The call to follow Jesus is a call to share in his glory, but it is also a call to suffering. Unless one understands this double dimension, one can hardly be a good Christian. Today, the Church celebrates the feast of a great saint. His life perfectly helps to understand this implication of being a Christian. This saint is St James the Apostle. He was one of the sons of Zebedee and among the first disciples of Jesus, together with his brother John. He was popularly called James the Greater in contradistinction with another disciple of the same name. James was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D. His painful and gruesome death did not deter the Apostles from pushing forward in their mission but rather energized them to keep suffering for the cause of the new faith. Two things emerge from the life of James: the first is the closeness to Jesus, and the second is the indomitable will to forge ahead despite difficulties.
Closeness to Jesus
The Gospels do not tell us much about the life of James, apart from his close relationship with Jesus. This closeness defined the rest of his Apostolate. James was among the three disciples closest to Jesus, as they were called the “disciples of the inner circle.” The three were Peter, James, and John. They were all called together as fishermen. Jesus usually took them alone as close companions in very significant moments of his ministry. Most important of which were: the Raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration and the Agony in Garden. In this way, they were specially prepared more than the other disciples to understand the real sense of the identity and ministry of Jesus.
Indomitable Will to Forge Ahead
The closeness of James to Jesus gave him, together with his brother, the extra audacity to go the extra mile for Jesus. One cannot forget the brashness of the two brothers in Luke 9:54. They urged Jesus for power to call down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan village that refused them passage on their way to Jerusalem.
We find another incident in today’s Gospel from Matthew 20:20-28. The mother of James and John plead with Jesus that the two sons sit one on his right and the other on his left in his kingdom. The woman probably thought that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to establish the kingdom. The two disciples, however, exhibit their indomitable spirit in this context. They express their willingness to swim with Jesus through the tide by drinking the cup that Jesus would drink.
It was not surprising, therefore, that James was the first of the Apostles to be killed for the sake of Jesus. James and his brother John understood that closeness to Jesus was a source of power. But they also understood that it was a source of suffering. They were ever ready to embrace both aspects of the new life. This indomitable will is what is needed to follow Christ in a complex, difficult world.
Closeness to Christ
We find this in the first reading of today from 2 Cor 4:7-15. The Apostle Paul says that the closeness to Christ makes us overwhelmingly powerful despite the fact that we are as weak as earthenware vessels. With such tremendous power from God guiding and guarding us, we can never get discouraged in the midst of suffering. We may face opposition and difficulties from all sides, we may face persecution and assault, but we never despair. This is because the one we follow is the Lord of life.