What would James say?

Matthew 20:20-28

A show of hands: Who missed our St. James’ Day gathering last year?  Who’s never been in the pews, here in this place, on St. James’ Day before?  Who’s scratching their head a little bit, wondering what makes St. James’ Day so special? For those of y’all who raised your hands to one or more of these questions, I’ll give you the big pieces:

First of all, as most of y’all are aware, St. James’ the Apostle is our “patron saint,” meaning that he takes special care of us—you and me and this place—and his special day on the Calendar of Saints is July 25th of each year.  So, we always have a big party in commemoration of our “patronal feast day” the following Sunday.  Yippee! Second, do you notice anything unusual about how the chancel is dressed today… about how I’m dressed today?  Lots of red!  Why?  It’s because St. James’ was not only one of the Twelve Apostles, he was also a martyr—someone who literally gave his life for the cause of Christ—and the Church dresses everything in red when it commemorates the life of a martyr.  You don’t see red very often on Sundays, outside of the major feast of Pentecost, because the weekly prescribed “Feast of our Lord” takes precedence over lesser feasts that occur on Sundays, and Feasts of our Lord come in many colors, but never red. We’ll see purple on Sundays in Advent and Lent, and white during the Christmas and Easter seasons… and a whole bunch of green in between.  “Ordinary time,” that’s called, and we’re in the middle of that green, ordinary time right now.  Except for today, because James, brother of John, son of Zebedee, Apostle and Martyr, is our patron saint.  That’s why today is a red day.

So, who was James?  Frankly, we don’t know all that much about him.  We hear a lot about the things that the Apostle Peter did, the things that James’ brother John did, and certainly the things that Judas did.  But we don’t hear all that much about what James did.  What we know about James is who he was and where he was during Jesus’ three years of active ministry:

  • He was one of the twelve apostles, and one of the first to follow Jesus: Matthew writes, “As [Jesus] went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” (Matt 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20).
  • From Luke, we learn that James, along with his brother John, were with Peter on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus helped them catch more fish than they could haul aboard the boat, and told them that from now on, they would “fish for people” ( 5:1-11 NIV).
  • “These are the names of the twelve apostles: [writes Matthew] first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him” ( 10:2-4, cf. Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16).
  • James was present for the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-8and Luke 9:28-36) and for the healing of Peter’s mother (Mark 1:29-34).
  • Jesus called James and his brother John “Boanerges” (bo-a-NER-jez), or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:13-19). Affectionately, I think. They must’ve made a lot of noise.
  • James was there when Jesus resurrected the little girl who had “fallen asleep” (Talitha cum! Little girl, get up!), and was admonished by Jesus not to tell anyone what he had seen, but to get the girl something to eat (Mark 5:35-43, cf. Luke 8:49-56).
  • James was with Jesus on the Mount of Olives when, in Mark’s Gospel, the Lord spoke of the Parousia, the Second Coming: he said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13:3-8).
  • James and John, flush with power given to them by Jesus to heal and cast out demons took great offense when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, and offered to call down fire from heaven to consume the offenders (Luke 9:51-56). Can you imagine the look Jesus gave them?

But you know these stories.

What a wild ride it must have been… being with Jesus, day in and day out, as he interpreted Scripture, healed people in mind and body and preached about the coming of the Kingdom.  And I suppose that James and John, in their enthusiasm, might be forgiven for putting their mother up to asking Jesus to award them special placement in his kingdom. Mark’s version of the story actually has the brothers, themselves, making the pitch (vv.10:35-45).  But Jesus knew that “exaltation” was a two-edged sword, often constituting a barrier between people and God.  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he told them, and “whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”  If you truly want to be with me… and be like me, you have to understand this paradox and live into it.  But be careful what you wish for: when you sign up to “drink from this cup” you may find that it’s more than you bargained for.

James was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake” . . . and he couldn’t (Mark 14:32-42).  And James was likely with the rest of the Apostles when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, his own mother Mary (Salome), and others arrived, out-of-breath, and excited beyond belief with the news that Jesus, their Rabbi and Master, was risen from the grave (Luke 24:1-12).

James would later help build the church in Jerusalem before being “killed with the sword” (d. 44 AD), which is a code phrase for “beheaded,” by King Herod Agrippa I, which was the usual punishment for murderers and “apostates:” those who had, in the eyes of conventional religious authority, forsaken the true faith in pursuit of false gods (i.e., idol worship).  James’ execution was the first “crack in the veneer” of a decade of relative safety and stability that followed the stoning of St. Stephen (d. 34 AD).  James was one of the first to follow Jesus… and the first of the Twelve to be executed. Historians of the time (Eusebius/Clement) report that, before he died,  James converted his jailer… who was executed with him.[1]

I guess, sometimes, the past is prologue.  Many scholars and historians agree that the era of “Christendom” is over.  Christendom connotes a time when everyone was, or was expected to be, Christian, and when governments (at least in our part of the world) recognized and gave special precedence to precepts of the Christian faith. Without commenting on the many pitfalls associated with such a church/state symbiosis, Christianity has been the dominant religious paradigm in vast swaths of the world since the late 4thcentury AD, when Emperor Constantine adopted the faith for the Roman Empire and made it an established function of government.  And it remains the most ascribed-to organized religion in the world today.  Certainly, the church has not been “established” in this country since we won our independence from Great Britain, but it’s been pretty much where everyone we knew went on Sunday… for as long as we can remember.  Until now.  Now we all have people we love and are associated with who are “un-churched,” meaning uncommitted to any particular community of faith, or who choose “none” as their religious affiliation.  It seems sometimes that the church is under siege from all sides.  You don’t have to be a news junkie to be bombarded with stories in the media of Christians being killed on account their faith in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and other places where Christianity once flourished. And it gets worse.  The church is not only at risk abroad, but here in our own country it’s been compromised by those who would pervert the tenets of Jesus’ teaching to justify harming and excluding those who think and act differently than they do.  I won’t reiterate the headlines.  Y’all have eyes to read, and ears to hear.  And in case you, like me, are sometimes tempted to become overly nostalgic about the way things (never) used to be: It’s been only 330 years since the Glorious Revolution in mother England (1688), which ended decades of vicious bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics over ticky-tacky matters of church polity and doctrine.  And just thirteen years and a day ago (July 28th, 2005), brothers and sisters in Northern Ireland finally committed to stop killing one another in the name of Christ, and embarked upon an uneasy truce that remains tenuous to this very day.  So, it’s never been easy.

I’m pretty sure Jesus would have frowned on all of the discord.  What in the world do matters of church polity and pseudo-Christian one-upmanship have to do with the Great Commission?  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:16-20).

They don’t.

How do we reconcile our perennial infighting with Jesus’ commandment to love one another (John 13:31-35)?

We can’t.

And when we’re not going over-the-top and out-of-bounds to browbeat others into religious submission, it seems that we go in the exact opposite direction: we become shrinking violets… too timid and afraid to share the Good News of God in Christ for fear of being rejected or thought ill of.  I sometimes ask myself how far I’d be willing to go and proclaim the Good News of Salvation in the face of serious adversity.  What do you think?  Would you, like our patron James, be willing to put yourself and your family at risk to spread the Good News?  I hope I would.  I hope we all would.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not asking you to take up arms.  Jesus told Peter to put away his sword (John 18:1-11, cf. Matt 26:47-56).  And I’m not suggesting you be unpleasant, or make a nuisance of yourself for the cause of Christ.  Jesus shared meals with all sorts and conditions of folks—even sinners and tax collectors!—and, by most accounts, he was considered to be pretty good company.  I’m simply asking if you’re willing to take Jesus’ message of unconditional love and forgiveness, and of the coming of God’s Kingdom to the ends of Cedartown and Polk County: to the mall, country club and the golf course, and beyond.  To every nation and to every part of the world in which you find yourself.  Are you up to that?

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. James the Apostle.  Apostolos in Greek means “sent forth” and we, like James, have drunk from Jesus’ cup, and have been sent forth to proclaim the love of Christ to a world in need of hope.  And sometimes, our fellow creatures may not be all that receptive to what we have to say. They don’t know what they’re missing. The good news is that, even in a post-Christendom era, at least here in the U.S., we’re unlikely to face death “by the sword” on account of our faith.  But we may be shunned and face the ridicule of those we have cultivated as friends.  Are we willing to do that?  Is it worth it?  What would James say?

[1]Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel Harrington, no. 5. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 211.

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