Friday, 2 May 2008

Saint Philip and Saint James: two forgotten apostles?

An icon of the Mystical Supper: was Philip awkward with his questions at the Last Supper?

Patrick Comerford

Isaiah 30: 15-21; Psalm 119: 1-8; Ephesians 1: 3-10; John 14: 1-14

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today we commemorate two of the Twelve Apostles, Philip and James. They have been associated since ancient times. An ancient inscription shows the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles in Rome had an earlier dedication to Philip and James. In Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (III, ii, 204), a child’s age is given as “a year and a quarter old, come Philip and Jacob,” meaning, “a year and a quarter old on the first of next May, the feast of Philip and James.” This day has also given us the word “popinjay” for a vain or conceited person or “fop.”

But despite the cultural legacy they have left us, the Philip and James we remember this morning are, to a great degree, small-bit players – almost anonymous or forgotten – in the New Testament, and in the Church calendar.

The Western Church commemorates James the Greater on 25 July, James the Brother of the Lord on 23 or 25 October, but James the Less has no day for himself, he shares it with Philip, on 1 May. Philip the Apostle who has to share this commemoration is frequently confused with Philip the Deacon (Acts 6: 7; 8: 5-40; 21: 8 ff) – but Philip the Deacon has his own day on 6 June or 11 October. Indeed, apart from sharing a day, Philip and James have also been transferred this year because yesterday was Ascension Day.

The James we remember this morning is James, the Son of Alphaeus. We know nothing about this James, apart from the fact that Jesus called him to be one of the 12. He is not James, the brother of the Lord, later bishop of Jerusalem and the traditional author of the Letter of James. Nor is he James the son of Zebedee, also an apostle and known as James the Greater. He appears on lists of the 12 – usually in the ninth place – but is never mentioned otherwise.

Philip the Apostle, not Philip the Deacon, came from the same town as Peter and Andrew, Bethsaida in Galilee. When Jesus called him directly, he sought out Nathanael and told him of “him about whom Moses ... wrote” (John 1: 45).

Like the other apostles, Philip took a long time coming to realise who Jesus was. On one occasion, when Jesus sees the great multitude following him and wants to give them food, he asks Philip where they should buy bread for the people to eat. We are told Jesus says “this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do” (John 6: 6). Philip answers unhelpfully, perhaps in a disbelieving way: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little [bit]” (John 6: 7).

When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life ... If you know me, then you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14: 6a, 7), Philip then says: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisified” (John 14: 8).

Satisfied?

Enough?

Jesus answers: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14: 9a).

Yet, despite the near-anonymity of James and the weaknesses in Philip, these two men became foundation pillars in the Church. They display total human helplessness yet become apostles who bring the Good News into the world. Indeed, from the very beginning, Philip has an oft-forgotten role in bringing people to Christ. Perhaps because he had a Greek name, some Gentile proselytes came and asked him to introduce them to Jesus.

We see in James and Philip, ordinary, weak, everyday human men who, nevertheless, became pillars of the Church at its very foundation. They show us that grace, holiness and the call to mission and ministry come to us not on our own merits, or as special prizes to be achieved. They are entirely the gift of God, not a matter of human achieving.

In our mission and ministry, we need not worry about our human weakness or that others may even forget us. God sees us as we are, and loves us just as we are. It is just as we are that we are called to and sent out in mission and ministry.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This reflection was shared in the college chapel at the Holy Communion on 2 May 2008.