Jesus thinks the best of us and believes we will get there in the end

Liz Stuart, 25 July 2021

Jeremiah 45: 1–5; Acts 11: 27–12: 2; Matthew 20: 20–28

I wonder if you have a nickname. Nicknames are very popular in the armed services. My father, when a naval officer, was known by his men as ‘Smiler’ because he never smiled. In my family, to this day, I am known as Wood because from a very young age they thought I was as thick as wood.

One of the things we know about Jesus is that he liked nicknames. He named the rather unstable Simon ‘the rock’, and according to the gospel of Mark he named the two brothers James and John (sons of Zebedee who feature in our gospel reading today) ‘Boanerges’, ‘sons of thunder’. He may even have given himself a nickname, the ‘Son of Man’, the title he consistently uses of himself. I think this reveals that Jesus had a rather dry, ironic sense of humour which was infused with affection. It’s the kind of teasing you can take because you know it comes from being known very well, and with love.

I think Jesus had a rather dry, ironic sense of humour which was infused with affection.

The catastrophic Simon is the rock. These two brothers, James and John, are the sons of thunder. Why? Well, it might refer to their hot-headedness. According to Luke, when a Samaritan village would not receive Jesus, James and John were all for calling down fire from heaven to destroy them. So perhaps Jesus thought of them as the sons of thunder because their reactions were a tad extreme.

Or perhaps the thunder refers to their mum, who we meet in our gospel reading today, who we might describe as ‘slightly pushy’. Now, she ‘gets’ quite a lot. She understands that Jesus is bringing in God’s kingdom and she wants her belovèd sons, who are after all two of Jesus’ closest friends, to have pride of place in that kingdom.

And in that request she shows that, like Simon Peter, she gets it but she also doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand that in the kingdom of God, values are turned upside-down, so that those who are great must be the servants of others, just as the Son of Man (Jesus’ nickname for himself; I’m sure that when he refers to himself as the Son of Man we should smile, because he is obviously a human being but he is so much more than that – the Son of someone far greater than humanity). Anyway, those who would be great must become as servants, just as the Son of Man serves. And neither she, the mum, nor her sons, nor Simon Peter yet understand that to find true life, real life, they must be prepared to lose their own.

Jesus knows that they don’t yet understand this, but he believes that they will. In spite of their frustrating failure to ‘get’ what Jesus is about, despite their privileged closeness to him, Jesus loves them and chooses to think the best of them – that despite all the evidence to the contrary, they will eventually get it.

And they do. James, like Peter, eventually suffers martyrdom, as we heard in our second reading, and his remains somehow end up in Spain and inspire the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage which over centuries has drawn millions of people to follow the Milky Way, trudging over mountain and valley in a sacramental acting out of our journey towards God, a journey which changes us.

Let’s face it, you and I, just like James and John and Simon Peter, only dare to claim the title ‘disciple of Jesus’ because in the face of our chaotic, messy attempts to follow him, he thinks the best of us, he believes that we will get there in the end. I bet he has a nickname for each one of us. I bet mine is still Wood!

And if he treats us with such undeserved and breathtaking grace, the onus is on us to treat others with the same grace: to think the best of them, to believe that they will get there in the end, and to walk beside them on their pilgrimage, because that is exactly where Jesus is. Amen.