On Saturday 28th October 2017, I licensed Fr Tom Wilson as the new Chaplain in St Raphael. It was the feast day of Saints Simon & Jude – two of the lesser-known personalities who make a brief appearance in the Bible. As Tom begins his new ministry there, and the people who worship at St John’s in St Raphael recommitted themselves for mission and service with their new Chaplain, I wanted to encourage them to see that even obscure saints can be an inspiration.
I don’t know about you, but I often feel as if social media is invading every aspect of our lives. We seem to be suffering from information overload in just about every aspect of life. We tend to assume that we should know everything there is to know about everyone. Even if you are not a Facebook junkie, and you don’t post every photograph you’ve ever taken on Instagram; we tend to assume that most people know quite a bit about us. Our personal data is stored by our banks, our employers or by the government. We belong to a network of friendships and organisations, which means our names crop-up online more than we think. The assumption is that we should know everything there is to know at the click of a mouse.
This is a world away from the culture which gave birth to the Christian faith. In the ancient world, there was a different emphasis. A person’s biography was only of limited interest. There would be little fascination in a person’s private life, let alone what they looked like; and certainly not their childhood. A person’s life was not so much a continuous history; but more about how their adult lives were fine examples of virtue. Above all, more emphasis was given to how they died than how they grew up.
I say all this because, when we celebrate the feast day of the apostles Simon and Jude, we are focusing on a saintly double-act about whom we know very little. The scriptures give us the faintest of details – and certainly not enough to satisfy today’s devotees of social media. As the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. In fact, the passing references to them in scripture tell us who they are not! Jude, John’s Gospel tells us, is not to be confused with Judas Iscariot – much to his relief, I’ve no doubt. And Simon, so the tradition tells us, is not to be confused with Simon Peter, which is a good way of putting him in his place.
But, by telling us who these two are not, we are being invited to imagine who they might be – and that can inspire our own pilgrimage and discipleship for the future. I hope it causes us to wonder who we will become. That’s a good thing to do today, as we begin a new chapter in the life of this church, as we give Fr Tom the Bishop’s Licence to minister here, and we re-dedicate ourselves with Tom for the task of mission and service.
Simon is not Simon Peter. But we are told he is ‘Simon the Zealot.’ At the time of Jesus, the Zealots were a resistance movement dedicated to the overthrow of the Romans who occupied the Holy Land. Another name for them was the ‘Assassins’ because their members had sworn to eliminate anyone who collaborated with Roman rule. They were part of a well-established network of Jewish terrorist and freedom fighters. That’s something we should not ignore – especially if we are tempted to imagine that terrorism is the exclusive preserve of Islamist sects.
It’s easy to understand why Jesus would have attracted the attention of a Zealot, and why Simon was a natural follower. Jesus began his ministry with a compelling manifesto: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’. This was a familiar idea among the guerrillas and freedom fighters of Judea. It’s not hard to imagine how Simon the Zealot and his friends must have seen Jesus as a Messiah figure, the one who would deliver his people from oppression.
Although we can imagine less about Jude, the author of the New Testament letter which bears the name of Jude, speaks of yearning for the day of the Lord that would right all wrongs. His letter speaks of the coming judgement of God, of sinners being punished and of snatching people out of the fire of destruction. His letter is zealous. If he was the Jude we celebrate today, maybe he saw a kindred spirit in Simon the zealot.
So what did these zealous disciples of Jesus do with their passion? Would they be able to make the leap from religious fanaticism to passion for the way of Jesus?
Today’s gospel began with Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples, including Simon and Jude, to love one another. In these urgent words, love for God and one another goes together with keeping the commandments. The love the disciples are to have for one another is contrasted with the hatred of the world towards Jesus and, by implication, for them.
They must have begun to realise this. As they spent time with Jesus, grappled with the entirety of his message, and saw how he dealt with both Roman and Jew, Simon and Jude can hardly have failed to realise that Jesus was not just another resistance leader. At times, they tried to force his hand. They were even doing it on the night they came to arrest Jesus, so that he had to tell them to put away their weapons. Even after he had eaten his last supper with them, and shown them how, like bread and wine, his body and blood would be given for the world, they still wondered if Jesus would signal the start of a revolution.
Their illusions of victory by violent revolution were, of course, stripped down and crucified like the one they followed. The door was closed on their hopes of an armed struggle on Good Friday. But of, course, the Kingdom of God did come. On the third day he rose again. The impossible dream of freedom and justice actually came true. In Christ’s rising from the dead, God’s longed-for future was suddenly available here and now. The kingdom was open wide for all who believe and trust. And that seems to have started something, too. As W.H. Auden, in his poem about the twelve apostles, puts it:
Without arms or charm of culture
persons of no importance
From an unimportant provice,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy…
And, because they went forth to ‘bring joy to a joyless world’, you and I are here today. We may not know much about these two saints. But the little we do know can inspire us for the future, as we commit ourselves to work with Fr Tom to take forward the mission of the Church here in St Raphael.
Recent tragic events in Nice and Paris show us that the dream of the Zealots is alive and well in the world. How do we, as Christian people, show that the way of Christ is more compelling? How do we show the world that our calling is as disciples of the risen Christ, whose victory is a victory of love over the forces of cruelty and hatred? How, like the apostles, do we inspire others to join us in being sent out into a world of risk and opportunity to make Christ’s love real in the darkest places of the world?
As we ponder these questions, as we seek to walk in the light and freedom of Christ’s kingdom, the only manifesto we are being called to live by is the Gospel. We face the future with confidence that, because Christ is risen, the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us; and Christ’s new beginning is already taking shape in our lives.