But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

St. James of Jerusalem-2022

St. James of Jerusalem – Acts 15:12-22a

On our church calendar, today is the commemoration of St. James of Jerusalem. The New Testament calls him a “brother” of Jesus.

This probably means that he was a step-brother – a son of Joseph by a previous marriage. There is circumstantial evidence that James was older than Jesus. But his being called Jesus’ brother might mean that he was a younger half-brother.

In any case, his human kinship to Jesus is not the reason why his name is honored in the annals of church history. The relatives of the Lord did not have a special standing in the church simply because they were relatives.

Jesus himself taught that his relatives, including even his own dear mother, should not – for this reason – have a special spiritual status in the minds of his disciples. We read in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

“While [Jesus] was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.’”

“But He answered and said to the one who told Him, ‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.’”

The reason why James of Jerusalem is honored among us, and why his example is held up before us, is because he did do the will of God the Father in heaven. He is therefore a “brother” of Jesus also in this sense.

St. John tells us that the brothers of Jesus – including James – did not believe in his Messianic calling during the time of his earthly ministry. Now, the Lord’s relatives were certainly not among his overt enemies during that time. They were not involved in any kind of plots against him.

In fact, they were concerned about him. But their concern was expressed in a way that demonstrated that they did not know who he really was.

On one occasion, when Jesus’ relatives saw and heard what he was doing and saying, they feared that he had become mentally unstable, and was losing his sanity. St. Mark narrates that when crowds had gathered around him, his family tried to seize him and take him away from the crowds, saying, “He is out of His mind.”

But in the case of James, that all changed when the Lord appeared to him after his resurrection. Regarding the resurrection appearances of Jesus, St. Paul reports in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“He was seen by Cephas” – that is, Peter – “then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present… After that He was seen by James…”

We don’t know what the risen Christ said to his brother, but we can easily imagine what their conversation was like. And we do know that, after this, James became a stalwart follower of Jesus, recognizing him now not only as his human brother, but also as his divine Savior.

He no longer thought that his brother might be crazy. Instead, he now knew that his brother was much more than his brother.

He truly was the Son of God hidden in human flesh: who had come to redeem Israel – and all nations – by his suffering and death; and who was alive forevermore as the victor over Satan and the grave.

I have known many people who view Jesus, and their relationship with Jesus, through the lens of family relationships.

Sometimes this means that young adults come to church only when, and only because, their parents come to church. They don’t feel a personal connection to Christ, apart from their connection to their family.

At other times, the children of a Christian couple, who are inclined to rebel against their parents in general, also rebel against their parents’ faith. So, Jesus is seen as the object of their parents’ religious devotion. And that is enough of a reason for rebellious children to dismiss his claim on their lives.

James had dismissed the claims of Jesus, too. His situation was not exactly the same as the scenario I have just laid out, but it was still the family relationship “thing” that had no doubt clouded James’s perception of who Jesus really was.

It should not have mattered if Jesus, according to his human nature, was James’s brother, or anyone else’s brother. In the final analysis, it should not ultimately matter to people today if Jesus is the Savior of their parents, or the Savior of anyone else’s parents.

What should matter, and what does matter – to James, and to anyone – is that Jesus is your God, and your Savior. James finally realized this through the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Christ that he was privileged to have.

And you today can also realize this – regardless of what your parents or other relatives think or don’t think – through the miraculous encounter that you have with the resurrected Christ in his Word and sacrament.

You – you as an individual, called by your own name – are baptized into Christ. In Baptism, Jesus individualizes his claim on you. He tells you that he is going to deal with you, in warning you about your sins, and in washing those sins away.

Family kinships are not a defining feature of this intensely personal baptismal relationship with your Lord. No other distraction or excuse matters, either. Only Jesus matters.

That’s what James found out when Jesus came to him, personally. And that’s what you find out when Jesus comes to you, personally.

James was now not only a believer in Christ, but was also called to be a public minister of Christ’s church. He became the chief pastor or bishop of the church at Jerusalem – the mother congregation of all Christendom.

In Jerusalem – living and working as he did in the shadow of the temple, and in the heart of the Jewish nation – James conducted himself in such a way as to exemplify great respect for the Mosaic law.

It is reported in early historical sources that he was very scrupulous in his observance of the appointed times of prayer. He also followed the other prescripts of the law, as an observant Jew.

But as an observant Messianic Jew – as one who knew that Jesus had come to fulfill the law for us, and to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for us – James also understood that our new life in Christ, and our new ability to live morally in the power of Christ, come to us as gifts of divine grace through faith in the Word of Christ. James wrote in his Epistle:

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”

James was a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, but he read and studied these Scriptures in the light of Christ. He therefore knew that the Old Testament’s picturesque prophetic descriptions of the Messianic age, did not point forward – in the final analysis – to a future earthly kingdom, but to the kingdom of God that has now been established by Jesus in the spiritual fellowship of his church.

An important council was held in Jerusalem, to discuss the nature of the church’s outreach to the gentiles, and to consider the question of whether or not the gentiles must first become Jews – through circumcision and through being bound to the Mosaic ceremonial law – before they could become Christians.

In speaking to this momentous question at the council, as today’s reading from the Book of Acts recounts, James quoted from the Prophet Amos:

“After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does all these things.”

According to James, this prophecy did not ultimately pertain to a literal rebuilding of a literal tabernacle. James does not endorse any millennial scheme, whereby Jesus is expected to set himself up someday as an earthly king over a universal earthly empire, with a gloriously rebuilt Jerusalem as his earthly capital.

Rather, according to James, this prophesy pointed forward to the building of the spiritual temple that is the church, as Christ – the supreme son of David – draws all nations to himself in the gospel, and embraces both Jew and gentile with his saving love.

That settled the question. And James had the credibility to settle it in this way, because everyone knew how ardent he was in his own personal adherence to the ritual obligations of the law.

But for those who were not Jewish, James made it clear that, according to the Scriptures, they were now to be welcomed into the fellowship of the church as they were.

They were to be invited to receive the same baptism for the remission of sins that the Jewish Christians had received, without the need to be circumcised first. They were to be assured that the reconciliation with God that the gospel offers, is truly offered to them; and that God wants them – in repentance – to believe this gospel, and to be saved from eternal death and judgment through it.

Jesus is indeed the Prince of Peace, who reigns over a kingdom of peace. And after his second coming, he will continue to reign in unimaginable glory and splendor.

But his eternal kingdom is now, and always will be, a kingdom that is not of this world. His eternal kingdom is now, and always will be, a kingdom in which you are I are invited to live: through faith in him, and through the regeneration that is bestowed on those who have now become new creatures in Christ.

It is understandable why the early Christians had a difficult time coming to grips with all of this. Unlike the hesitancy that we often have in associating with people who are ethnically or culturally different from us, the inherited attitude of the original Jewish Christians did have a basis in the Old Testament Scriptures.

For many centuries the children of Israel had lived under a divine command to keep themselves separate from the pagan world, so as to preserve in purity the oracles of God, and the true worship of God.

But James was among those who knew that all of this had changed with the coming of the Messiah, and with the great commission that the Messiah had now given to his disciples. In Jesus, God was establishing a new holy people, comprised of believers from all nations who are circumcised in heart even if not in body.

This change, which James endorsed and supported, is the reason why we are a part of God’s family today, and why we are welcomed at the table of the Lord today. All who repent of their sins, and who believe in and confess Jesus as Lord, are now “kosher.”

As Christians, we do indeed retain many remnants of our Jewish roots in worship and prayer. Terms such as “Alleluia,” “Hosanna,” “Sabaoth,” and especially the oft-spoken “Amen,” are Hebrew words.

The first part of our usual Divine Service follows the pattern of the Synagogue service. And the exchange that begins the second part of the Divine Service – “The Lord be with you. And with your spirit. Lift up your hearts,” and so forth – also has a very ancient Jewish flavor.

But we are at home in this Jewish setting, with these Jewish words and ideas. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has invited us in, and has shown himself to be our forgiving and restoring God, too.

The God of James has invited us in, and has conferred on us – on all of us – a true first-class citizenship in the kingdom of his beloved Son, who is the Savior of the world, and our Savior.

The teaching and testimony of James of Jerusalem contributed greatly to the establishment of a new culture of openness and generosity among the Jewish Christians of the first century, whose attitude toward the gentiles now came to be characterized by a welcoming love for them, and by an ardent desire to see them delivered and saved from their idolatry and ignorance.

This openness and generosity, by which your gentile ancestors were first welcomed into the church, is the same kind of openness and generosity that God’s Spirit works within your heart and mind, as he helps you overcome those fears and prejudices that would otherwise hinder you from bringing the message of his salvation to those who live beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Indeed, our Jewish friends – who usually think that Christianity is a religion for gentiles and not for Jews – may be surprised to know that the first controversy of the church was over whether gentiles were actually allowed to become Christians as gentiles, or if Christianity is actually supposed to exist in perpetuity as a subset of Judaism.

Perhaps you can be the one who tells this interesting story to a Jewish friend; who invites that friend to consider the claims of Jesus on her life; and who invites her to trust in Jesus as the fulfillment of all that God had promised in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the words of Charles Wesley, we pray to the Lord of the Nations:

Pour out the promised gift on all, Answer the universal “Come!”
The fullness of the Gentiles call; And take thine ancient people home.
To Thee let all the nations flow, Let all obey the Gospel word;
Let all, their bleeding Savior, know, Filled with the glory of the Lord.
O for Thy truth and mercy’s sake, The purchase of Thy passion claim!
Thine heritage the Gentiles take, And cause the world to know Thy name. Amen.