Saint James of Jerusalem
Today, in the calendar of the Church we remember Saint James of Jerusalem, also known as James the Just and James the brother of our Lord. According to our lections this evening, all these titles seem appropriate, but it is this third title as ‘brother’ that I find intriguing and a starting point to exploring the others. I suspect all of us here understand the complexity of family dynamics. If your experience is like mine, you’ll know that when relationships with family members are good, they can be amazing, affirming, and a source of belonging. But, when they’re not, they can be the source of much pain, sadness, anger, and frustration, which if left unchecked can lead to estrangement.
Tradition has speculated that James might have been Jesus’ half-brother from a previous marriage of Joseph. Perhaps James was Jesus’ cousin; in first-century Palestine, the term brother was sometimes used as a way of describing other family members generally associated with someone. Regardless, our gospel lesson from Matthew says that as Jesus was preaching in the synagogue, people were astounded and even offended because Jesus isn’t from a rabbinic pedigree, which was commonly one of education and privilege. “Where did this man get this wisdom and deeds of power? 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 did this man get all this?” People seem to know that Jesus (in unflattering terms) was a bastard. While Mary was named as his mother, Joseph’s name was not even mentioned, much less the name of Jesus’ actual father in heaven. Jesus was simply the ‘carpenter’s son.’
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen questions surrounding Jesus’ family. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus is teaching, and someone comes to him and informs him that his family is at the door asking for him. Jesus writes them off saying “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples he 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.” We can gather that not only did the people from his hometown question Jesus’ authority to teach, but so did his own family who came asking for him, perhaps trying to step in and save Jesus from embarrassing not only himself, but also them, his ‘family.’ Even in John’s gospel we read that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. I’m reminded of a comical quip used in the south (where I’m from) that says, “In our family, we don’t hide crazy. We put it on the porch and give it a cocktail.” I think it is safe to say that Jesus’ family and neighbors didn’t share that sentiment.
Jesus was aware of questions surrounding his credibility. He says, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” Have you ever been deemed as incredulous by others, including members of your own family? Has your experience of something (or even your experience of God) been questioned or dismissed by those close to you? My suspicion is that all of us at some point in our lives have experienced this dynamic and we know that it can be frustrating and hurtful.
However, something happens between the experiences of Jesus’ family recorded in the gospels, and Luke’s account of Jesus’ brother in the Acts of the Apostles. James is presiding over a council to decide a controversial question that was creating divisions among believers and followers of Jesus, which includes his own brother who has since come to believe in his brother’s teaching. Paul says in his first Letter to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to his brother James following the resurrection. It is in seeing Jesus in flesh and blood that James sets aside the doubt and shame surrounding his brother and takes up leadership in the blossoming Church, settling a matter creating variance and even enmity among them.
The question was whether Gentile converts to what Jesus called ‘The Way’ needed to follow Jewish custom and follow the covenant given to the Jewish people by Moses. Or were they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into God’s future of the salvation and liberation of all? The fact that we are all here in this church this evening listening to the gospel being proclaimed and participating sacramentally in Jesus’ death and resurrection as a community, is a testimony to James’ wisdom and teaching. “After they had finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After I return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’ Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.”
And that is the legacy of St. James. He experienced that audacity of grace by seeing our Lord in the flesh and blood, as we tonight experience that same grace in receiving Jesus’ flesh and blood under the veil of bread and wine. It was this same grace which gave him understanding into questions capable of sustaining division and even enmity (a word that literally means “positive, active, and typically mutual hatred and ill will”) and helped unify the fledgling Church into a new vision of the gospel that helped propagate the message of God’s love for all. May we who are surrounded by so much enmity in our own day, and encounter the living Jesus in the Eucharist, follow his example of wisdom, patience, and faith, and seek to ease the world’s divisions in the reconciling truth of God’s future. St. James of Jerusalem, St. James the Just, St. James the brother of our Lord, who we remember today.
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