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.
I’m impressed this morning by the whole-hearted response of the Israelites to the Law that God gave them through Moses:
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice: ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’“ (v. 3)
And just a few verses later:
“Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.'” (v.7)
Saints Agnes and Cecilia of Rome, Martyrs
In the calendar of the church we remember today two early Christian martyrs: Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes. Saint Cecilia, as a young woman, was married. She converted to Christianity members of her own household; however in the face of the demand from the Roman government to offer sacrifice to pagan idols, a demand she refused, Cecilia was martyred year 280. Saint Agnes, a 12-year old child, was brought to a civil magistrate, before whom she refused to renounce her Christian faith, and she, too, was martyred, this in year 304. Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote about Agnes that “all were astounded that she should come forward as a witness to God when she was still too young to be her own mistress.” The various accounts of Cecilia and Agnes’ martyrdom are appalling, which show something of the impact of the life and death these two young women made upon their contemporaries and succeeding generations.
The word “courage” comes to mind in remembering martyrs such as Cecilia and Agnes. Our word courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor, then the Old French, corage. Courage emanates from the heart, the heart symbolizing the essence of a person. We hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”[i] But courage is not something to work on. Becoming courageous is not a spiritual calisthenic. Courage comes as a byproduct, a characteristic or an action which is quite invisible to the person themselves. I have never once heard someone described as having done something courageous who sees this about themselves. Courage is in the eye of the beholder, not in the awareness of the actor.
In the world of spiritual care, there is an oft-quoted adage. It seems especially common in the world of hospital chaplaincy:
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
I first heard it from the novelist John Green, whose experience as a hospital chaplain shaped his authorial approach to empathy. During my own months as a chaplain intern last Fall, this deceptively simple reminder kept me centered in the demands of my role. While I in fact did, and said, and asked many things, it was ultimately just standing or sitting there in loving availability that God would use to open a healing space in a patient’s experience.
Allowing ourselves to be loved by God, as Jesus did, also requires some degree of just sitting there, as Mary of Bethany did in Jesus’ presence. But consenting to this transformation at the core of our being is anything but passive: it is our single greatest challenge. To the world, that process looks like nothing. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:31-27
In Hebrew scripture, the authors of the Jewish Wisdom books frequently contrast two Ways – the way of good and the way of evil, or the way of meaning and the way of vanity. A consistent theme ascribed to the way of holiness, integrity, and truth is its weight. This way has substance – it is heavy, solid, and stable. Those who follow this way have roots, as in Psalm 1: “They are like trees, planted by streams of water, with leaves that do not wither.” By contrast, the way of evil or vanity is light, ephemeral and insubstantial. Those who follow it become like chaff which the wind blows away, like dew or clouds that evaporate, like grass which withers in the sun, or like the web of a spider brushed casually aside.
Jesus’ parable of the two house-builders, which concludes the sermon on the mount in Matthew, participates in this tradition of the Two Ways with its stark opposites: the wise man and the foolish man, the immovable house built on rock and the flimsy house built on shifting sand. This is is a sobering reminder that authentic discipleship demands the concentrated weight of commitment expressed in actions. Accepting wise and prudent commitments is a practice that gives our life with God substance.