7-24-22 Feast of St. James the Elder

July 24, 2022
Passage: Mark 10:35-45
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Today we celebrate the feast of St. James the Elder, Apostle of our Lord. Now it’s been a little while since we’ve commemorated one of the saints, so it’s worth noting first of all why we do so. The Lutheran Reformers explained this well in The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord: “Our confession approves honoring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. We should thank God because He has shown examples of mercy, because He wishes to save people, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church. These gifts, since they are the greatest, should be amplified. The saints themselves, who have faithfully used these gifts, should be praised just as Christ praises faithful businessmen. The second service is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter’s denial forgiven, we also are encouraged to believe all the more that grace truly superabounds over sin. The third honor is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues. Everyone should imitate the saints according to his calling” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXI.4-6).

And this is nothing other than the honor we would show to a faithful father. We would thank God for giving us a man who brought us up faithfully, our faith would be strengthened as we reflected on the stories of our father’s life and saw how God graciously governed his life, and we would want to be like him. Just so we honor our fathers in the faith. Today we thank God for the Apostle James, we receive strengthening of our faith as we see how God dealt with him in his life, and we learn to imitate him.

Now who is the Apostle James? What can we say about him? James is the brother of John, and the two of them are the sons of Zebedee. Jesus gave them the name Sons of Thunder. James and his brother John were fishing partners with Peter and his brother Andrew. One day while James and John were in the boat with their father mending their nets, Jesus called them, and “immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (Mt. 4:22). James was also present for the miraculous catch of fish that we heard in last Sunday’s reading. Jesus included James in his inner circle. Of the twelve apostles, Jesus only brought Peter and James and John with him when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and Jesus only brought Peter and James and John with him onto the mountain when he was transfigured, and Jesus only brought Peter and James and John with him when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. We heard in today’s Gospel reading about the time when James and John asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. They did not realize that Jesus’ glory is his crucifixion, and to sit at his right and left would mean being crucified alongside him. Nevertheless, James would be baptized with the baptism of blood that Jesus suffered and would drink the cup of death that Jesus drank. James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, and we heard about that in the first reading from Acts. Herod Agrippa I in the year 44 AD beheaded the Apostle James, and James saw the truth of the words that Jesus spoke to the apostles when he sent them out: “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt. 10:22).

Thanks be to God for the Apostle James. Even though James did not author any of the books of the New Testament, it is still written in Ephesians 2, “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). James is part of the foundation of Christ’s Church, because James is one of the men to whom Christ entrusted the initial preaching of his Gospel, and James preached it faithfully, even unto death. What if the apostles had been faithless? What if the apostles had stayed locked in the upper room for fear of the Jews? What if the apostles had valued earthly life over eternal life? Jesus himself acknowledges that we believe because of the preaching of the apostles. Before his passion, he prays for his apostles and then he says, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (Jn. 17:20). So again, thanks be to God for James. Praise to Christ for calling him. Praise to Christ for giving apostles to his Church. Praise to Christ for strengthening James on Easter evening to go out and preach, for sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to give his apostles boldness in proclaiming the Gospel.

Now let’s look more specifically at two events in the life of James, the two events we heard about him in today’s readings: a moment of human weakness and a moment of divine strength. We heard how James and John had come to Jesus and said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” James had human glory in mind. He was thinking that he was the close friend of a great king, and that would bring certain honors with it. The other ten apostles were indignant that James and John had asked to be exalted over the rest of them, and they were indignant because they were thinking of earthly glory as well. They didn’t want to be lower than James and John.

Now if all the apostles struggled with this desire for earthly glory, and if two of them dared to ask Jesus to give them earthly glory, we should expect that this desire for earthly glory is common to man and that we will struggle with it as well. Our sinful flesh likes to feel superior to other people. Our sinful flesh likes to look down from on high and consider itself better than everything it looks down on. And so the sinful flesh doesn’t like to say nice things about other people, because in some way that elevates them. And the sinful flesh doesn’t like to say sorry and acknowledge that it was wrong, because that makes it feel low. Instead the sinful flesh likes to hear and say bad things about other people, because that makes it feel higher, and it likes to avoid apologies and to hold grudges, because that makes it feel higher too. Repent. Repent of this dishonest nonsense of the flesh. Christ is high and we are low. He is God and we are mortal men.

We deserve wrath for our desire for false glory. Yet we see great forbearance in our Lord’s response to the apostles. He does rebuke them: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” Yet he shows them why the Christian life is different from the pagan life, and it’s because his own life is different from sinful man’s life: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Lord’s response to James strengthens our faith. We see that we have a kind Lord who does not deal with us as we deserve, but who bears with our infirmity and makes himself a lowly servant to forgive our grievous sins against him and ransom us for himself. The Lord led James to understand where true glory lies. As Paul would later write in Colossians 3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:2-4).

It is the Lord’s mercy toward James that gave him the divine strength of which we heard in the reading from Acts: “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword.” Jesus had told the apostles when he sent them out, “you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt. 10:18-20). James bore witness before Herod Agrippa I, which is why we sang in the Introit, “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, [O Lord,] and shall not be put to shame” (Ps. 119:46).

Besides seeing the Lord’s forbearance and mercy in the life of James, we also see in the life of James that our Lord avenges his saints. You’ve heard the Scripture, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). It can be difficult to live according to these words, especially when we see so much evil in the world against Christ’s Word and Church and don’t see so much vengeance of the Lord. But in the life of James we see the Lord’s vengeance. Herod killed James with the sword, and not long after that the Lord killed Herod in a far more gruesome way. Herod went to Tyre and Sidon to address the people. This is recorded later in Acts 12, the same chapter and indeed the same year in which James was beheaded. “Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:21-23).

And it did happen in that order: he was eaten by worms, and then he breathed his last. The historian Josephus records this event in more detail in his book Antiquities of the Jews. Herod had put on a robe made entirely of silver and he gave a speech and the people hailed him as a god when they heard his words and saw how the sun reflected gloriously off his silver robe. Josephus writes, “Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery...A severe pain...arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life, while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death...’ When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad every where, that he would certainly die in a little time...And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.”

See how the Lord deals with the godless enemies of his Church! Now this should not, of course, lead us to desire the eternal damnation of men. We would much rather men repent and believe in the Gospel. Yet we know that there will be unrepentant enemies. We learn this from childhood stories. It is just that the witch who would have cooked Hansel gets shoved into the oven herself. It is just that wicked stepmothers get shoved into barrels full of boiling oil and poisonous snakes or dance themselves to death wearing red hot iron shoes. It is just that Herod Agrippa I was eaten by worms and breathed his last. And this justice of God is what frees us to be unconcerned about such evil people. Far from stirring up hatred in us, the justice of God releases us from such hatred, because we know that God will take care of vengeance as he sees fit.

So this event in the life of James likewise strengthens our faith. We see that the Word of the Lord is true: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Vengeance is the Lord’s business, and he will see to it. Of that he has assured us in the case of James. Our business is “to the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21).

And how might we imitate the Apostle James according to our callings? As a pastor I look up to James. He taught the truth no matter what. He preferred to remain true to his Lord rather than court the favor of the world. I pray that our Lord Jesus Christ would grant me the same boldness and faithfulness in speaking the Word of Christ, and I ask that you pray the same for me and Pastor Preus and all pastors.

Yet regardless of whether we’re preachers of the Word or hearers, simply because we’re Christians we admire the steadfastness of James. Jesus says in Mark 8, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” We don’t want to be ashamed of Christ and his Word. It does our hearts good to see the example of James, how he endured to the end and was saved. His example fires us for the fight, as it says in Hebrews 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).

So thank God for the Apostle James. In him the Lord gave a great teacher to the Church. In him the Lord displayed his mercy. In him the Lord has given us a father and example in the faith. Praise be to Christ for his mercy, and may the Lord preserve us in his Word all our days. Amen.

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