Sunday, October 23, 2011

St. James of Jerusalem


Sermon on Matthew 13:54-58
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 23, 2011 (St. James of Jerusalem)

One of the main thing that distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that the events that stand at the center of our faith took place at a specific point in history, at a time we can place not only from the accounts in Scripture but also from the writings of other historians who lived at that time, and they took place at a specific place that you and I can go and visit today. In other words, the story that forms the heart of what we believe as Christians is not a myth that begins, “Once upon a time,” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.” Rather, these are actual eyewitness accounts of things that took place at a definite time in the history of our world, the same world in which you and I are living right now.
Another way we can tell that these stories are not myths but real history of real people, is that, unlike mythological accounts, the history of God’s people is recorded not only in terms of the heroic or righteous things that these people did, but also in terms of the stupid or wicked or faithless things they did as well. These men are depicted not as heroes but as humans. And all humans descended in the natural way from Adam and Eve do stupid, wicked, and selfish things. Even those most closely related, humanly speaking, to the one perfect human, Jesus Christ, were sinners. James, whom the Church remembers today, grew up in the same household as Jesus Himself. Now, we don’t know for sure whether James was Joseph’s son by a previous marriage, or whether he was Jesus’ half-brother, the natural son of Mary and Joseph. There’s an ancient tradition that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, and whether you think James is Jesus’ half-brother or step-brother will depend on whether you happen to believe that ancient tradition or not. But either way, James was raised as Jesus’ brother. You would think that a man raised in the same family as our Lord Himself would be a shining example of what Christians ought to be, and that the earliest Church in Jerusalem, which he later served as “bishop” or senior pastor, would be a model of what the Church is supposed to be.
Well, it just isn’t so. James didn’t become a Christian until after his brother and Lord had risen from the dead. On one occasion, he and his other brothers, along with Mary, came to get Jesus because they thought He wasn’t right in the head for calling Himself the Son of God. As today’s Gospel lesson points out, it is often those who are biologically closest to a prophet or preacher who have the hardest time believing what that prophet has to say, which is why it’s usually not a good idea for a pastor to serve the church he grew up in.
And even after James became a Christian and a pastor, the church he served, which was in many respects the preeminent congregation in those earliest times, since they were the church at Jerusalem, was divided by controversy. James is remembered perhaps most clearly as the pastor who presided over the very first “Synodical Convention,” if you want to put it in Missouri Synod terms, namely the first Jerusalem Council, which is recorded for us in the First Lesson today. And it wasn’t all sweetness and light, either. It was a divided council, and it dealt with a controversial issue, namely the question of how much of the old Mosaic law Gentiles should be asked to follow in order to be considered Christians. There has never been a time when the external church has been perfectly united and without politics and agendas and division coming from various places in her midst. There is no such thing as a pure and pristine early church which, if we could just be exactly like them and do things exactly the way they did, all our problems would be over. There have always been divisions and controversy in the Church. Every generation has had at least one, and usually more than one, controversy or division causing strife and political unrest in visible Christendom. The Church is made up of forgiven sinners, and it always has been.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? The whole reason Jesus became man, was born of the virgin Mary, suffered and died under Pontius Pilate, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven is so that we poor, miserable sinners could be reunited with our Creator. The whole reason the Church exists is to distribute far and wide the forgiveness that Jesus came to win for us by His cross and resurrection. If there were such a thing as a perfect Christian or a perfect Church, such a creature wouldn’t need Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, and thus it wouldn’t really be a Christian or a Church. It is precisely because we are weak that God is glorified among us, because if we were strong, we could just as well glorify ourselves. It is precisely in our weakness that God’s strength is seen. As James himself reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, it’s precisely when troubles and trials and, yes, controversies come that God’s strength is shown in us.
I don’t know if Holy Cross congregation was in the habit of observing the various saints’ days when they fall on Sundays or not. What we are doing today may be a new thing for many of you. Rest assured, however, that when we remember the lives and the works of various men in the history of the Church, we are not glorifying those men, but rather we are glorifying God for what He has done in and through them despite their own weaknesses and sins. James wasn’t always a Christian, despite being raised in the same home as Christ Himself. And after he became a Christian and a pastor, he presided not over a victorious, growing, vibrant church, but a church scattered by persecution and divided by controversy. All he had to offer them was what he himself was given by his brother Jesus when He appeared to him after his resurrection: the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That’s all we have to offer as well. But the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, while it may not seem like much while we live in this old world, is everything. It’s nothing less than being reunited with the One who has become our Father and His Son Jesus, who has now become our adopted brother along with James, and who will share all good things with us in the heavenly mansions forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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