Sunday, October 23, 2022

Sermon for the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem - Mt 13:54-58


St. James of Jerusalem

                                                                           Mt 13:54-58




During the course of our married life, Amy and I lived several doors down from a man named “Bob.” Now Bob is not really his name, but it will become obvious why I am not going to use it.  I also found that it is hard to tell this story without having a name, so we will call him “Bob.”

Bob had a brother who had gone into the entertainment industry as a comedian.  He has been quite successful. He has appeared very regularly on TV. He lives in the Los Angeles area and is worth ten to fifteen million dollars.  So we are not talking about a mega-star, but still he has done very well.

Bob also had the desire to be a comedian.  He had given it a try, but things had not worked out.  Bob was intelligent, and now worked in a job where he made a good living.  But as I said, Bob lived several doors down from us, so needless to say he was not worth ten to fifteen million dollars.

I always wondered what it was like for Bob.  His brother had been very successful in the occupation that he himself had wanted to do.  His brother had acquired wealth that surpassed anything Bob could hope to attain.  His brother lived a life that allowed him to do things that Bob never could.

I mention Bob, because in a similar way, I have wondered what it was like to be one of Jesus’ brothers. Today we celebrate the Feast of St James of Jerusalem. St James was the brother of Jesus, just as in our text we hear about Jesus’ other brothers, Joseph and Simon and Judas.

Now in the Church there has been a tradition that was well established in the medieval period that Mary, Jesus’ mother, remained a virgin her entire life. The passages that mention Jesus’ brother have been explained away by saying that these were half-brothers or cousins. While strictly speaking this is not impossible, it is also extremely unlikely.  Under normal circumstances, there is nothing about these texts that would lead us to read them in any other way than as describing actual brothers of Jesus who had been born to Mary and Joseph in the normal fashion.  Instead, the attempt to read them differently has been prompted by the desire to focus on Mary herself in ways that have proven to be false and very harmful.

So what was it like to be Jesus’ brother?  Apart from Luke’s account of the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus was a boy, we don’t learn anything else about our Lord when he was growing up.  At the end of that account Luke tells us, “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

Certainly, his brothers must have recognized that there was something different about Jesus.  Jesus never disobeyed. He always acted in perfect love towards everyone. For sinners like his brothers, Jesus was probably a little annoying.

And then one day, everything changed. John the Baptist began his ministry.  Jesus went down from Galilee to Judea and was baptized by John.  When he returned to Galilee, Jesus began a ministry of his own as he began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He started performing miracles as he healed and cast out demons.  Matthew tells us, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” Jesus’ fame spread and great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

So how did James and the other brothers of Jesus respond to this?  The first thing we need to recognize is that they are never mentioned in the Gospels as being followers of Jesus.  Mark tells us that during Jesus’ ministry some members of his family – we aren’t told specifically who was involved - wanted to take hold of Jesus because they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

In the previous chapter, Matthew tells us, While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.”  Here, Jesus’ family is described as being on the outside.  Our Lord replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In our text we hear about a visit Jesus made to Nazareth.  The hometown boy was religious celebrity, and so he taught in the synagogue.  Yet the response of the people in Nazareth was to reject Jesus because he was familiar.  They reacted by saying, “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?” We learn that they took offense at him.

Jesus responded by saying, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And then we learn that he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.  The people of Nazareth didn’t believe in Jesus. And while the Gospel of John tells us that Mary was with Jesus at his crucifixion, it also tells us explicitly, “For not even his brothers believed in him.”

Like the residents of Nazareth, James and the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him.  They were offended by the familiar nature of Jesus.  There is a warning here for us. It is easy for us to become offended by the familiar nature of Jesus.  We hear about Jesus and the forgiveness of sins again and again.  We take part in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar Sunday after Sunday.  Over time, we can begin to take this for granted.  In the midst of the challenges and difficulties of life we start to ask, “Is this all there is? Doesn’t God have anything more for us?”  This is the language of little faith – of faith that is weak.  But if we continue in this way long enough it can turn into what Jesus encountered at Nazareth – unbelief.  It can turn into the attitude of James during Jesus’ ministry.

We know from the Book of Acts that James was a very faithful Jew.  When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, James found the ultimate confirmation that he had been correct to reject Jesus.  Jesus claimed to be the Christ – the Messiah.  However, the Old Testament was clear that the Messiah descended from David would be mighty and victorious.  The two most quoted verses about the Messiah among Jews of this period where Psalm two and Isaiah eleven.  Pslam 2 talked about the nations and said of the Messiah, “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.” Isaiah 11 said, “and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

What is more, after Jesus died by the humiliating death of crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, James knew that his brother had been cursed by God as a false prophet.  After all, Deuteronomy said, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”  After Jesus died on Friday and was buried, James went to bed on Saturday night knowing that he had been correct in rejecting Jesus.

And then, Jesus rose from the dead.  We don’t know precisely when James encountered the risen Lord.  But Paul tells us in First Corinthians fifteen, “Then he appeared to James.”  And it wasn’t just James.  All of Jesus’ brothers met the risen Lord.  Luke tells us that after his ascension, the apostles returned to Jerusalem.  Them he adds, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

In the resurrection of Jesus, James learned that God had vindicated his brother as Lord.  Jesus’ crucifixion had actually been God’s saving work for us.  Paul summarized this when he told the Galatians using another passage from Deuteronomy, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”  The law brings a curse on all who fail to do it.  It brings God’s judgment upon all who sin in thought, word, and deed.

But the good news of the Gospel is that God has redeemed us from the curse.  He has freed us, and he did it through the crucifixion of Jesus.  The apostle went on to say, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Through Jesus’ death we have been redeemed from the curse. And by his resurrection we have received the assurance of eternal life and resurrection on the Last Day.  James met his risen brother, and came to understand that he is in fact the Son of God.  He learned that through Jesus the Christ we have received forgiveness and victory over death.

This changed everything for James and the rest of Jesus’ brothers.  We learn from Paul in 1 Corinthians nine that Jesus’ brothers went forth as missionaries who proclaimed Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord.  Very quickly, James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In our first reading this morning from Acts 15 we see the surprising fact that in the Council at Jerusalem, James speaks the last word.

James, who did not believe in Jesus during his ministry, became a leader in the church because of the resurrection.  He now believed in Jesus and gave witness about him.  He gave witness in the ultimate fashion as he became a martyr for Jesus. We often lack firm evidence for what happened to the apostles and early leaders in the church. But that’s not the case when it comes to James.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus reports that the Roman governor Festus – the same governor who had sent Paul to Rome – died.  As you hear almost every year on Good Friday, the Jews did not have the authority to execute a person.  Only the Romans could do this.  Yet with Festus dead, and the new governor Ablinus still on his way to Judea there was a power vacuum. And so, the Jewish leader Ananus called the Sanhedrin together, and Josephus tells us they had James the brother of Jesus stoned to death as a breaker of the law. 

James died because he now believed so completely in his brother Jesus who had been crucified.  He died because he had met the risen Jesus and knew that death was not the end. Instead, those who believe in Christ have eternal life, and our Lord will raise us up on the Last Day.

In St. James of Jerusalem we receive a reminder that though Jesus Christ may seem familiar, he never ceases to be the amazing and remarkable way that God has acted in our world to give us forgiveness and victory over death.  His resurrection turned James into a believer who proclaimed the crucified Christ - something that was a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.  Because of the resurrection, James was willing to be a martyr – he was willing to bear witness to Jesus by dying because of faith in the Lord. 

The risen Lord who did this continues now to come us through his Means of Grace. He is present trough his Word and Sacraments.  His Spirit gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith so that we can bear witness to Jesus in what we say and do.  Jesus and his gifts may be familiar, but because he is the crucified and risen Lord they never cease to be what we need. They are the saving action of God, and are all we will ever need as we look toward the time when we will stand with St. James before Christ on the day of resurrection.      





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