Today we celebrate the roles played by Saint Philip and Saint James as apostles to Jesus, although we don’t really have much to go on. In the case of James, he’s one of a number of James mentioned in the New Testament. The list includes James the son of Zebedee who was frequently mentioned alongside Peter; there’s James the Just, called “brother of the Lord,” who’s described as an important leader in Jerusalem; and then there’s James the writer of one of the New Testament letters. But the James we celebrate today isn’t any of them, and in fact, besides his being listed as an apostle, that’s the only other thing we know about James, who he wasn’t. And so he winds up getting stuck with the somewhat inglorious title James the Less.
As for Philip we know a little bit more about him, thanks to the mentions he gets in the gospels, although the story today doesn’t exactly paint the most flattering picture of him. So basically we’re celebrating Philip the one-who-still-doesn’t-quite-get-it and James the Less. And we don’t know if they even got along when they were alive so we can only hope that from their heavenly perspective now they appreciate being lumped together.
It sort of reminds me of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are portrayed as fairly incompetent spies for Hamlet’s uncle, and we never learn anything about them aside from how they serve to move the plot along. And when they’re no longer needed we’re told rather simply and unceremoniously by a messenger that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is also the title of a play by Tom Stoppard, and in that play Stoppard explores what Hamlet would be like seen from the point of view of those two minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are portrayed as drifting through life, not so much making choices about anything, but rather allowing themselves to be blown about on the winds of fate, or more to the point, by the strokes of Shakespeare’s pen. Every once in a while their lives intersect with a major scene from Hamlet, but otherwise they seem to fumble about behind the scenes never aware of what the larger story is that they’re a part of. They’re just average, or even slightly below average jars of clay unwittingly fulfilling Shakespeare’s designs.
Now, Philip and James are also dead, but we celebrate their lives today, these just average or even slightly below average apostles spreading the good news in ways they may never have even understood. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they were chosen to play small, bit parts in a larger story. And that can serve as inspiration for us as Christians, because all the world is God’s stage, and in this story called life we all have parts to play. Maybe we’re not playing Hamlet, but even the small roles of spreading the truth of Christ’s love in the world are vitally important in God’s eyes. And anyway, just like in a Shakespeare play, whether you’re playing Hamlet or Guildenstern, James the Greater or James the Less, everyone makes that final stage exit in the end.
And between now and the time of our passing from this earth our only real option as disciples of Christ is to surrender to the will of the One writing the story. If we suffer the illusion of being in control of even minor details of the plot, or the choice of whether to turn right or left, we’ll probably be disappointed. We’re not even in control of whether the gospel we’re spreading, by word, deed, or presence is heard or veiled. We just listen closely to the author of all there is, and then play the part that ‘s written for us, sharing the light and love of Christ in the world as only we can. And so we practice being quiet enough, practice being still enough, to hear a small voice whispering from the wings saying “this is the way.”
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