Sunday, September 2, 2012

The tale of two brothers and an extraordinary letter

Icon of James of Jerusalem,
brother of Our Lord
I am back in Charlottesville, back in the pulpit and ready for the Fall. My sermon today is particularly focused on the Letter of James. The readings today are: Song of Solomon 2:8-13Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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His name was Yakov bar Yosef – Jacob, son of Joseph. He grew up in northern Israel, away from the hubbub of Jerusalem. He had three or four brothers and a sister or two. His father died relatively young, and Jacob son of Joseph likely stepped into the role of father-figure for his siblings. He was the responsible, practical one.

One of Jacob’s brothers was Yesu bar Yosef – Joshua, son of Joseph. Jacob found his brother Joshua quite trying at times.

Joshua was not very responsible with family matters; he disappeared into the desert for long stretches, and finally split for good to live in the hinterlands as a mystical Jewish holy man.

We know from Mark’s gospel that Jacob and his siblings, and their mother, once even tried to bring Joshua home, but they were soundly rebuffed.

One day, many years later, Jacob son of Joseph would be known to the world by his Greek name, “James.” He would gain respect, and acquire the title “James the Just,” and would lead the early Christians in Jerusalem.

His brother we would know as Jesus, Son of God. Both brothers would meet violent deaths – Jesus on the Cross, and James by being thrown off the wall of the Jerusalem Temple and then stoned.

To know the family background of these two brothers is to know the back-story contained in the extraordinary letter from James we hear today. It is the only document we have from this man who inherited, maybe reluctantly, the religious movement begun by his brother.

The letter was written to an embattled Jewish community that was following the way of Jesus in a time before the word “Christian” had been coined.

Scholars debate whether it was actually written by James, the brother of Jesus. My own New Testament professor, Bill Countryman, usually a skeptic in such matters, makes a good argument that it was. If so, this letter represents possibly the only document we have that is written by someone with first hand knowledge of the entire life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The letter wastes no time on biographical details. It is preeminently practical, like its author, James.

James was initially a major skeptic of the Jesus movement. He is not listed among the first followers. He was not on the road with Jesus healing the sick, or in the Upper Room at the Last Supper, or at the foot of the Cross.

In the early going, James did not approve of his brother’s ideas – ideas that were threatening to the social order, and seemed – in words of our own time – so pie-in-the-sky.

He tried very hard to bring Jesus home and to turn him away from his dangerous trajectory.

We don’t know what brought James around to seeing things as Jesus saw them. But something very powerful got hold of him.

Maybe it was his own encounter with his resurrected brother. Whatever it was, James became the tower of strength for those who had followed Jesus, and for the next 30 years he was the undisputed primary leader of the Jesus movement.

There might well have been no Christianity without Jacob son of Joseph.

For the next five Sundays, we will hear excerpts from his letter. It only comes around every three years in our Sunday cycle of biblical readings, so I hope we might as a congregation take our time with it and drink deeply from his words. Today I am giving an overview of the letter as it will unfold in the next few weeks.

James was preeminently practical. His letter is alive with advice.

“You must understand this, my beloved,” he writes, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

Practical is not necessarily easy: Be humble, don’t get greedy, don’t grumble against each other, mind your language – he writes that “the tongue is a fire.”

Had he encountered email, he might have had something to say about that, too.

Be patient and gentle with each other, he implored, “full of good mercy and good fruits.”

Don’t judge each other. “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven,” he proclaims.

And, yes, life can be tough, so buck up: “blessed are those who show[ed] endurance.” Do not neglect your prayers. Pray for each other and pray especially for the sick, and welcome “the implanted word” in yourself.


By being doers.

You cannot ignore the poor, the sick, the oppressed and claim to have God’s righteousness. We will know your faith by what you do.

James preached exactly what the Hebrew prophets had preached, and it made him no more popular than they. It is why he became known as “James the Just.”

Religion in his day was much concerned – obsessed really – with purity.

If you could keep yourself undefiled on the outside, by eating the right foods, washing your hands the right way, and associating only with other pure people, then you would be pure and you would be right with God.

But James thought that was nonsense. He called it “worthless religion.” How to be pure? Be a doer.

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress.”

We hear this same exact lesson from Jesus’ lips in the Gospel of Mark today. Jesus is criticized because he and his disciples don’t wash their hands properly, they don’t use the right utensils or eat the right foods. They are not following the correct religious rules.

Jesus responds that those rules are nothing more than human traditions. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but things that come out are what defile,” Jesus says. “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

Much of what both Jesus and his brother James said would be misunderstood as the centuries unfolded. Martin Luther would even recommend that the letter from James should be dropped from the Bible.

The Church of later centuries would work itself into a corner by denying that Jesus had a brother.

The problem? The idea of a brother for Jesus contradicted the doctrine put forward in the 4th century by Saint Jerome that Mary remained a perpetual virgin and had no children except Jesus.

James instead became Jesus’ cousin.

I would venture that the real difficulty was that both James and Jesus advocated practicing a faith that goes against the social and economic interests of powerful institutions, like those of kings and churches.

But it was easier to attack James the Just than to attack Jesus the Son of God. James would be mischaracterized as claiming that you earn your way into heaven by your good works.

But that was not what he was getting at. Neither was Jesus.

Both Jesus and James advocate an inward faith that shows itself outwardly in the way we lead our lives.

Both Jesus and James advocate faith that is not about membership in a sanctified social club, but a way of life that especially cares for the people that the world considers impure – the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged.

Elsewhere in his letter, James is rather blunt on this point: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” he writes.

“Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

In other words, show me what you are doing with your life and that will show me your faith. We have no other way of knowing your faith except by seeing what you do.

For us, in our own time and place, there are many ways to do that, here in this church, in our daily life and home, and in the world around us.

The core issue for each of us today, and every day, is figuring out – discerning – how we are called to live out our faith by our actions. That is mission of our life. As a faith community, our core issue is how we bring our actions together as the people of God – the Church at large and in this particular place and time.

We bring to this great task all of our talents, all of our gifts, our brainpower, and our prayers. Our calling will look a little differently for each of us indivifually as God as made each of us unique.

Yet our foundational calling is to be doers of the Word, and that remains unchanged. Jacob son of Joseph, who we know as James the Just, sums it up exactly as his brother Jesus did:

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” AMEN

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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