Everything You Do Matters – Br. Lain Wilson

Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem

When was the last time you wore a uniform?

I remember all the uniforms I’ve worn over the years, whether for sports or school or choir. They each signaled commitment, belonging, and interest, and equipped me for performance. I also remember something my parents told me: that when I wore a uniform, I wasn’t only representing myself—I was representing the group I belonged to. I took on the reputation of the group when I put on the uniform—and, just as importantly, my behavior contributed back to that reputation. Whose you are matters, and everything you do while wearing the uniform also matters.

I have these two themes, belonging and action, on my mind today, the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem. The early Church recognized him, as we do, as a brother of Jesus, as attested in our Gospel lesson. But he wasn’t just a relative. Other biblical texts, including our readings from Acts and 1 Corinthians, show that James was one of the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Nonbiblical sources, meanwhile, signal that James was not only one of but the leader of the Jerusalem Church, a figure of towering importance for a community that faced fundamental questions of identity and mission. In particular, James was the leader of the group that argued for continued observance of at least some Jewish laws by followers of Jesus, in contrast to leaders like Paul who advocated for the development of a Christian community free of requirements of the law.

But whatever his own convictions, the portrait of James from Acts sees him standing in the middle of these two groups, dedicated to resolving tensions and achieving compromise. On the one hand, he recognizes the mission to the Gentiles as an enterprise ordained by God, and so supports an outward and encompassing orientation. On the other hand, though, he believes that even those Gentiles should be bound to follow some parts of Jewish law, especially around sexual morality and food practices. This “decree” positions James, at least in his depiction in Acts, as a figure of compromise and reconciliation between two divergent approaches to mission.

If Acts shows James acting to bring two groups together, other writings highlight his fundamental characteristic of righteousness. A fourth-century Church historian describes him as the “bulwark of the people and righteousness.”[1] This righteousness wasn’t easy or obvious, and was borne out in James’s life and death: he struggled for the poor against the powerful, and he suffered for it, dying a martyr’s death—and praying, even as he died, for those who were killing him. Care for the poor, not favoring the rich, patience and prayer in suffering—all these are themes of the letter attributed to him. What it means to live into our faith, to put into practice what we hear, to love our neighbor. That what we do and what we believe are inseparable. In other words, what it means to clothe ourselves in Christ.

James knew who he belonged to—not just any faction or people, but God. And though his vision of the Church did not win out, his example of reconciliation and righteousness have contributed to and built up the Church that we have inherited. We have put on the uniform of the Church—the Body of Christ. What does your uniform look like? What strength are you drawing from the uniform, from the Body it represents—and what are you contributing? Everything you do—everything we do—goes back into that Body, to build up that Body for those who come after. We, each of us, have put on the uniform of the Church, have clothed ourselves in Christ, and we can’t take it off again in this life. Everything we do matters.

Amen.


[1] Quoted in J. Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Columbia, SC, 1997), 122. The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius is quoting the second-century writer Hegesippus.

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