Sunday, October 23, 2016
Sermon for the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem - Mt 13:54-58
St. James of Jerusalem
“You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” This is a truth about life that you really begin to understand as you get older, and then as you have your own children. It is remarkable that children born to same two parents and raised in the exact same setting can turn out to be so different.
That alone could keep things interesting. But then on top of this the birth order of children influences the relationship between one another and also with their parents. Sibling rivalries exist and children feel that one sibling is favored by parents over another. Then when they get older the kids leave home and as they lead their own lives they are shaped by the different experiences and environments they encounter. A critical piece in this is the spouse they marry. The addition of sons and daughters in law changes the dynamic of the relationship between parents and children, and of the family as a whole.
You get to choose your friends. That is a decision you make often based on common interests and beliefs. We end up being friends with people that we enjoy being around – people with whom we feel comfortable. But family … well, your family members are who they are and you have no choice in that. You may be very different from them. They may drive you crazy. But they never cease to be your family.
Today is the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem. There are two notable James in the New Testament. First, there is the apostle James, who was the brother of John the apostle. However, today we remember and give thanks to God for the other James – James the brother of our Lord Jesus.
And that brings me to the question: Can you imagine what it was like to be part of Jesus’ family? Jesus was part of a family. And that fact caused offense to some. We learn in our text that Jesus went to Nazareth. No doubt you remember how pleased people were to hear Seminarian James Peterson preach for the first time here at Good Shepherd. A son of the congregation whom many of us had seen grow up returned to preach the Word of God to us.
Certainly the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth were excited to hear him teach in their synagogue. After all, the report about Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracles was going all around Judea and Galilee. We learn that it was quite an experience. They were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
The people in Nazareth were astonished at the wisdom and power of Jesus. But rather than receiving him in faith, they took offense at him. Their familiarity with Jesus bred contempt.
After all, this was the son of Joseph the carpenter; this was the son of Mary; this was brother of James and Joseph and Simon and Judas. They knew his family. They knew where he came from. They had known him as a boy. Who did he think he was, to be acting this way?!?
James is described here as Jesus’ “brother.” Although people in the history of the Church have often attempted to explain away this reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, there really is no good reason to deny what the text plainly says. Apparently, after Jesus had been conceived and born from the virgin Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary and Joseph went on to have more children in the normal way this happens. The striking thing about James and the other siblings of Jesus is that they are not described as being followers of the Lord in the Gospels. In the previous chapter instead they are depicted as outsiders when we read, “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.” And in fact in the Gospel of Mark we are told that when Jesus was so busy teaching and healing that he didn’t have time to eat, his family wanted to seize him for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
Today we remember and give thanks for James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus. Now there is absolutely no evidence that James believed in Jesus during his ministry. In fact, what we do hear about James and his siblings seems to indicate quite the opposite.
And yet everything changes when we turn to the book of Acts. For there in the first chapter we learn that after the ascension of Jesus the believers returned to Jerusalem. And Luke tells us, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
James and the other brothers of Jesus are now clearly believers in the Lord. What is more, James quickly becomes an important leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In Acts 15 the first church council meeting is held in Jerusalem as the Church seeks to decided her stance toward the Gentiles that are now becoming Christians. First, Peter reminds them about how the Spirit had acted through his encounter with the Gentile Cornelius to show God’s acceptance of the Gentiles. Next, Paul and Barnabas describe how God had blessed their first missionary journey among the Gentiles. But the final word that settles the matter is spoken by James.
What had changed James? What had led him to faith in his brother Jesus? The answer could not be any more clear. Paul told the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James.”
James knew that Jesus had died on a Roman cross. On Holy Saturday as Jesus was buried in a tomb he must have thought that his crazy brother finally had gotten himself killed. But then after the resurrection of Easter, the risen Lord appeared to James! James came to understand who Jesus really is, and what he had done. No doubt he was among the disciples to whom Jesus presented himself alive by many proofs during the forty days before his ascension as the Lord spoke about the kingdom of God. James saw the risen Lord Jesus ascend into heaven.
And this changed everything for James. As he says in the our first reading from Acts 15, James now knew that Jesus was the Christ – he was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He knew that Jesus had died as the sacrifice for every sin – for every one of your sins – and that in his resurrection he had defeated death. In the first chapter of his epistle James wrote that of God’s “own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” He urged his readers to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
James left no doubt about what Jesus’ death and resurrection now mean for our lives – for how we live. In the second chapter of his letter he wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Or as Martin Luther put is, faith is a living, busy, active thing. It acts in love and service toward others because that is what the Spirit of Jesus leads and enables us to do.
James said it. And he also lived it. James led the church in Jerusalem until 62 A.D. In that year the Roman procurator Festus died. It was four months before the new procurator arrived. And during that period, Ananus II, the son of Annas the high priest, used the absence of a Roman leader to arrange the execution of James as he was thrown from a roof of the temple, and then stoned before being clubbed in the head. James showed his faith in the work of martyrdom. His death was a witness to the resurrection of his brother Jesus. It was a witness to the salvation Jesus has given to you.
The Gospels provide a picture of tension that existed in Jesus’ family because of his ministry. We do not see James and the other brothers of Jesus as disciples before his death. They are outsiders who at times wonder even about the sanity of Jesus.
This is important for us to remember. Jesus brings tension to families. That is because as true God and true man, he has redeemed every person. He has laid claim to every person. His is, after all, the Lord.
And this means that he comes before any other person – even before family. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Where family members reject Jesus as Lord there will be tension because for the Christian Jesus comes first. Where family members reject Jesus’ word there will be tension because for the Christian Jesus comes first. Brothers and sister in Christ, this is only going to get worse. In a culture that is carrying people away from Jesus and toward sin, we will have family members who go along with the world.
They will reject Jesus as the only Lord and Savior from sin. In particular we are going to have people reject what Jesus and his apostles have to say about sexuality – about the Sixth Commandment. Family members will live together outside of marriage. They will declare acceptance of homosexuality. They will live in same sex relationships and even claim marriage for this.
These are painful situations that wound us deeply. They are some of the most profound ways that sin harms us. But the conversion of James and his martyrdom remind us that Jesus died on the cross and rose on the third day. They remind us that the earliest Christian confession is true: “Jesus is Lord.” Not only that, as the explanation to the Second Article of the Creed says, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary is my Lord.” He is the One “who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.”
The temptation will always be to cave; to accept the sin; to put family ahead of Jesus instead of speaking the truth in love. But the response of faith active in love – the response of faith which is known by what it does – will be instead to put Jesus and his word first. We do so because, like James, we know that Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord. He is our Lord. We belong to him, the One who sacrificed himself for us. And because he rose from the dead, we know that this way of faith brings salvation and eternal life with God.