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Who Shall Separate Us (St. Matthew 20.20-28)

St. James the Elder, Apostle

Eighth Sunday after Trinity

“Who Shall Separate Us”
Seminarian Brendan Harris, Vicar  

St. Matthew 20.20-28; Acts 11.27-12.3; Romans 8.28-39

25 July 2021


Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus ✠ Christ; Amen.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” This is the question the Apostle asks us today. “Who shall separate us?” Well, many things seem to separate us in the short term. Time, geographic distance, language, culture, politics. Sometimes someone can be right next to you but be emotionally far away. This past year, separation has been mandated by a minimum distance of six feet, which resulted in unnecessarily harsh and anti-social policies. Although we are healing now, a gulf has opened up between all of us, and we must take care to bridge it.

Our reading from Acts also has a lot to do with separation. King Herod separates the head of Saint James from his body with a sword, and he separates Saint Peter from his brothers by means of chains and a prison cell. The world will not cease to try and separate us, whether it literally be our heads from our bodies or by forbidding us to be together.

Yet these forces have no power over us. As the Lord said to Pontius Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” The Lord will not lead us into temptation more than we can bear, He will deliver us. Yet, it was His will that on that day long ago, Herod would have his way with James. But it was not yet Peter’s time, so the Lord sent an angel to spirit him out of harm’s way. Thus is the way of the Lord.

Now, the James in question today is commonly called “Saint James the Great,” or the Greater, or the Elder, or as the TV show The Chosen dubs him, “Big James.” This is in order to distinguish him from the other apostle named James who is commonly called “Saint James the Less,” or Lesser or Younger or Little James, and he was a relative of Jesus and presided over the council of Jerusalem later in Acts; his feast is celebrated on May 1st. James the Great is the brother of the apostle John, the evangelist, and together they are the sons of Zebedee, dubbed the “Sons of Thunder” by the Lord. They, like Peter, were both fishermen and the son of a fisherman, Zebedee. And with Peter, they were the three most important apostles, they were Jesus’ inner circle. When the Lord went up to the Mount of Transfiguration, he brought three disciples with him: Peter, James the Great, and John. When any apostle is singled out for honor, it is almost always these three.

And so this is why James and John ask this presumptuous question of the Lord in our Gospel today. Yes, it is their mother who asks it—who is Mary Salome, the wife of Zebedee—and she asks, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But the Lord rightly perceives who the real petitioners are, that this is in the hearts of James and John, and so he answers them: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” If you look at a Bible of the King James tradition, it goes further in the traditional manuscripts, for Jesus adds, “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

What does this mean? What is this cup, what is this baptism? Just before this saying is recorded in Matthew, Jesus predicts this: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” The cup that the Lord will drink is the sin of the world, that He might be crucified and raised on our behalf, this is as it was prophesied of old in Psalm Seventy-Five: “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and He pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” The Lord drank that cup of sin, He took it on Himself, so that we who were wicked would not face that wrath.

But the Lord also speaks of another cup in Psalm One-Sixteen. This is traditionally prayed before receiving the chalice in communion, which you can find in your pew rack: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” But that Psalm continues, making a further connection, “I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all His people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. O Lord, truly I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant, and the son of Thine handmaid.”

The cup of salvation is followed immediately by the mention of the death of the saints, neatly parallel with our Gospel reading. Even though this cup is the greatest blessing for our salvation and an honor, there is a death involved. But this death is a death to sin, it is that same death experienced in Baptism, in repentance, in the life of a Christian. We can take the cup of salvation that Jesus poured out for us, because He drank the cup of wrath, that it might be fermented in His dead body like a vat, and turned into the great life-giving drink for us, an eternal vintage of pinot de sang. As the Lord says, “I am the true vine, and the Father is my vinedresser.” And because we imbibe the true wine of the cup of the Blood of Christ, and by it are inebriated with His salvation, we too can bear the fruit of serving our brothers and face the cross and sword when they come.

Thus, Jesus replies to James and John, “You will drink my cup.” He tells them they will receive His salvation, but James will follow His example more literally. For as we read, James drank the cup of martyrdom, and he was baptized in his own blood for the Gospel of Christ at the hands of Herod. John too drank this cup, and the Romans tried to kill him when he preached in Rome, they threw him into a boiling cauldron of oil, but the Lord preserved him and instead he was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he went on to serve us with his writings.

And so this, dear brothers and sisters, this too is our cup, for that cup is Christ, it is His love, and it is His example. It is a love which follows Him and braves every cross and sword and trial, a love which so casts out fear that it bends the neck down and begs the sword to take its blow; for death cannot separate us, rather it brings us closer to God. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints,” this is the call of every Christian to live ready to die witnessing to the faith, whether it be martyrdom by the sword or by long-term sickness or by old age, we are still called to render to the Lord a precious death; for in that death, like James, we water the Church with our blood that the harvest may abound.

And so I ask again: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” You, dear brothers, are here to drink His cup, the cup of salvation, and so you are dead to sin and the world, it has no power over you. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” You walk the way of a Christian, the way of Saint James, and in the pilgrimage of this life, though you may find yourself separated from your brothers, our God will not leave you alone. The Lord your God is with you, wherever you go, and where He is with you, so are your brothers and sisters; God will always place someone before you to serve. And the prayers of the saints in heaven and on earth will always be lifted up to help serve you; even if you are locked behind iron bars, nothing will stop the Lord’s angels. Whenever you receive the cup of Jesus’ love, you commune with God and you commune with each other, wherever you are, and with your family on both sides of heaven. Truly, who shall separate us, when the veil of death is not even a barrier for our God?

With this message, my beloved brothers, I leave you. You have all been wonderful to me this year, as your vicar, and I will cherish the times we shared forever. The Lord will reward you for the love you have shown me, Thy unworthy servant. For we truly are family, it’s not just a cute saying—we are family in the Blood of Christ, even though you did not know me until a year ago, we are flesh and blood in faith and I love you all. It may well be that I never see some of you again in this life, and that is okay: I will not weep, for when the life to come dawns upon us, all of us will get to know each other better than we ever could here, and truly nothing will separate us ever again. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In His ✠ Name; Amen.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus; Amen.


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