Grant, O God, that, following the example of your apostle James the Just, kinsman of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Can you imagine growing up as Jesus’ brother? Just picture an adolescent James with some sibling jealousy shooting off his mouth to Mary. “Yeah, right Mom, Jesus can do no wrong. I’ll bet he walks on water. You treat him like he’s God’s gift to humanity!” I don’t know about first century Jewish teenagers – whether they would have talked like that or not – but you could imagine that today, couldn’t you? And, if James had the good sense not to speak up, I’ll bet he still thought it.
Now, I mean this humorously, but not flippantly. The truth is that James – and the rest of the family – had some concerns that Jesus might not be in his right mind all the time. On at least one occasion, the family attempted an intervention to bring Jesus home, fearing that he was “beside himself.” James certainly didn’t believe in Jesus’ messianic pretensions, nor did the rest of Jesus’ siblings. They even taunted Jesus to provoke him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, knowing full well that the Jewish authorities wanted to arrest him there. There was a certain level of animosity in the household.
I suspect it got worse as tension escalated between Jesus and the rulers of the Jews. If Jesus was slightly unorthodox, perhaps even radical, by established religious standards – he did play fast and loose with the Sabbath and associate with sinners – James did just the opposite; James was a Jew’s Jew who earned the nickname The Just by observing the letter of the Law, by praying for hours on end and by living as a devout and holy Israelite in whom there was no guile. Having Jesus as a brother might well have sullied that reputation.
And then Jesus finally took things too far with his kingly procession into Jerusalem and that spectacle in the Temple. He publicly, symbolically, challenged both Rome and the Sanhedrin; did he expect them to sit back and do nothing? Was it really a surprise when he was arrested? I wonder how James felt about all this. Angry at the insult of Rome once again imposing its will on Israel? Vindicated by the Jewish authorities’ rejection of Jesus? Worried that the rest of the family might be drawn into this trouble? Perhaps secretly glad that Jesus would be taught a lesson – until he learned the severity of that lesson, of course?
But crucifixion: that almost certainly changed things. Crucifixion was intentionally the most brutal, degrading, and humiliating form of punishment the Romans had devised. And, in Judaism, anyone hung on a tree – and crucifixion is surely the most extreme example of that – was considered cursed by God. Regardless of what James thought and felt about Jesus, the shame of crucifixion would redound to the whole family. Could they even have returned home after that?
And, there must have been other worries. Jesus wasn’t the first Messianic claimant in those days, nor the last. When one of these died – was killed – the mantle of group leadership typically fell to the eldest sibling. Was that James? In the list of brothers – James, Joses, Jude, and Simon – James is listed first; he was probably the eldest. Was he worried Rome would come for him next?
It could not have been easy being Jesus’ brother, either during Jesus’ life or at his death.
But, if James thought the story was over – that the cross ended things once for all – he was mistaken. We have this from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Cor 15:3-7, ESV).
And there you have it. Jesus appeared alive again to James, and that changed everything. Can you imagine James talking to his mother Mary after this? “Jesus could do no wrong. He did walk on water, didn’t he? And he is God’s gift to humanity.” This is a family whose dynamic was forever changed — changed by the resurrection.
So what became of James now that he had seen the resurrected Lord Jesus, now that he was forced to believe? We next encounter James in Jerusalem, in the church, where he is the presiding elder – what we would call the bishop of the Jerusalem Church: not one of the inner three – not Peter, James or John the sons of Zebedee – but James, the brother of Jesus. Why James? His choice as bishop may have been, in part, familial honor; Jesus is gone, so his next-of-kin is chosen to assume leadership of the group. It may have been because of James’ good reputation and connections in the upper levels of Jewish hierarchy. At this early point in its development, the church was sect of Judaism; certainly the Jerusalem Church was Jewish in ethnicity and character. James might have been the perfect choice to induce other Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah.
Because the Jerusalem Church was seen as the mother Church of the faith, it had influence far beyond the city. When a controversy arose about Paul preaching to Gentiles and telling them the Gospel of Jesus was as much for them as for Jews, and that they need not keep the Jewish Law to be followers of Jesus, the opposing parties appealed to the Jerusalem Church to sort out the mess. It fell to James to speak on behalf of the Church – not just the Jerusalem Church, but from the Jerusalem Church on behalf of the whole Church. It was James who authored the letter to the Church in Antioch – which would be read throughout all the evangelized regions – expressing the will of the Spirit and the mind of the Church. Gentiles need not keep the Mosaic Law in its entirety, but they do need to avoid sexual immorality, refrain from eating strangled animals, and remember the poor. So, James the Just, the faithful and righteous Jew, sided with the Gentiles while still recognizing Jewish morality and culture.
But, it is in the epistle bearing his name that we best encounter James, I think: his understanding of the faith, what was important to him. His letter also provides a window into the early Church while it still bore its Jewish imprint, and yet it is as current as today.
In his greeting, James identifies himself not as “the Just,” nor as the bishop of the Jerusalem church, nor even as the brother of Jesus, but rather as “James a servant [slave] of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1a). A slave of Jesus: what a turnaround that is, and what humility it shows.
There are many important themes in James; a good homily might be simply to read the entire letter without comment. It wouldn’t take long, and I certainly commend that to you on this feast day of St. James. But, I’ll focus briefly on three major themes in the epistle, themes that the church needs to grapple with in every generation, not least in our own: (1) the sin of partiality and the disparity between rich and poor, (2) the fallacy of faith alone, and (3) the destructive nature of human speech.
We have an ever widening gap between rich and poor in our world, in our country, and perhaps even in our churches. It was the same in James’ experience, and he challenged the churches on this issue. Are the poor welcome in our churches – really welcomed, not just as objects of pity and opportunities to show mercy, but also as equal brothers and sisters in Christ? Is there any partiality shown to the rich, any favoritism? Are the rich guilty – either actively or passively – in the oppression or neglect of the poor? Do we exercise a preferential option for the rich, when God exercises a preferential option for the poor? Listen to James.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9).
In the church, we are called to impartiality, or perhaps even preference for the poor, whom God has chosen to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. Poor lives matter: not just because all lives matter, but because poor lives are especially tenuous.
James was also concerned about the relationship between faith and works, as was Paul, as were the Reformers, though all of them were probably talking past each other about slightly different things. Faith is essential – make no mistake about that – and James agreed. But he also distinguished between living faith and dead faith, about faith which accomplishes something and faith which is empty and powerless. Let’s hear James speak again.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).
So where the Reformers say that we are saved by faith alone, James offers a firm corrective: we are saved by living faith alone which shows its vitality in the work it does. It is work that reveals the genuineness and living nature of one’s faith. Notice again the particular example of faithful work that James uses: feeding and clothing the poor Christian brother or sister.
Lastly, as if James were reading our newspapers, watching our television, and monitoring our social media, he condemns abuses of speech. Beware the evil of the tongue. James writes:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so (James 3:3-10).
This is enough to give you a sense of James and of his approach to the faith: very down to earth, very pragmatic, and, might I say, very Jewish in its emphasis on mitzvot (righteous deeds). We can get too abstract. We can center the faith too much in our heads and maybe even in our hearts. James reminds us that our resources, our hands, and our mouths are important too.
So, what became of James? I’ll answer from the book Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2000):
James’ success in converting many to Christ greatly perturbed some factions in Jerusalem. According to Hegesippus [2nd century Christian historian], they begged him to “restrain the people, for they have gone astray to Jesus, thinking him to be the Messiah … we bear you witness that you are just … Persuade the people that they do not go astray … we put our trust in you.” They then set James on the pinnacle of the temple, bidding him to preach to the multitude and turn them from Jesus. James, however, testified for the Lord. Thereupon, they hurled him from the roof to the pavement, and cudgeled him to death.
James had a remarkable, cruciform life: from disbelieving brother of Jesus to faithful slave of Christ and bishop of the Church; from staunchly Orthodox Jew to advocate for Gentiles; from taunting Jesus to risk death to his own martyrdom for the Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the witness of his life and death. Amen.