A homily for the feast of St James of Jerusalem

The Gospel reading appointed for this, the feast of St James of Jerusalem, concludes a preaching tour of Jesus that included the parable of the sower, the parable of the wheat and the tares (the weeds), the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the pearl of great value, and the parable of the dragnet. Through means of these parables Jesus taught his disciples, and he teaches us, what it means to be the living, material reality of the kingdom of heaven.

But when, on returning to Nazareth at the conclusion of this short preaching tour, he taught in his hometown synagogue, the people there were having none of it. At first astonished by his teaching and his miracles, they quickly became suspicious and accusatory: Where did he get this wisdom and these mighty works? Isn’t he Joseph’s son? Isn’t Mary his mother? Aren’t his brothers and sisters here in Nazareth? Who does he think he is? We can easily imagine their ratcheting themselves out of being astonished at him, to resenting him, and then into being offended by him. The reasons for this aren’t given. We don’t know whether they resented him because he didn’t have the proper credentials to be going about, teaching with authority and performing mighty works of God; or whether this was simply a case of the sort of contempt that familiarity breeds (“I knew this upstart when he was a little boy!”). In any event, their offense at him led to their rejection of him. Israel had not only rejected the prophets whom God had sent them, but in the people of Nazareth they were now rejecting the One to whom the prophets had pointed. They had rejected the word of the LORD in the mouths of the prophets, and now they rejected the Word of God made flesh, standing in their midst—as he had for nearly thirty years before his baptism and the beginning of his itinerant ministry.

Matthew’s Gospel ends this richly parabolic preaching tour with the passage we read this morning and prefaces the tour with an account of how Jesus’ mother and his brothers came to where he was preaching and stood outside, wanting him to come out and talk to them. In Luke’s Gospel (8:19-21) it is the press of the crowd that prevents their getting in to Jesus, but Matthew doesn’t tell us why they stood outside. Nor does Matthew go as far as Mark (3:21, 31-35) in ascribing their wanting to see Jesus to an intention of restraining him, of taking him home by force, because his claiming the authority to heal lepers and to forgive sins and to relax the Sabbath laws had convinced them that he was out of his mind. But given the canonical witness, it seems likely that Jesus’ brothers, including James, did not believe that he was Who he was showing himself to be in his teaching, in his forgiving sins, and in his mighty works of healing.

But grace intervened. As we read in today’s epistle, after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his brother, James. We hear nothing more (chronologically) until we learn that James had become a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12, 15). The unbelieving brother, who grew up in the same house with the Word made flesh, who had eaten meal after meal at the same table with him, who likely shared a bed or a sleeping mat with him, had come to faith in his encounter with the risen Lord—his brother!—and had become a leader of the church. And not just any church, but the home church of St Peter, St John, and the rest of the Twelve, and the mother church of the Church! Paul considered him an apostle, though he was not one of the Twelve (Galatians 1), recognizing him, along with Peter and John, as pillars of the Jerusalem church. Because of his apostleship and his presiding role in the church there, tradition reckons him the first bishop of Jerusalem.

The fourth century historian Eusebius, quoting from an earlier church history by Hegesippus, writes that James was surnamed “the Just” (the Righteous) on account of his great piety and ascetical life. He went frequently into the Temple alone to pray and knelt so often, interceding for the forgiveness of the people, that his knees became as callused as a camel’s—hence the petition in today’s Collect that the Church ”may give itself continually to prayer.” Eusebius recounts that James was so persuasive in leading people to faith in Jesus that the scribes and Pharisees entreated him to “restrain the people, who are led astray after Jesus, as if he were the Messiah.” Refusing to do so, James was then thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, where he had been placed to denounce Jesus to the people, and once he was upon the pavement was cudgeled to death. Toward the end of the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus recounted that James “with certain others” was stoned to death in the year 62 at the instigation of the high priest Annas.

Jesus’ rejection in Matthew in providential. He was rejected by his own brothers, his own hometown, his own people, the people of Israel—but in retrospect we understand that this rejection allows time for us, for the Gentiles, to be brought into the covenant, as the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Romans:

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved… For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:25-26a, 29)

In God’s providence, James, first unbelieving and then believing, would share in making a place at the table for believing Gentiles. Presiding at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which resolved the deeply divisive issue of whether Gentile converts should be circumcised before baptism, James defended the position argued by Paul and Barnabas against requiring circumcision and rendered the council’s decision, summarized in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles:

as it is written,

“After this I will return,
I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all Gentiles who are called by my name…”

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.

This decision, given by the Holy Spirit, faithfully discerned by the apostles and elders, and articulated by St James of Jerusalem, is why we can rejoice with St Paul that the old wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been torn down and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

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