St. James, the Elder
You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to recognize that Peter, James, and John held a unique status within the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. When Jesus raised the little girl from the dead, he only took these three with him into the room where the girl’s body was.
When Jesus went up on the mountain and was transfigured revealing his divine glory, and Moses and Elijah appeared with him, he only took along Peter, James, and John as witnesses. And of course, on the night before his death, when Jesus prayed so earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane, only Peter, James, and John were there.
We learn that Peter, James, and John, along with Peter’s brother Andrew, were the first apostles called by Jesus. They were partners in a fishing business at the Sea of Galilee. We aren’t told why Andrew was not accorded this unique treatment. James and John were brothers, just like Peter and Andrew. But for some reason, Andrew was not included as part of this inner group.
The name “James” in the New Testament can easily produce some confusion because there are three of them. There is the James that we remember today, who along with John were the sons of Zebedee. There is a second James, the son of Alphaeus, who was also an apostle. Because we hear more about James the son of Zebedee, he is usually called “the elder” or “the greater,” while James the son of Alphaeus is called “the lesser.” Then there is James, the brother of our Lord who became a believer after Jesus’ resurrection and very quickly became a leader in the Jerusalem church.
We call James, “St. James,” but an examination of what Scripture tells us about him reveals the fact that he certainly did not earn that title by his behavior. Instead, he was a sinner like we are, and we see our own sins in his behavior. Mark tells us that Jesus gave the name Boanerges to James and John, which means “Sons of Thunder.” We are very familiar with the impetuous nature of Peter, but from this name we learn that James was no different. And Luke tells us about one event that illustrates this.
As Jesus was making his final trip to Jerusalem he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. However, the Samaritan villagers did not receive him, because he and the disciples were Jews making their way to Jerusalem. When James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Our Lord responded by turning and rebuking them, and then they went on to another village. Like James, at times we respond with anger as we seek revenge against others. We let our emotions take control and seek payback instead of forgiving.
We hear about another instance in our Gospel lesson. There Mark tells us about how James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus with a rather preposterous request. They said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Imagine your son or daughter approaching you in this way! Jesus ignored this fact and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Then James and John said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
James and John were selfishly looking out for themselves. They were seeking the prime positions, and they were making sure that they asked for them before anyone else could. Like James, selfish motives that seek to put our desires ahead of others infect our actions all the time. We look out for ourselves first, and if that means stepping over other people or mistreating them – so be it.
In our Gospel lesson we learn that our Lord responded to James and John by saying: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Impetuously ambitious, the brothers had the audacity to reply, “We are able.” Since we know about Peter’s threefold denial of Christ, and the fact that James fled from Jesus along with the other apostles at the Garden of Gethsemane, their answer is almost humorous.
But then Jesus told them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” It is important to recognize that immediately before our text, Jesus had said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
Jesus describes his suffering and death as a cup he must drink, and a baptism he must undergo. He tells Peter and John, that they will indeed experience suffering and even death, but that the positions they request are not something that can just be given to them.
We learn that when the other ten apostles heard about the request made by James and John, they began to be indignant. No doubt they were angry that the brothers had asked to be placed over them. Most likely, they were upset that they had not though of this themselves!
Yet for Jesus, this was a moment to teach about his mission, and what it means to be his disciple. Our Lord said, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
James sinned. We sin. Because this is so, Jesus Christ the Son of God gave his life on the cross as the ransom for us all. He drank the cup of God’s wrath against our sin. He received the baptism of suffering and death on the cross. He did this to win forgiveness for us – forgiveness for our every sin of anger, revenge and selfishness. Yet death was not the end of his saving mission. As he had told the disciples, on the third day he rose from the dead. He defeated death and began the new life that will be ours.
James was among those who fled the Lord Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. He was with the apostles in the locked room on the evening of Easter. He was there when the risen Lord appeared in their midst and said, “Peace to you!” He was there when Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
James learned that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead. He learned why this had taken place when Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
James learned that he was forgiven. He was now a witness of Jesus’ resurrection. He knew that sin was forgiven and death had been defeated. And James had been charged to proclaim this good news to others.
We live as those who have received this message. We know that like James, we are saints – we are holy in God’s eyes because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, and we are prepared to stand before God on the Last Day. What is more, we know that because of Jesus’ resurrection, death cannot separate us from God. Death is a defeated enemy because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. When our Lord returns in glory, he will raise us with bodies transformed to be like his resurrected body.
James became a witness to the crucified and risen Lord. Our Lord had told him that he would drink the cup that Christ drank, and that he would be baptized with the baptism with which Jesus was baptized. Our Lord told James that he would experience suffering, and even death. But even the threat of death could not stop James from speaking the Gospel – the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
James was a witness to the risen Lord all the way to death. In our first reading from Acts we learn, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” In 41 A.D. the Roman emperor Claudius had granted Herod Agrippa I rule over all the lands in Palestine – even those that formerly had been a Roman province. He lived in Jerusalem, and seeking to please influential Jewish leaders he had James killed.
James became the first martyr among the apostles of Jesus Christ. He was willing to suffer and die – to share in the suffering and death with Jesus – because he knew that Christ has risen from the dead. He knew that his sins were forgiven. He knew that the risen Lord had defeated death, and so there was no reason to fear it. He gave the ultimate witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus by dying – by being a martyr, for the word martyr means “witness.”
In St. James we see that we too are saints – forgiven sinners because of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross in our place. We find that we too can take up the cross as we share in Christ’s sufferings, because Jesus has risen from the dead. Like James we must be willing to drink from the cup that Jesus’ drank, and to be baptized with the baptism with which he was baptized. We must be ready to accept reproach, mockery and suffering int his world on account of Christ. We can receive this “cup” and “baptism,” because we drink the cup of the Lord as we receive the Sacrament of the Altar. There we eat and drink the true body and blood of the risen Lord, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. We can endure these things because we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection in the water of Holy Baptism.
The assurance of forgiveness and resurrection provided by these Means of Grace carries over as it shapes the way we treat others. In the Gospel lesson, our Lord says in response to the request by James and John: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Because our Lord Jesus has served us in his death and resurrection, we now seek to serve others. We put their needs ahead of our own. We are given strength to do this by the Holy Spirit as he works through our reception of the Sacrament and as we return in faith to our baptism. We receive strength to do this through the Spirit’s inspired Scriptures, for there we receive the witness of St. James about Jesus Christ. He died as a martyr – a witness to Christ - because Jesus has risen from the dead.