. The Chapter of Santiago tried to remove it from the cathedral some years ago but there was a public outcry. Now the slain Moors beneath the hooves of the saint’s horse are discreetly concealed by an arrangement of flowers.

The Spain of the Reconquista was the scene of conflict between two religions and cultures: a clash of civilizations. Its conclusion would soon be followed by the expulsion of the substantial Muslim and Jewish populations unless they converted to Christianity: an early form of what we have come to know as “ethnic cleansing.”  The Spanish Inquisition spent more time seeking to root out those suspected of remaining secretly Jewish or Muslim, than it did suppressing protestantism.  Spanish society found itself unable to cope with difference.  Just as Islamist groups now cannot tolerate difference.

This was the kind of conflict people in Europe thought, in a rather superior secular way, we had left behind. Why we should feel so superior when our more recent conflicts, fueled by ideology or national rivalries, have been even bloodier, is a question worth asking.

To the surprise of many, ours is an age which has seen the re-emergence of religious conflict. Our political leaders, raised in an increasingly secular culture, struggle to understand this.  And we whom they represent do so too.

In the Middle East, Christians are being persecuted – driven from their homes, murdered and raped. Communities which have survived almost 2000 years are being deliberately destroyed. The murderous representatives of the Islamic State are just as keen to kill other religious minorities, homosexuals, and even fellow-Muslims who do not share their version of the faith.

The language of martyrdom is often heard on the lips of Islamist terrorists to describe those who perish in Jihad, in holy war. It buzzes around the internet to lure young people, school kids even, from families and schools in our own country to join their cause.

However, there is a crucial difference between these people’s understand of martyrdom and the Church’s which we need to be clear about and to make clear to others.  For Islamist ideologues, who combine faith with ideas of revolutionary violence, taken in fact from the political extremes of left and right in Europe, martyrdom is entirely compatible with the taking of the lives of those considered to be infidel. So suicide bombers who blow themselves and others to bits on buses or trains, or fly aeroplanes into buildings, or drive a truck into holiday crowds in Nice, where a significant number of those who died were in fact Muslims, will be rewarded in heaven. 

The Christian understanding of martyrdom is a very different one: The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’.   The martyrs are those who remain faithful in their allegiance to Christ, their witness to him, even to the point of death.  The martyr’s witness to Christ is a sharing in the suffering and death of the one who came not to take the life of others, even those of his enemies, but to give his own life for their sake.  Christian martyrdom is about the giving up of one’s own life, the shedding of one’s own blood, not that the taking or shedding the lives and blood of others.

In the United States and here in Europe, we are seeing the emergence of dark forces which preach hatred, fear and division; which seek to build walls – in one case quite literally – rather than bridges.  They set out to demonize whole groups of people on the grounds of their religion or race. There are even those who claim that they are doing this in the name of Christian civilization.  

James and his brother John, the “sons of thunder,” as Jesus nicknamed them to reflect their temperament, wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village which had refused to extend hospitality to Jesus because he was a Jew, but Jesus rebuked them.

Can we imagine Jesus doing anything else to our latter-day sons of thunder and those who applaud them?