Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Oh, no! It’s another one of those ‘saints’ days’ on the church calendar. St. James of Jerusalem? What does pastor think we are, Roman Catholic? It’s bad enough he wears that black shirt with the little white collar tab that makes him look like a priest most of the time. Doesn’t he know we’re Lutherans, for goodness’ sake? Why can’t we just observe the umpteen-gazillionth Sunday after Pentecost, like most other churches?”
Hey, I’ve got a news flash for you: I’d be perfectly happy and comfortable in a golf shirt or even a tee shirt. But that would be less helpful to you and to others, really. You wouldn’t get the benefit of the symbolism of that little white glimmer among the black: A reminder that, out of the throat of a dark and sinful man can come the clean, pure message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—the Gospel that cleanses and purifies your dark and sinful hearts, too.
But this isn’t about wardrobe, and it isn’t even primarily about saints’ days in general or St. James of Jerusalem in particular. It’s about Jesus, just as it is always about Jesus.
Even so, we observe such days and commemorate the saints and other significant people in the Bible and in church history because doing so is beneficial to us. Lest you think that inconveniencing the Altar Guild with yet another parament color change is being too Catholic, maybe you need to be better informed so you can be more Lutheran.
If you really want to know about our observance of saints’ days, take a look at Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession. There’s also a pretty good synopsis on page ‘X-I-I’ in the front of the hymnal. I’d say ‘Roman numeral 12,’ but I hesitate to use the word ‘Roman’ too much.
Let me read you a quote from the Augsburg Confession, though:
“Our churches teach that the remembrance of the saints is to be commended in order that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling.” 1 That statement, written in 1530 by Philip Melanchthon, was read and subscribed to by the Lutheran princes in front of Emperor Charles and a host of Roman Catholic theologians. Those courageous men took their stand on how we should view the saints way back when this confession and church we now call ‘Lutheran’ was in its infancy.
Furthermore, the later elaboration and explanation, or ‘Apology’ of that Augsburg Confession states that there are three reasons for giving honor to the saints of the Church:
- To thank God for giving the Church faithful servants;
- To strengthen our faith in seeing how God supported earlier believers in the difficulties of their own lives; and,
- To learn how to carry on our lives of faith and good works under the cross of Jesus, each of us in our own various vocations.
It’s clear, then, that remembering and honoring the saints of the Church is hardly just a Roman Catholic thing; it’s actually a very Christian thing. It’s only when honoring saints comes at the expense of giving full and complete glory to God for the redemption of our sins by Jesus’ suffering and death that it becomes problematic.
That was one of the medieval abuses against which the Reformers wrote and spoke, and thanks be to God that the correct biblical view the saints is now a part of our Lutheran heritage.
So, what about St. James, then, the individual we commemorate today? The first question we have to deal with is: Just which James are we talking about? We already have to deal with multiple Josephs, multiple Johns, and multiple Marys, a few different Simons and Judes or Judases, not to mention King Saul and also Saul of Tarsus—who further complicates things by changing his name to Paul—and so on.
Well, as you can see from your worship folder, and as I mentioned a few moments ago, today we remember St. James of Jerusalem. He’s called that not because he came from Jerusalem, but rather because he served there as the presiding pastor of the early Church—the bishop, if you will.
Since this James was also the brother of Jesus, it’s pretty safe to assume that he’s originally from Nazareth, where one of those Josephs went to live with his wife—one of those Marys—after she had miraculously given birth in Bethlehem to a child not his own, and they had fled to Egypt to escape one of the Bible’s several Herods.
Let me pause right here to make an observation: You know, while the self-important, know-it-all intellectuals of the world love to criticize Christians for our trust in God and the scriptures, and often label us as simple-minded, I’d like to see them keep all these people with the same names straight!
But, back to the Jameses. Today’s James is not the James of James and John, those sons of Zebedee and—along with their mom—maneuverers for better seats in heaven. We observe that St. James’ day on July 25.
Nor is it the other James listed among the original twelve disciples of Jesus, the one known as the son of Alphaeus or sometimes as “James the Less”. We observe that St. James’ day on May first, along with St. Philip.
All three of our scripture lessons this day have a connection to St. James of Jerusalem. Chronologically speaking, the Gospel lesson records the earliest event of the three. When Jesus is preaching to the people of His hometown, they marveled at His words. In wondering where He had learned such things, they make mention of His mother, Mary; several of His half-brothers, including James; and the fact that Jesus had sisters, as well. For purposes of observing this feast day, this lesson serves to establish James’ identity. You might recall that in St. Mark’s gospel account, Jesus’ family tries to get Him to stop causing such a ruckus with His preaching and teaching. It even says that they thought Jesus was out of His mind.
It’s likely, then, that James wasn’t always fully on board with this whole Messiah, Son of God thing.
Next we have the account from Acts 15 of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas have described the amazing things that had happened in their ministry to the Gentiles, and James—not one of the original disciples or apostles—steps forward to be heard. He speaks with authority. He speaks with wisdom. He speaks with knowledge of the scriptures, and knowledge of the history of God’s people.
At this point, to settle a dispute within the early Church that had been brewing in the events leading up to chapter 15, James renders his opinion on what the apostles ought to communicate to the Gentiles who have been brought into the Church: Not to try to turn them into Jews through circumcision and observance of all its rituals, but to live according to some basic moral guidelines. Not in freedom from the Law, but rather in freedom from its condemnation—a freedom granted by faith.
Finally, we have the epistle of St. James, likely written within a few years of this apostolic council, perhaps almost immediately after. In this letter, James offers both encouragement and practical wisdom to the people of the early Church. Though in mentioning ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ it might seem to be speaking to those of Jewish heritage, its guidance clearly can apply to believers of any origin. In fact, rather than being those belonging to the clans of the sons of Jacob, the ‘twelve tribes’ to which James refers could just as easily be those who had been brought into the Christian faith by the twelve then-current apostles—Matthias having replaced the suicidal Judas Iscariot and Paul replacing the martyred James, son of Zebedee.
Regardless of the specific original intended recipients of James’ epistle, we find much to both challenge us and uplift us within it. As many of you know, chapter 2 has language about faith and good works that many find problematic. Even Luther in his time often expressed frustration at people’s misinterpretation of it.
Yet James is not arguing that good works themselves provide salvation—merely that faith by its very nature as a gift of God motivates the believer to behave in certain ways toward God and toward the neighbor. It is only a false, dead, and mere intellectual faith that exists apart from works. God grant that no one here today has such a shallow, useless faith! For Jesus Himself told His followers—and perhaps His brother James was among them—that He would banish from heaven those who gave Him lip service of being His own, yet neglected the needs of the hungry and thirsty, the sick, the poorly-clothed, and the imprisoned.
One of the criticisms of the epistle of James is that he does not do much in his letter to proclaim the essence of the Gospel—the incarnation of his half-brother Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit; His sinless life to become the perfect sacrifice for us on the cross; His suffering and death to atone for our sins, and His glorious resurrection to assure us of the promises of God’s favor and of our eternal salvation in heaven. That’s true; there is little of the gospel in James, and for that reason Luther called it an ‘epistle of straw’. Not that it was worthless, for straw has many practical uses. Rather, Luther meant that James spoke of common, everyday things—the challenges of living faithfully as brothers and sisters of Jesus and of one another, tempted and tried and persecuted by the world, and often hurtful to one another.
If you read through the epistle of St. James of Jerusalem, brother of our Lord, you will note striking similarities between much of what he teaches and the words of Jesus Himself. That’s indication enough that James knew of Jesus’ teaching as well as Jesus’ identity, and was striving to be faithful to that teaching. Just in the twelve verses which make up our second lesson today, James captures themes and words that we know echo the words of the Lord and His prophets, apostles, and evangelists.
James writes of taking joy in trials and suffering—just as Jesus had spoken in the Sermon on the Mount. James writes of praying for wisdom, just as Solomon had asked God for an understanding and discerning mind to rule His people. James advises his readers to ask of God in faith, just as Jesus had spoken about prayer in Mark’s gospel account. James writes of the power of eliminating doubt, just as Jesus had spoken regarding the ability to make a fig tree grow or to cast a mountain into the sea.
James writes of the lowly boasting in their exaltation and those whom the world exalts—the rich—rejoicing in their humiliation. This sounds eerily similar to Jesus’ statement that those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. James restates the words of Isaiah, too, when he writes of the passing of people like flowers and grass, withering in the heat of the sun.
Finally, in the last verse of our second lesson today, James states that, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial,” which echoes Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:22 that, “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” and then prophetically speaks of the “crown of life,” which Jesus will later promise to all believers when the Holy Spirit gives the Revelation to St. John.
For all these words, and for all the rest that God the Holy Spirit revealed to James and therefore to us, we give thanks and praise. For his wise and bold leadership of the early Church, serving faithfully in the most trying of circumstances, we ought to be unceasingly grateful. Upon his humility, not trumpeting his blood relationship with the King of Kings but instead introducing himself as “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” let us model our own words and behavior.
James may not have explicitly declared the Gospel in his epistle, but it is readily apparent that he knew it, he grasped it, he proclaimed it, and he lived it. A fallen sinner like you and me, he had to repent of his early rejection of Jesus’ messiahship. He was brought to faith by hearing the same Word and receiving the same baptism as you and me. He threw himself upon the mercy of the same God, and received the same grace we did.
And James came to, and presided over, the same Supper as do we. He ate the bread and drank the wine that brings the same infinite nature of Jesus; the same inexhaustible blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation through His body and blood that we will receive this day. When we commune, we are joined in a realm beyond time and locality with James, with the apostles of the Jerusalem Council, with and all the company of heaven.
With thanks to God for the wisdom and work of St. James of Jerusalem, for all the saints that have come before us, and for our own sainthood—granted by the Father for the sake of Christ—we say with all God’s people: Amen!