St. James of Jerusalem
Brother of our Lord, Martyr
Psalm 133, Acts 15:12-22a, Matthew 13:54-58
This homily was preached at 6:30 PM October 23rd, 2019 at the regular midweek Divine Service at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer – Columbus, GA.
In the Name of the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the church rejoices and gives thanks to God for St. James of Jerusalem, brother of our Lord, and martyr.
We all know James wrote one of the Epistles collected in the Holy Bible, however in the Church he is most remembered for his leadership in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Our lesson shows how exemplary James is for us. He is celebrated for being a unifier and reconciler of God’s people. Hence we prayed this evening, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:1)
It’s ironic in a way that James is remembered for bringing unity to the Church. In spite of his efforts his name has been brought up in conflicts. During his lifetime many people claiming to represent James caused division in the church. Paul had to deal with such people in Galatia and in his epistle reprove their error for many had fallen away from faith in Christ to confidence in the works of the law. Then later in the church’s history some Christians, including our beloved Martin Luther, thought James contradicted Paul when he wrote “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Yet, the conflict is easily resolved when you know that in fact James is using the word faith differently than Paul since for James even the demons “believe.” Both Paul and James were concerned that genuine faith would bring about the fruit of repentance and good works that follow from true faith. James’ point (and Paul would agree) is that without the fruit of good works then your faith is proven to be dead or a sham. You cannot use Christ’s forgiveness as a license to sin or to excuse yourself from loving your neighbor. True faith would never think of such a thing. Paul says as much in Romans 6 and it was of chief concern to James in his Epistle.
James and Paul were one in Christ. There is no record of them having ever been in disagreement. In fact, James saw to it that the Gentiles to whom Paul preached would not be scandalized by too many legalistic burdens in keeping faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the Jerusalem Council we read him celebrating the Gentiles inclusion in the gracious forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ and then giving instruction to avoid things that harm such faith such as pagan worship and sexual immorality.
We shouldn’t minimize these conflicts. There was great concern for the unity of the church and the inclusion of the Gentiles, though prophesied, was still “new” to many Hebrew believers. Nowadays which hymns we sing or building and renovation projects can split a church. What trifle things to divide us when we consider what our forefathers faced as they sought to keep the peace within the church all the while they were being persecuted and troubled by the world outside them.
We never hear of James complaining. He faithfully kept the course of a pastor, constantly locked on the single goal of glorifying Christ and His gospel. He wisely listened to others and pondered what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing through them before he made a single decision or gave a single direction. He loved the Lord his God and therefore he loved the church and suffered with her even in the midst of tension and conflict.
The saying goes “You cannot choose your family.” and the same is true of the household of faith. You do not get to choose who is your brother and sister in Christ. The decision is God’s. God has has elected us to be born into His family by water and the Word. Baptized into Christ we are all God’s children, and if God’s children, then we are brothers and sisters forever. In light of that it is best that God’s house not be divided. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that since we will spend eternity together in heaven we better start learning how to get along now on earth.
The Scriptures teach that true unity can only be found among men by the blessing of God. Hence Israel remembered the anointing oil that was poured over the head of the high priest Aaron. That oil would be a sign to them that whenever Aaron interceded for them with prayer and sacrifice God was forgiving their sins and reconciling them to himself. Therefore, the community was reconciled to God and to one another. In the household of God unity is not achieved by men, it can only be received as a gift given by God to His dear children by His forgiveness.
And the happy news of the New Testament and our lesson from Acts today is that gift of unity has been given to all people. The gift of peace and goodwill toward men announced by the angels came down from heaven in the Great High Priest, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus. His head was not anointed with oil, but with His holy and precious blood that ran down His beard as a propitiation for our sins upon the cross. Upon the cross Jesus was winning us and all the world peace with God and the gift that we might be at peace with one another.
“How good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.” This is a unity not of our choosing, but one created by our Savior. The life of a Christian is not one of picking and choosing who is a sibling and who is not. It is one that is created and brought about by God.
Think of the most significant relationships that you have in your life. More often than not they are not created by a choice, but rather by being thrown together headlong into a particular situation or a particular community with some common goal or purpose. You may not have even liked them at first. Think of best friends at school who on the first day wondered who that funny looking kid was. Think of two soldiers who in life are polar opposites but grew strong bonds of friendship by risking life and limb together. Think of Christians, who though they don’t see eye to eye on everything look at one another as Christ blood bought and Christ blood blessed brothers and sisters who are one that the world may know the love of God.
Faith in our Lord Christ is to limit our options to one choice; His blood, His forgiveness, His salvation, making us part of His kingdom, and therefore His family! The Psalm gives us one more glimpse of the beauty of this kind of family, “For there the Lord has commanded blessing forevermore.” Here in Christ’s Church, in His Zion as the Psalmist calls it, the blessings of our High Priest flow to us through His Word and the Sacraments. Let us rejoice in His forgiveness. Let us rejoice for our forebearers like St. James. Let us rejoice for one another, for God is still reconciling us in forgiveness that we might be one.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
SDG – Rev. Eric M. Estes