Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Today is the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem.  Matthew's gospel calls him the brother of our Lord; Mark calls him the cousin, and other ancient texts refer to him as Jesus' half brother.  In any event, he would have known well the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he was not one of the Apostles; he wasn't even a disciple before the resurrection.  So the reading we heard today from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew seems, at first glance, to be an odd one for this feast: the reading is a passage from Jesus' instructions to the Apostles when he sent them out to minister during his lifetime.

Now one might try to justify this odd selection of readings by noting that the proper readings for Eucharist today took the most obvious choices of readings for Saint James of Jerusalem.  The office and the Eucharist are complements, not substitutes, and their Lectionaries are designed as such.  If you were here last night when we celebrated Eucharist for the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, you heard the reading from Acts that recounted the Council of Jerusalem, that tense and vital time in the history of the Church when church leaders tried to grapple with the role of Gentiles in the emerging Christian community.  As the Church tried to settle the question of whether converts to Christianity had to become Jewish in order to become Christian, James played a vital mediating role.  The Gospel yesterday evening gave Matthew's account of James as one of the brothers of Jesus.  And the reading from Paul's letter to the Corrinthians, which we did not read in church but is still in the Lectionary for the Eucharist, told of Jesus' appearance to his brother James after his resurrection, which led James to join the church.

So if all these readings that actually mention James were taken, what's left for us to hear today?  We hear an account of Jesus' instructions to the Apostles.  Let's take a closer look at that reading.

Jesus had just finished calling the last of the twelve.  He sent them out in mission and gave them instructions (including the admonition not to wear sandals, in contrast with their instructions in Mark's gospel to wear sandals); today's reading is a warning of the persecutions they will face.

The thing is, while this reading is placed at this point in Matthew's gospel, before the confession of St. Peter, before the Transfiguration, before the Last Supper, there isn't really any evidence that the Apostles went out and were persecuted and dragged before governors and kings at this point in the story.  While the Apostles were dragged before governors and kings, and all but one martyred, we have no accounts of this happening until after the resurrection.  Matthew inserts this tale of commissioning here in the story, but the instructions and warnings apply as much if not more to the Apostles and indeed to all followers of Jesus who are sent out in mission after the resurrection.  And the admonition to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves surely describes James of Jerusalem.

James held his beliefs strongly, but was able to find common ground and preserve the unity of the Church in the midst of a doctrinal conflict that threatened to tear it apart.  James helped those who ministered among the Gentiles and those who ministered among the Jews listen to each other and to the voice of God.  The Church didn't compromise, but James helped it reflect and discern God's will at a time when tensions between factions might have torn the Church apart.  In the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that at the council he opposed St. Peter to his face, because Peter was wrong.  James' leadership in Jerusalem helped hold the Church together.  Wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.

James, in his zeal, won many converts to the faith, but managed to discreetly live a long life in Jerusalem after the resurrection.  Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  He converted many just as he had himself converted to following Jesus, but he managed to avoid antagonizing the religious leaders of Jerusalem for a good thirty years.

But ultimately, James was martyred.  Because while he was a model of understanding, he knew and believed that ultimately, the faith cannot be compromised.  Ultimately, the Gospel will require our total devotion, and that devotion can consume our lives.  Today's reading reminds us that obedience to the Gospel will ultimately come before our friends and family, our safety, our homes, our freedom, and perhaps even our lives.  James of Jerusalem, in wisdom and innocence, did not seek this out.  He did not pick fights, and indeed, he avoided them as long as he could, in conscience.  But when he was forced to choose between saving his life by renouncing the faith and continuing to preach the Gospel, he preached the Gospel.  For this he was killed.  In today's reading, Jesus promises us that God will be with us in all our tribulations and that one who endures to the end will be saved.  Praise God for James of Jerusalem.  Praise God for those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored.  Pray that we may have the grace to glorify Christ in our own day.  Amen.