1 Corinthians 15:1-11
We remember today a follower of Christ, a certain James of Jerusalem, but our memory fails us. We are not completely sure who this James is. In the Gospel according to Matthew, we hear that James is called Jesus’ brother. The same is true in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: James being named as Jesus’ brother.i (Now here’s an aside. If James is Jesus’ brother, then he is actually Jesus’ “half brother,” because – as you’ll remember – Joseph was not Jesus’ father. In the Gospel tradition, Mary, Jesus’ mother, conceived Jesus “through the Holy Spirit,” not by Joseph. Joseph is Jesus’ step father, and so James is Jesus’ half brother… unless James is Jesus’ cousin.) In the tradition of Mark’s Gospel, it is unclear whether James is Jesus’ brother or Jesus’ cousin.ii This part of James’ identity is not completely clear.
What is clear is that James had a very special relationship with his brother or cousin, Jesus. Saint Paul recalls that Jesus miraculously appeared to James after Jesus’ crucifixion and before his ascension.iii (Jesus personally appeared to James alive after Jesus had been declared dead.iv) And we know that James continued to be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, long after Jesus’ ascension and well into the long season of persecution. In these early centuries following Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, the followers of Jesus were persecuted terribly. They were targets for two groups and for two rather different reasons. To the authorities of the Roman empire, Jesus had been at least a nuisance, and at most a threat to the Pax Romana. Jesus had called for a personal allegiance which rivaled the ubiquitous allegiance owed solely to Caesar. Jesus and his like were to be exterminated, and they faced persecution genocide for centuries. The other group who found Jesus and his followers offensive were the Jewish authorities. What Jesus represented was one cult too many. There were then many different factions within Judaism, as there is today. In those days the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, and other groups were each convinced that that their interpretation of the Law and Prophets was faithful, was orthodox. The followers of Jesus, the “followers of the Way” as they were called, did not figure into the Jewish paradigm. Many of the followers of Jesus lived lives that were so obviously and irresponsibly impure.v
Many of Jesus’ followers seemed to be all mixed up, quite intentionally breaking one law after another. Jesus had shown the way to live, and the followers of the Way did likewise: Jews mixing with pagan Gentiles, men with women, noble people with reprobate sinners, religious people with pagans. Slaves feigned to be on equal footing before God with their masters, something to which even their owners agreed. People sat at table with one another – anyone’s table eating most anything and everything – completely dropping any distinction of what food was kosher and what associations with people were pure. To Jesus, God’s mercy trumped the traditional standards of purity. These followers of the Way had remembered Jesus’ saying endlessly, “You have heard it said, but I say…” and he said much, so much about so many things that it starting turning the world upside down, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.vi Many of the Jewish authorities, at variance with one another on many things, were understandably united in their opposition to Jesus’ followers.
We know that James was a charismatic proponent of Jesus’ Way. About fifteen years about Jesus’ death and resurrection, a group of leaders met in Jerusalem. These were leaders who followed Jesus’ way, James among them. This was around year 50, and their gathering came to be called the Council of Jerusalem. The crucial question which sat before them was whether a follower of Jesus had to observe the Mosaic Law to find full membership in this company of Jesus’ followers? Must someone become Jewish to be Christian? (This is actually a quintessential question about Jesus before Christianity.vii) Say, for example, did the men still have to be circumcised? Did the Jewish dietary restrictions – about what you ate and with whom and when – have precedence over everyone wanting to be a follower of Jesus? Could you work on the sabbath if it were to offer an act of mercy? What was the bottom line about membership: did Gentiles have to first become Jews to be faithful followers of the Way? The leaders who gathered in Jerusalem were in principled disagreement. Saints Peter and Paul had already wrangled over this, as had others. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that James made a speech to this gathering in Jerusalem. He said, “My judgment is that we should impose no irksome restrictions on those Gentiles who are turning to God.”viii And James’ opinion prevailed.
We know from the writings of a church historian from the second century that James became very successful in converting many to Christ.ix James remained convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, and as he believed, so he preached. And he practiced what he preached. Those who remain offended (or maybe threatened) by James’ teaching begged him to “Restrain the people, for they have gone astray to Jesus, thinking him to be the Messiah.” They implored him, “…Persuade the people that they do no to astray. We put our trust in you.” According to second century sources, they then set James on the pinnacle of the temple, from where he could be well seen and heard. They asked him to preach to the multitude gathered before him to turn them away from Jesus. James would not. Quite to the contrary, he preached all-the-more boldly about Jesus. Those who were offended, now incensed, seized him and threw him from the roof to the pavement below, and then beat to death.
From the early centuries Jesus’ followers coined the phrase, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” We can see what has grown from a rag-tag band of Jesus’ followers who deserted him at his crucifixion. In short time they had gained clarity and courage about the cost of their discipleship, Saint James among them. Nonetheless, I would say that the witness of Saint James and the other historic Christian martyrs has questionable relevance to us today. And I mean that quite literally. I question how this second-century martyrdom speaks to us today in western society? It is not that we are witnessing no Christian martyrdom today. We need only look to the Hutu people of Burundi and Rwanda. But for us who live in western society, in the safety of a place such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, what does this witness of the martyrs say to us here? It has to be more than just an example or inspiration were we to face a similar fate, because martyrdom seems unlikely. Not here; not now; not likely. Rather than to ask the question whether we would willingly die following the example of James of Jerusalem, the more probing question, it seems to me, is whether we would willingly live like Saint James.
Let’s say we fan back to Jesus before Christianity. Here is the question. Why? Why are you a follower of Jesus today, and what is the prayer and practice that informs your own life? Someone has asked the question, “If you were brought to trial and accused of being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” I find this an arresting question. Because the followers of Jesus, from the earliest days, not only confessed with their lips by practiced in their lives the difference that Jesus made for them. The ancient Greek word for martyr is martureo, which means to bear witness, i.e., to affirm in speech and action what one believes in their heart. As important as the ancient creeds of the church are – what we confess with our lips – what difference does it all make in the course of our day or the living out of our life? That is the question I ask myself. I recall the author Frederick Buechner making the point, “If you want to know what [someone] believes, watch their feet?” Which is to say, what we hold in our heart needs to be congruent with how we live our lives. Put aside the controversies that run through the church and come down to the question, “So what difference does it make that you are a follower of Jesus?” That is the question I ask and re-ask myself.
I find the vows we reaffirm in our Baptismal Covenant very compelling. (You can find these words in the Book of Common Prayer beginning at page 304). Here’s the questions I find most informative as I navigate my way through the day and through life:
- “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
- “Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
- “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
You see here the liturgical color designated today for the martyrdom of James of Jerusalem is red. The tradition of red on a martyr’s anniversary is to symbolize the martyr’s blood. What about for us? In the absence of giving up our life’s blood in martyrdom (at least not likely today), what, in the meantime, are you willing to give your lifeblood for, in the name of Jesus. There is something, and something profound, I would say, for all of us here… or we wouldn’t be here. The anniversary of a martyr’s death invites all of us, I would say, to re-affirm the grounding of our being, what we are prepared to live for in anticipation of our eventual death. Live it today. In the absence of martyrdom, what are you willing to give your life’s blood for, today? – Blessed James of Jerusalem, a witness to us in death and in life.
ii Mark 6:3; 15:40.
iii 1 Corinthians 15:7.
iv 1 Corinthians 15:7.
v Acts of the Apostles 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9.
vi Acts 17:6.
vii A very insightful book by this title, Jesus Before Christianity, is authored by Albert Nolan (Orbis Books).
viii Acts 15:19.
ix St. Hegesippus, a writer of the second century, known to us from the early church historian, Eusebius, who tells us that he wrote in five books in the true tradition of the Apostolic preaching.
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