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Earth Shattering Decisions – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord, and Martyr, c 62

Acts 15: 12 – 22a
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 54 – 58

If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you have perhaps found two of my favourite places. The first is quite easy to find, the Armenian Cathedral of St. James’, just near Jaffa Gate. The problem with the Cathedral is that it is only open when there are services on, and the best time to go is late afternoon for Vespers. It is sung by the cathedral clergy and students who attend the seminary across from the Cathedral. Once Vespers is over you have about 15 minutes to look around before being ushered out. I love the Cathedral, for obvious reasons. Who couldn’t love a cathedral dedicated not to one St. James but two!

The first St. James, the more familiar, is St. James the Apostle, brother of St. John and son of Zebedee. It is he, whose shrine at Compostela in Spain is at the end of the Camino, the pilgrim way that has become so popular in recent years. This St. James was beheaded by order of Herod Antipas and in a side chapel of the Cathedral, near the door, is his shrine. Spain has his body, but the Armenians in Jerusalem have his head.

The second St. James is a little less familiar. It is he who is known as the Brother of the Lord and was the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Appropriately, up by the high altar, at the foot of the cathedra or bishop’s throne, is his shrine.

Every time I am in Jerusalem, I make sure I attend Vespers at the Cathedral, and then in those few minutes following the service I make my way, first to one shrine and then the other and pray before my two patrons.

The other place in Jerusalem that I love is the Syrian Orthodox Convent of St. Mark. Now St. Mark’s is a little more difficult to find as you have to wind your way through various back streets. I found it on my first visit to Jerusalem quite by accident. I wasn’t looking for it. Instead, in a sense St. Mark’s found me. Now St. Mark’s is probably the quirkiest place I know. It was the home of St. Mark the Evangelist and has the Upper Room, which you get to by going down into the basement of the Church. It has the door upon which St. Peter knocked after his miraculous midnight release from prison and Rhoda in her excitement neglected to open for him. It has the well from which St. Mary the Mother of the Lord drew water after the Resurrection and the font in which she was baptized after Pentecost. Hanging above the font is the icon of St. Mary and the infant Jesus which St. Luke painted and which is depicted here, in the Workmen’s Window of St. Luke. And it has the chair on which St. James the Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem sat during the Council of Jerusalem that we heard about in tonight’s lesson from Acts.

It is this chair or rather the story that Luke tells that is significant for us tonight.

Luke in Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the Council of Jerusalem. As you may recall, Paul and Barnabas had had great success in their missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor and Greece. They had succeeded in establishing a number of Christian communities throughout the non-Jewish world. And that was a problem. The new Christians were not Jewish and so had not been following the Law of Moses, and especially the requirement of circumcision. There were those among the Jewish Christian party who insisted that the Gentile Christians must follow the Law of Moses, including circumcision, in order to be saved.[1] Luke delicately glosses over the vehemence of the argument and simply states and after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them[2]they were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and elders. I can only imagine the passion which lies behind this passing reference to dissension and debate. Think ‘ordination of women’. Think ‘marriage equality in the church’ and you will get a sense of what was at stake for both the Jewish and Gentile Christians in this disagreement. This was not a tempest in a teapot. This was not a gentlemen’s disagreement. Passions and tempers were white hot. What was at stake for both parties was the very nature of the infant Church and who could and could not be full members. Sound familiar? No wonder passions were so hot!

The person who emerges as the leader of the Church out of this conflict was a surprise. He wasn’t one of the original disciples. He wasn’t one of the post-Resurrection apostles. He was someone whom Scripture would lead us to believe only came to faith AFTER the resurrection. The one who emerged as the leader of the Jerusalem Church as a result of this conflict was James, the Lord’s own brother.

This James, the brother of the Lord, makes a few, and not very flattering appearances in the gospels. After offending the hometown crowd, Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth because they know his very ordinary family. 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 this?And they took offence at him.[3] On another occasion Mary and his siblings appear in the place where he is teaching, obviously wanting to take him home and away from the crowds. When someone tells him:‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’[4] On yet another occasion his brothers seem to taunt him saying:‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ 5(For not even his brothers believed in him.)[5]

The picture we get of James is not flattering at all: an ordinary man, the son of an ordinary man concerned about the impression his religious maniac brother was giving to his friends and wanting to hustle his brother away, lest he cause further embarrassment to the family. In fact James was no doubt so embarrassed by his brother that not even he believed in Jesus.

And yet, at the Resurrection something happened. Though we do not know the details, we do know that the Risen Lord appeared to James on his own.[6] Thereafter, James is one of the acknowledged pillars of the Jerusalem Church.[7] And so it is James, not one of the early disciples, not even one of the apostles, but a man who came late to his faith, someone from a very ordinary family who makes such a momentous decision that we feel its effects to this very day.Listen to me says James, for I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.[8]

The decision which James made that allowed the Gentile converts to be full members of the Church, was not the lowest common denominator, but rather the minimum requirement for belonging. This decision allowed for the full inclusion of Gentile believers into the infant Church. It was the decision which, in a sense, allowed our non-Jewish ancestors to be regarded as equal partners in the Gospel and heirs of the Promises of God. There were those who would have kept us out, or at least required strict observance of the Law of Moses. There were those who were not happy with the thought of Gentiles being equal members of the household of God. There were those who wanted to keep the early Church a Jewish sect. The decision made by James changed all that. His decision allowed you and me to claim our place as Christians and full members of the Church.

You and I make countless decisions every day of our lives. Most of them have little consequence beyond ourselves. Occasionally what we decide to do or not do has an impact beyond us, if only to our circle of friends. Sometimes our decisions impact the world, not just for today, but for all time.

James’ decision at the Council of Jerusalem was one of those decisions which literally changed the history of the world, in spite of the fact that he was quite an ordinary man and the son of an ordinary man who late in life had a religious experience that caused him to belong to an insignificant Jewish sect. His decision which permitted Gentiles to be included as members of the Church, changed the nature of the Church and has shaped your life.

Occasionally you and I are called upon to make a decision which has immense impact: to decide to do this or behave that way because that is the kind of monastic community or Church or nation that you would want to belong to. James was probably not aware of the impact his decision would have, but he had a vision for the kind of Church he wanted to belong to and which he thought was faithful to the promises of God. What is your vision for this monastic community? What is your vision for the Church? What is your vision for this nation? You may not be aware of the impact your decision will have, but you do have a vision for this community, for this Church, for this nation. So dream the dream of God and make your decision. Perhaps likes James’ it will have an earth shattering impact.

James had a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the history of the world, and he took it by deciding that Gentiles could be full members of the Church. Every so often we have an opportunity to change our personal story by making this decision or that. Occasionally we even have a chance to shape the history of the nation and the world. What decision is God inviting you to make at this stage in your life that will shake up your world and even the world? Remember St. James the Brother of the Lord, and be bold.


[1] Acts 15:1

[2] Acts 15:2

[3] Matthew 13: 55 – 57

[4] Mark 3: 32b – 35

[5] John 7: 3b – 4

[6] 1 Corinthians 15: 7

[7] Galatians 2: 9

[8] Acts 15: 13, 19 – 20

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