‘We are a pilgrim people’…a sermon for St James’ day, Adel Parish Church, July 25th 2021
Today we celebrate the feast day of St James. We know a little about him from the gospels – called from his fishing boat, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, present at the transfiguration, found sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane…then there’s the embarrassing occasion where his Mum asks Jesus for preferential treatment for him in heaven.
Apparently the first disciple to be martyred for his faith, there are stories that before his death James spread the gospel in Spain.
What St James has given us though – probably unintentionally – is a pilgrimage, a journey to a holy place. There’s a legend that James’ remains found their way back to Spain…to be buried in Santiago de Compostela. So from the early Middle Ages, Christians walked there from all over Europe, and the tradition was revived in the 20th century.
Recent years have seen a film, ‘The Way’, and a sort of ‘celebrity pilgrimage’ on TV. Pre-pandemic more than 200 000 pilgrims followed the routes each year.
My experience of pilgrimage is much more modest – across the mud to Lindisfarne…along the coast to Whitby Abbey. But, reading the stories of pilgrims, I think it’s a great metaphor for the Christian life itself. So here are a few reflections.
Pilgrims nearly always set out carrying too much…enormous packs filled with things that seem essential. A couple of days carrying it all, especially in hot weather, soon persuades them they can manage with far less, and what they don’t have, they can trust others to provide.
Pilgrims on what is called the ‘Camino’ often find the most important part of the journey is the people they travel with or meet along the way. Some are companions for weeks, some just brief encounters at a particular point. The physical and emotional challenge of the walk brings people to the same level. Whatever their place in normal life, here they are all pilgrims, and that changes the dynamic of conversation.
Strangely, since the exact route is laid down, people setting off on the Camino, tend not to know where they’re going. Obviously, they hope their feet will get them to Santiago, but they have no idea how their lives will be affected. Pilgrims usually set off expecting to be changed in some way – but with little idea how.
Overloaded, in need of one another, not quite sure where they’re going but hoping for change…possibly a description of many of us on the Christian journey.
We often imagine that to become a Christian, loads of things are necessary. We come laden with guilt or feelings of unworthiness – or think we should; we assume certain types of behaviour, faith and good bible knowledge are needed before we can even begin.
Actually though, on the Christian journey it’s better to travel light. Most acts of worship start with a ‘sorry prayer’… because we always fall short of God’s ways; but also because it allows us to put down our guilt, accept God’s forgiveness, and be ready to move on. Hanging on to guilt stops us from growing.
And the Christian journey doesn’t start with holiness, or faith, or knowledge…it starts with a desire to set off, with a feeling that Jesus is a person worth following, or just by finding something intriguing or attractive in a church building, community, individual. All we need is a sense of adventure, a commitment to the journey, to try it out…God will provide the rest, often through our fellow pilgrims…
…fellow pilgrims who will be an important part of our journey. There are, of course, hermits, people who manage their Christian journey alone, just as there are lone pilgrims. But most of us need to worship, learn and grow with others.
Wonderfully – though the last 18 months have been marked by separation, even isolation – as a church community we’ve increased the ways we share our faith. Through recording for online services, joining discussion groups, posting our children’s ideas on Facebook, our Advent and Lent windows and much more, we’ve shared our faith with one another.
As happens on a pilgrimage, conversations have been sparked that help people encounter Jesus and consider afresh what he means in their lives; new and lasting friendships have been made. But there will also have been fleeting encounters in the churchyard or even ‘second hand’ through the things we’ve put out there, that have brought people closer to God.
Like pilgrims, we too can name our final destination – as Christians we’re always journeying towards our home in heaven. But like them, it’s far more about the journey than the destination. We travel together, we help each other…but ultimately the most important companion is Jesus, it is by encountering Jesus that we are changed.
For me, becoming a Christian has been a life-long journey of trying to walk with Jesus. It started when others invited me to set off…my parents got me involved in church life as a child, but it can happen at any age.
As my relationship with Jesus has deepened, the stuff I thought vital for the journey has reduced…but what is left has become more important, more precious.
Along the way there have been many fellow pilgrims; some brief encounters, some lasting friendships, talking with them about faith has helped me along. And when it’s all been a bit much, when all I could do was show up and put one foot in front of another, then my fellow pilgrims have been there to lean on…until I was ready to set off again.
It’s been said of Christians, that ‘we are a pilgrim people’. I hope so. I hope we as the community of St John the Baptist see ourselves as travellers, moving towards our final destination in God, walking with Jesus and being changed.
Even with all today’s uncertainty, it’s an exciting time to be a pilgrim here. People are coming forward with new ideas of how to build our community and share our faith. Let’s pray for the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as we travel on together.