Saints Philip and James – Br. Curtis Almquist

John 14:6-14

In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of them chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles.  But here I must make a disclaimer: we know almost nothing about them.  This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.1  Nor is this James, brother of Jesus, traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and sometime Bishop of Jerusalem.2  This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.3   This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.

As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles, the brothers Andrew and Peter, and that was Bethsaida, beside the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.4  Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus.  For example, in the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach.  Jesus then asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip.  Philip essentially fails the test.  He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.5  On another occasion Philip fails the test again.  He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”Jesus answers in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”6

At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, neither James nor Philip are named among the faithful few who stayed with Jesus at the cross.  Tradition has it that the two of them finally did understand, and they ultimately followed Jesus to their own deaths.  Where, why, and how they were martyred we cannot be certain.

Given all that we don’t know about these two Apostles, remembered as saints, I’ll make an argument out of the silence.  Neither James nor Philip are remembered among those vying for power and prestige among the Apostles in the early days.  Nor do they hold for Jesus the place of the Beloved Disciple.  They don’t stand out in any way.  Both of them were simply “followers of Jesus,” quite literally.  And this is how I imagine they may be helpful witnesses to us.  All of us here are followers.  Most of us have probably been leaders in some way or other, either for a stretch of our lifetime or for just a passing moment; however much of lifetimes we all are followers.  We are not the greatest.  And when our life is ended, they’re not going to name a building after us, nor carve a marble bust of us to sit in a rotunda, nor write a book in our honor.  Earth to earth; dust to dust; ashes to ashes.  As the psalmist says, “[our] days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”7

I’m just imagining that, following Jesus’ resurrection, Philip and James got in touch with the freedom of their own limitations: simply being faithful to certain givens in their lives – their own identities and abilities, the settings in which they lived and served, the doors that opened to them and the doors that closed, and the opportunities of times past, but no more.  They made peace with their lives, ultimately desiring more than anything else to live life on God’s terms, desiring what God desired for them. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, there is a name for living with this kind of faithful equilibrium: detachment.  Living life with the quality of detachment.

By detachment I do not mean living with apathy, or mediocrity, or enervation.  Nor by detachment am I talking about living life without passion, or zeal, or love.  By detachment, I’m not implying an inability to form emotional relationships with people.  (There’s a recent movie entitled “Detachment,” starring Adrien Brody who is a substitute teacher who just keeps moving on, ever alone, not able to connect with people.)  I don’t mean that kind of emotional aridity at all.  Quite to the contrary.  In the ancient vocabulary of the church, detachment is three things:

  • Living life on life’s terms.  Detachment is not constantly chafing to be somewhere else or to be someone else, but living with a quality of contentment about the givens of your life.  Living your life as a yes.  If “contentment” is not already a word in your vocabulary, try it out.  The English word contentment comes from the Latin, contentus, meaning contained, or satisfied.  To be content is quite counter-cultural.  Our culture has defined us as “consumers,” and – don’t we know? – we are constantly being bombarded with what we need next.  Contentment is about what we have now.  Be really present to your life now.  Accept your life.  Be grateful for your life.  That’s one aspect of detachment: claiming freedom in your life in the context of its limitations.  In life you cannot have it all, and you shouldn’t.  Live your life on life’s terms; live your life as a yes.  Don’t live your life constantly itching for something more, or resentful for something less.  Be grateful for what is.  Be content.
  • Secondly, detachment is living life as something to be cherished, not clung to.  Detachment is to hold your life with open palms, not clutching at anything that gets in the way or that could become idolatrous; not clutching at anything that will not last beyond the grave.  For everything there is a season, and then it passes.8  What are you prone to cling to?  Your good health or physical abilities; your mental prowess, your education or experience, your finances or possessions?  Don’t clutch at any of this.  All of this is taken from us at death, if not before.  Don’t clutch at life; cherish your life like a steward who has been given temporary oversight over much.  And when it is time to let it go, let it go.9  And meanwhile, invest your life’s energies in an eternal portfolio, in life qualities that will last beyond the grave.  In the New Testament, the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Colossians name some qualities to cultivate for all eternity: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”1  “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”11  Don’t clutch at life; cherish your life, holding your life in open palms.
  • Thirdly, detachment is about making right choices in life. Most of us, most of the time have preferences.  Whether we’re encountering a major decision, or the sometimes-endless little decisions we face each day.  We have our preferences, sometimes very strong desires about things, big and small.  And it’s no wonder; God created each one of us with a memory and a will.  Of course we have preferences, and sometimes strong desires.  Having claimed our preference, clarified our hoped-for outcome, advocated for what we think the right decision, the spirit of detachment allows us to both claim our desires and, simultaneously, to recognize that they may not come to be.  Whether it be something large or small, a spirit of detachment allows us to hold our desires in one open palm and, in the other palm, to recognize the outcome might be quite different, maybe even opposite what we hope for or desire, and to be okay with that.

In the sixteenth century, Ignatius of Loyola had his life’s quite-vain ambitions completely dashed by a mortal wound.  Through that wound he found a kind of healing for his soul: an experience of love, freedom, and clarity to attune his desires to what God desires.  Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, came to embrace a kind of radical detachment.  Ignatius writes: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God,” and to do that in every moment of every day.12

Truth be told, I’m not there.  I cannot say that I have fully embraced what Ignatius calls radical detachment, but I’m moving in that direction, and so are you.  You should be.  Why I commend this kind of radical detachment is for two reasons, quite personal: one, my ongoing experience of God’s providence and God’s provision.  God’s way is the way to go.  I’m convinced of it… when I remember.  I sometimes forget; sometimes I fool myself.  The other reason I am finding radical detachment more-and-more inviting is because, left alone, I am a stubborn Swede, and I’ve made a lot of head-strong mistakes.  Sometimes I’ve gotten my own way… and it’s proven to be nightmarish; sometimes I have not gotten my way… and I am so grateful I was spared from what I thought I wanted.  You may have your own version of this.  Ignatius of Loyola writes: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God,” and to do that in every moment of every day.

It’s a high calling, and an enormous freedom, living your life at the fulcrum of a balance between things earthly and things heavenly.  In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called detachment.  And, back to Saints Philip and James, given how they started out with Jesus, and given how they ended up, I’m certain they knew something about this: spiritual detachment.


1 Matthew 4:21; 10:2; Mark 1:19; Luke 5:10.


2 Matthew 13:35; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:18, 19.


3 Matthew 10:3; Acts 1:13.


4 John 1:35-50.


5 John 6:1-14.


6 John 14:1-14.


7 Psalm 103:14-18.


8 See Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”


9 This is an allusion to Mary’s Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods”:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.


1 St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” named in Galatians 5:22-23.


11 Colossians 3:12.


12 Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) a Spanish knight wounded in battle, who experienced healing in both body and soul to become the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate


  1. Karen Hall Wright on July 30, 2018 at 10:17

    Ooh my. Br Curtis. How well you described detachment and how that lives out in obedience to God To me it also speaks of my love for others and myself as I abandon my delusion that I know the answer. This is a message that clearly spoke to my heart.

  2. Geoff Dent on May 13, 2018 at 18:33

    Brother Curtis. Thanks for your thoughtful word–i have been struggling with them for the last 2 weeks, and how that fit into my life.
    Geoff Dent

  3. Ted on May 1, 2018 at 12:02

    Also, radical dependence, the state of staying within relationships and not beyond them, yes full immersion and etiquette to float to our neighbors needs. I would also like to mention that us folks on the Cape refer to this fulcrum as the “kite-anchor model” again, floating just above the surface, between heaven and earth, a mindful and cogent meditation of scooping up handfuls of water and letting it go.

  4. Ruth West on May 22, 2017 at 18:13

    Br.Curtis, I liked your sermon then, and I like it now, two years later. I am two years older, but still quite active. I especially like the opening words about not clinging to anything which would not last beyond the grave. I am in the midst of re-evaluating my “stuff,” especially that which would cause my children to scratch their heads in wondering, “What in the world are we going to do with this?”
    At age 86, I know full well that it is time to view all which I own with an open hand. My treasures are in heaven, “where moth and rust do not corrupt,”
    and I feel more drawn to them daily. Thanks for reminding us that, just as Saints Philip and James did, so should we practice detachment in our daily lives, regardless of our age or circumstances.

    • Billie on May 1, 2018 at 06:33

      Ruth, I always look for your comments which are often mini-sermons and filled with a great deal of wisdom. Your life must surely be a blessing to those who know and love you.

  5. judy on May 22, 2017 at 11:07

    “It’s a high calling, and an enormous freedom, living your life at the fulcrum of a balance between things earthly and things heavenly.” You have put into words my deep struggle.

  6. Rhode on May 22, 2017 at 07:35

    Perhaps …’Seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness’ and all things will be added or subtracted as needed.

  7. anna zilboorg on May 22, 2017 at 07:33

    What a splendid sermon for people looking death in the face! Thanks for it, this cheerful spring morning.

  8. Trish Callard on May 2, 2016 at 11:26

    Brother Curtis
    Your reflection today resonated deeply and tilled the soil, allowing me to look again at where I am and how I want to go
    Thanks for this powerful message that is timely for the chapter I have just started
    Blessings and much gratitude for the presence you have in
    my life
    Trish Callard

  9. Faith Turner on November 2, 2015 at 12:33

    As is often the case, reading this was what was needed today, As I grow older and less able to direct all my outcomes…I get discouraged. This sermon is just what I needed today! I have had a life abounding in blessings. This is due to the love of God and He will continue to care for me on this earth and the next adventure after death.

  10. Jeff Lowry on October 30, 2015 at 11:31

    Thank you . Bro. Curtis. for the interesting and thought provoking sermon. It reappeared on 10/30/15 along with the word “Contentment”. This was particularly interesting to me as only the week before a college friend, with whom I e-mail weekly, and I were discussing the meaning of the words “‘content’ and contented”. We are both in our early 50s and find ourselves divorced at this time in our lives. So we narrowed the focus of our discussion of the definitions of those two words to their implications of being single.

    We reasoned that content meant something possibly temporary. The word “contented ”
    having more permanent implications. Although
    we did not have the authority of your research
    to back us up we defined the words as having similar qualities. To us, one could be content
    for a period of time. The word contented seemed
    to imply a more permanent and deliberate decision process.

  11. Christopher Engle Barnhart on October 30, 2015 at 08:43

    As I grow older and my days ahead are less then my days behind, I find letting go (detachment) of the things I have gathered, my stuff, throughout my life. So, I have begun to give away those things, be it coffee table books which I have a lot of or tools of my professional life as an architect and which I really don’t need any more. I am finding a certain satisfaction in giving these thing away as gifts to family and friends.

    • a city monk on May 5, 2016 at 11:57

      Dear Heart… we elderly can confuse detachment from “downsizing”! There is a woman whose passion is teaching people how to tidy – keeping only that which brings you joy and is beautiful.
      And then there is the celebration of the minimalists both in text and on utube…
      But I wonder if I fool myself with all my need to be in control and the decider are simply hiding behind new and clever camouflage of my pride. Dismantling my ego defenses! is my personal nuclear disarmament program. And reducing my “stuff” as diminishing my “footprint” in a Kyoto agreement on a scale of one.
      I’m just too good at doing everything except the really hard homework that is deeply interior and bears more than low hanging fruit, fruit that is so high up in the Tree of Life that only God can harvest it…

  12. Pam on July 31, 2015 at 11:02

    I am wondering about the distinction between hope and detachment. It must be a matter of degree. Anyone have any insights?

    • a city monk on May 5, 2016 at 11:42

      I’ve not pondered that one… though you offered the question over a year ago. There is the difference between hope and denial… which leads to the discovery of the virtue of hope in Christ rather than positive thinking on steroids…aka denial. With enough magical thinking, Tinkerbell…
      I once raised the question for Buddha… can a person be enlightened and still have a preference for string beans? Hope in Christ… the path of discernment?

  13. Anders on July 31, 2015 at 09:47

    Healing through the wound. Today I can read that with a sense of calm and peace. My church wounds run deep, and detachment sounds contrary to my experience of having my curiosity shamed to spare me from the sin of thinking. Calm and peace to follow the will of God. Period. Not the will of God defined by or despite the Church. Just the will of God, and it is good and enough. Thank you.

  14. RCH on July 31, 2015 at 09:08

    Thank you for the exceptional thoughts on James and Philip — especially the second part on detachment. Am on the way to a memorial service for long-time friend whose last year was very difficult. Lots of healing to be done. I have shared your thoughts with the surviving spouse and will carry those thoughts as a foundation for my own prayers and healing. Thank you again.

  15. Jennifer on May 2, 2015 at 09:57

    “The English word ‘contentment’ comes from the Latin, contentus, meaning contained, or satisfied.” What a paradox! It reminds me of this verse: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” Psalm 16:6

    Much to ponder here. The vast majority of us will be among those ordinary saints, the difference we made known only to a very few. But God knows, and that makes all the difference. And in fact, the church and the world and those in our lives need each and every one of us.

    • Rev'd. James de Fontaine-Stratton on May 2, 2016 at 11:39

      When Fr Donald Harris, Vicar of St Paul’s Knightsbridge was offered, from the PM’s office, a pointy hat, he replied with Ps 16: 6, I believe on a post card!

  16. Margaret Dungan on May 1, 2015 at 16:21

    Thank you Br. Curtis,

    These are very comforting words for someone who has recently turned 80.


  17. Joanne Wilson on May 1, 2015 at 10:20

    love it….since SSJE’s Holy Week offering of Psalm 78,I have been praying to follow the cloud of unknowing,available to daily manna and a table spread in the wilderness.

  18. george on May 1, 2015 at 10:14

    beautiful–thank you—sometimes it helps me to repeat a single line–i like this one, which i think is in Ps 95–“and his hands prepared the dry land”…to think of myself as the dry land, with God’s hands preparing me–for what i never know.

  19. Mino Sullivan on May 1, 2015 at 10:02

    Dear Br Curtis, Thank you for bringing us home with your beautiful message and words. In this fast paced world of multiculturalism and polydoxy, I, for one, appreciate your powerful reminder of where belong.

  20. Maida Broudo on May 1, 2015 at 09:52

    Thank you Brother Curtis for literally pouring a lovely thought provoking and prayer evoking sermon that I will read many times over!

    With love and devotion,


  21. Anne Coke on May 1, 2015 at 09:38

    I’ve always loved a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” about content: The king is wandering in the countryside in mufti and meets two peasants , and one exclaims “If thou be king where is now thy crown?” The king replies, “My crown is in my heart,not on my head/ Not decked with diamonds or Indian stones./ My crown is called “Content”, a crown which seldom kings do wear.”

    • Ruth West on October 31, 2015 at 00:23

      Anne, I like your quote from Shakespeare so much. A good one to remember. Thanks.

  22. anders on May 1, 2015 at 09:18

    Thanks for the reminder from one stubborn Swede to another that we must watch our singular wisdom: the Swedish word for stubborn is envis and literally means one-wise. Practicing the alternative detachment is about ödmjukhet, which best translates to humility, but is directly translated as being soft (or open) to fate. Since the word radical has to do with root, the concept of radical detachment sounds pretty much like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Etymology aside, when left alone, I know I am stubborn enough to maybe see the end of my nose, so I need other to be rooted in the world. The more eyes I can see through and the more shoes I can walk in, the bigger and more wonderful the world becomes.

  23. Dorothy J Smith on May 1, 2015 at 09:13

    Those are healing words brother. Some days, I don’t know if you have any idea how much strength your words have in them. Perhaps that’s a little bit of who those two were, they were the pillars of other people’s lives, which isn’t always the statue in the plaza, but is the support beam of the house. I thank you for being there as a support, your words heal me and often have a transformative grace about them.

  24. Lisa on May 1, 2015 at 08:52

    Thank you for a sermon that hits all of us where we live. Your message resonates for me and reenforces the journey I am taking.

  25. Michael on May 1, 2015 at 08:47

    To be content with what we are and where we are is a work in progress for me and for many I suspect. I often become convinced I am the only one that struggles with this as well as many other issues. “Fooling myself”as Brother Curtis puts it. Thanks for the reminder

  26. Ruth West on May 1, 2015 at 08:36

    Fresh thoughts, indeed. I will mull over them today, with a good dose of self-examination. Thank you.

  27. Br Graham-Michoel bSH on May 11, 2012 at 12:36

    “Neither James nor Philip are remembered among those vying for power and prestige among the Apostles in the early days.”
    I have always thought of these two Saints as being patrons of the millions of ‘ordinary’ saints who faithfully occupy the pews day by day in churches and chapels and private oratories around the world, and who hold God against their bones knowing their own life depends on it, (with apologies to Mary Oliver) – saints who are all too frequently detached from ‘The Church’ but nonetheless are members of it.
    Thank you for your stimulating thoughts.

    • Jan de Hoog on May 23, 2017 at 06:45

      The three comments on detachment are totally clear. One known Buddhist lama said: when I finally had nothing, I realized I had everything. Tis is the contentment that opens the Heavenly Gate. I don’t know if the whole preceeding story about Philip and James has any sense. None of the “historic” events in the bible have ever been mentioned by an historicus, in Jesus ‘times. In fact, we don’t even have historic evidence about his existence. So also the crucifixion cannot be proved historically. I believe that a group of highly spiritual persons, later known as “the desciples” got inspired by teachings coming from the East (Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoim, Hinduism) and “created”Jesus, later named the “Christos”, the Enlightened, so that the lessons from the East could be accepted by Jewish people. They needed the truth to come out of one of them. After all, they were “God’s people”. By the way, “Christos” in Greek, has the same meaning as “Buddha” in Sanscrit, namely “the Enlightened”.

  28. Mike Wood on May 5, 2012 at 16:35

    Thank you.

  29. Patrick Smith on May 3, 2012 at 16:16

    Thank you, Br. Curtis – It really is so much about staying in the now. Focused and cherishing this every very moment. Ignatius Loyola’s comment there full of opposite conditions; illustrating how our minds always want to compare now from then, and tag judgements to them. Just being present, like on the point of the flash of an arc welders’ light, neither back or forward; left or right.

Leave a Comment