St. James the Brother of the Lord

For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: 19th Sunday after Pentecost 2011

Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (matt 13.54-58 niv84)

If you were to make a list of the most common difficulties involved with studying the Bible, the names would probably be high on the list. A lot of the time they’re hard to pronounce. Melchizedek or Methusael or Maher-shahel-hash-baz don’t exactly roll off your tongue unless you practice them. Even if you figure out how to say it, what does it mean? Some Bible names, like Michael or David or Rachel, are really common and familiar, and the rest, not so much. Even if the name is easy to say, sometimes different people have the same name, and that’s confusing too. You have to stop and think, which one are we dealing with here?

Take the name James. There are between two and eight men named James in the New Testament, depending on how you count them. Most Christian teachers agree that just about all the instances where a James is mentioned in the New Testament can be narrowed down to three separate men. First there’s James son of Alphaeus. He was one of the twelve apostles. We don’t really know more than that about him. He’s not the James mentioned in our gospel for today. Then there’s James the son of Zebedee. He was also one of the Twelve. Jesus nicknamed him and his brother John the Sons of Thunder, because they were fiery and brash. James son of Zebedee was martyred by King Herod, according to Acts chapter 12. He was the first one of the twelve apostles to die for his faith, and the only one whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. Neither is he the James mentioned in our gospel for today.

The James mentioned in our gospel for today goes by several different titles. He’s called James the Less, perhaps because he was short or small of stature; James of Jerusalem, James the Just, and James the brother of the Lord, all for reasons we’ll get into shortly. Today is the day that the Christian church commemorates him. It’s fair to ask why: Why go to the trouble of unraveling who was who? Why should we care? Because these people in the Bible, the Jameses and all the rest of them, were real people who really knew Jesus, and they all received God’s very real grace – just as we do. We can look back and see all that God did for James and through James and give thanks. We can also learn some lessons for ourselves and derive some comfort from the course of James’ life. With those goals in mind, let’s turn to our gospel for today and see what God wants us to believe and how we should live.

Jesus had come home to Nazareth for a visit. He’d grown up there. He was familiar to the people there. They knew His family. They thought they knew Him. That’s what made that particular Sabbath day such an unpleasant surprise. Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and was invited to help lead their worship. Luke tells us He opened up to that day’s Scripture reading, from Isaiah 61 – “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.” Then Jesus sat down, as teachers usually did, and His sermon began: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Then He went on to teach them, and the things He told them were amazing. He opened up the Scriptures for them in ways they’d never heard before. His teaching was so deep, so clear, so subtle, so penetrating, that nobody could argue with Him or prove Him wrong.

Jesus’ former neighbors looked at Him with new eyes. They remembered watching Him grow up. They remembered watching Him play in the streets with His brothers and sisters, helping his parents, going to synagogue on the Sabbath — and now here He was, sitting in their church, telling them that Isaiah had foretold His coming, that He had God’s Spirit on Him to do wonders, that He was the Son of God.

They thought they knew Him, and that was the problem. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother’s name Mary? Aren’t His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t His sisters with us? Where did this man get all these things?” There’s definitely a derogatory flavor to the way they refer to Jesus here – definitely a tone of “Who does this guy think He is?!” To them, Jesus was a nobody. His father was a carpenter – someone who made furniture or cabinets. A good trade, an honest trade, but not exactly high society. They knew His mother. They knew His relatives, and they had for a long time. They refused to believe Jesus’ words about Himself, and the miracles He did to back them up, and instead they believed the evidence of their own eyes. Thus they stumbled over Him. They could not bring themselves to believe that the humble carpenter’s son was the Son of God.

We should take this text as a very severe warning for ourselves. Just being around Jesus or around His Word is not enough. Nor is a family history of faithfulness by people other than you. It doesn’t matter if your grandfather was a pastor or your father was very devout or your mother always brought you to church, if you don’t believe for yourself. If these people saw Jesus in person, watched Him grow up, had Him in their church, yet were rejected by God because they did not believe in Him, how is God going to deal with us? On the same basis that they fell short: on whether or not we have faith in His Son. “Blessed are those who have not seen, but yet have believed,” Jesus said. They saw, and still they did not believe. Let’s not make the same mistake.

This text also raises the question of how exactly Jesus’ brothers and sisters were related to Him. It’s not necessarily clear if these other brothers and sisters are Mary and Joseph’s other natural children, if they’re stepchildren from a previous marriage by Joseph, or if they’re Jesus’ cousins. The Jews used the words “brother” and “sister” a lot more elastically than we do. In Genesis 13 Abram is called Lot’s brother, for instance, even though Lot was his nephew. Hebrew usage allowed for someone to be called your brother even if they were your cousin or a stepbrother or some other relation. The Bible doesn’t settle the issue the way some people would like. There’s evidence on both sides, either that these are Jesus’ brothers and sisters the way we think of brothers and sisters, or that they’re cousins or something like that. This is one of those issues where we are free to examine the evidence and then make up our minds.

What’s important for our purposes here is that Jesus had a family, however exactly they were related to Him. He grew up spending time with these people – laughing with them, eating dinner with them, worshipping with them, doing chores with them. Jesus knows the joys of life in a godly family. He also knows what it’s like when some of your family does not follow God. In John chapter 7, Jesus’ brothers are recorded speaking skeptically about Him. They know He’s somebody who’s going to be famous and powerful one day, they know He can do things nobody else can – but they don’t believe He’s the Christ and God’s Son. Don’t you think that caused a rift in their family? Joseph and Mary both knew and believed who Jesus was. That Christmas song asks, “Mary, did you know?” She knew before anybody else did, and probably better than anybody else. Joseph did too. He believed the Word of the Lord about his Son that wasn’t his son. But the other children in their family didn’t believe in Him. Even at His death, when He hung on the cross, only Mary His mother was there – none of these brothers and sisters. Jesus died separated because of God’s Word from the family He’d grown up with and loved. So Jesus knows what you’re going through when your heart sinks and your stomach churns for your child that doesn’t care about God. He knows the tears you cry for that family member that thumbs their nose at God and taunts you for your faith. He knows how you worry about your spouse or your parent who is afraid of death or feels guilty for their sins but refuses to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and life. Jesus knows because He’s gone through it already, and He knows how it feels right now because He shares your human flesh. The sorrow in your heart that comes on account of God’s Word is His. He shares it with you. You’re not alone.

If all we can take away from St. James of Jerusalem’s day is to be sad over our relatives who don’t believe, then we might as well skip it. Many of us are already bothered by the fact that people we love don’t believe.  Why dwell on it if nothing can be done about it? Something can be done about it, and James of Jerusalem’s story shows what God can accomplish in our lives too.

James didn’t believe his Brother was the Christ until after Jesus’ death. After He rose from the dead, Jesus showed Himself to James, and that was enough to convert him. Imagine what that meeting must have been like! James realized that he’d been wrong all along, and the evidence had been staring him in the face. Now this Man that he’d only been able to think of as just a brother had come back from the dead, and that was enough to convince James, and his brothers too. Now they knew and believed that their Brother was the Savior and the only true God. They finally understood what they had resisted the entire time His entire time on earth. Acts chapter 1 records that the brothers of Jesus waited with the disciples and the Virgin Mary for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They believed Jesus’ promises at last. After Pentecost, while Peter was traveling around more to preach and teach, James became a leader in the church at Jerusalem, so much so that Paul later refers to him in Galatians as a “pillar” of the church. The church at Jerusalem was thought of as the “mother church” for all of Jesus’ followers. The twelve apostles started it and shepherded it together, and Christians moved on from there to start other churches throughout the Mediterranean world. The congregation at Jerusalem was the most central and influential congregation in the Christian church at that time, and James became its bishop. That shows you what a key figure James was in the early Christian church.

When you read through Acts chapter 15, you see why James became so important. Our first lesson for today recounts how James guided an early council through a controversial issue to a peaceful resolution. His leadership was steady, mature, and based on Scripture. He was considerate to everyone and didn’t compromise the gospel. He was also a man of prayer. James reportedly had knees as calloused as a camel’s because he spent so much time on his knees in prayer. God used James to do a lot for His church.

You can also see what kind of a Christian James was by reading his epistle. The New Testament book of James was written by James of Jerusalem. His brother Jude, also mentioned in this gospel, wrote the New Testament epistle of Jude. It seems that all of Jesus’ brothers later became apostles, although the Holy Spirit only used James and Jude to help write down part of the New Testament. James’ letter is very practical and grounded in day to day living. James gives you a lot to think about. It’s not as doctrinally rich as some of Paul’s letters, for instance, but it’s valuable help and guidance for Christians living in a sinful world. It’s not that long either – it’s only three pages or so in most Bibles. You could read it comfortably in fifteen or twenty minutes. I highly recommend it. James has a lot of good things to say about the life we live every day.

The life story of James of Jerusalem shows what God’s grace can do in a person’s life. It can take someone who’s an unbeliever and opposed to Jesus, and turn them into a devoted servant and someone who loves Christ. James went from being skeptical about Jesus, estranged from Him, and not believing in Him, to leading the most influential church in all Christendom, writing part of the New Testament, and guiding and defending God’s people with God’s Word. If Jesus did all that for James, what will He do for you? What will He do for those you love who don’t love Him? Never limit what God’s grace can do. Never limit how His Word can change someone for the better. Keep praying for that person you love whose unbelief bothers you, keep telling them what God says in His Word, and don’t give up hope. You never know what God will do – and James of Jerusalem would be the first to tell you that. Amen.

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