A call to evangelism

Matthew 20:20-28

Well, here it is St. James’ Day again!  What can I tell you about our patron James?  Well, he was wealthy and well-connected, cosmopolitan, quite the scholar… probably fluent in four or five languages, one of the best-selling authors of his time.  NOT!!!

But looking at the icon of our patron at the top of this post, you might think all of that and more!  And no wonder.  I’m guessing it’s the work of one of many “rock star” icon writers of the middle ages. Given the rugged good looks and high forehead, I see a little Jim Belushi, or perhaps a bearded James Dean, if you’ll forgive the anachronism.  After all, it was the job of 7th and 8th century icon writers to lionize and stylize the legends of the church.  This James seems to be a patrician, educated and wise, a paragon of sanity and the status quo.  It’s almost as if he’s poised at a lectern, prepared to hold forth (in perfect Latin, of course) about some pithy doctrine of the church… perhaps that of the co-equality of the Trinity (Council of Nicaea, 325 AD) or the perfect duality of Christ: that is, his being fully human and fully divine (Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD).  But, in reality (and I truly hate to burst any bubbles you may cherish about our patron), our James probably didn’t look a lot like the figure in this icon.  Our James was a fisherman… habitually dirty and smelly and perhaps even a bit uncouth… when his mother wasn’t watching.  He probably spoke only a few words of Greek… and no Latin at all.  Aramaic was his first language, and he likely had just enough Hebrew to get by in the synagogue and at table on the Jewish Sabbath.

So, who was James?  Frankly, we don’t know that much about him.  We hear a lot about the things that Peter did, the things that James’ brother John did, and certainly the things that Judas did.  But we don’t hear all that much about what James did.  What we know about James is who he was and where he was:

  • He was one of the twelve apostles and one of the first to follow Jesus: Matthew writes, “As [Jesus] went from there, he saw two . . . brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him” (Matt 4:21, cf. Mark 1:19).
  • From Luke, we learn that James along with his brother John were with Peter on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus helped them catch more fish than they could haul aboard and told them that from now on, they would be “fishers of people” ( 5:10-11).
  • “These are the names of the twelve apostles: [says Matthew] first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him” (Matt 10:2-4, cf. Mark 3:17-18and Luke 6:14-16).
  • James was present for the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8and Luke 9:28-36)… and for the healing of Peter’s mother (Mark 1:29-31).
  • Jesus called James and his brother John “Boanerges” (bo-uh-NER-dzheez), or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Affectionately, I think.  They must have made a lot of noise.
  • James was there when Jesus resurrected the little girl who had “fallen asleep” (Talitha cum! Little girl, get up!), and was admonished by Jesus not to tell anyone what he had seen… but to get the girl something to eat (Mark 5:40-43, cf. Luke 8:51-56).
  • James was with Jesus on the Mount of Olives when, in Mark’s Gospel, the Lord spoke of the Parousia (the Second Coming). Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (vv. 13:4-8).
  • James and John, flush with power given to them by Jesus to heal and cast out Demons, took great offense when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus and offered to call down fire from heaven to consume the offenders (Luke 9:54). Do you remember?  Can you imagine the look Jesus gave them?

But you know these stories.

What a wild ride it must have been… being with Jesus, day in and day out, as he interpreted Scripture, healed people in mind and body and preached about the coming of the Kingdom.  And I suppose that James and John, in their enthusiasm, might be forgiven for putting their mother up to asking Jesus to award them special placement in his kingdom. Mark’s version of the story actually has the brothers themselves making the pitch (Mark 10:35-45).  But Jesus knew that “exaltation” was a two-edged sword and served to separate people from God.  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he told them, and “whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 20:26-27). If you truly want to be with me… and be like me, you have to understand this and live into it.  But be careful what you wish for: when you sign up to “drink from this cup” you may find that it’s more than you bargained for.

James was with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake” (Mark 14:33).  And James was likely with the rest of the Apostles when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, his own mother Mary, and others arrived, out-of-breath, and excited beyond belief with the news that Jesus, their Master, their Rabbi, was risen from the grave (Luke 24:10-12).  James would later help build the church in Jerusalem before being “killed with the sword” (Acts 12:1-5), which is a code phrase for beheaded, by Herod, which was the routine punishment for murderers and apostates: those who had forsaken the true religion, the Hebrew faith, in pursuit of false gods… for idol worship.  James’ execution was the first “crack” in the veneer of a period of relative safety and stability that followed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), which immediately preceded the conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-19), who would later become Paul. James was one of the first to follow Jesus… and the first of the twelve (Apostles) to be executed.  And although we don’t know as much as we’d like about the things James did, we might infer that the way in which he did them.  The zeal with which he spread the Gospel may have been one of the things that landed him on top of Herod’s… list.  He was a “Son of Thunder,” after all. In fact, historians of the time (Eusebius of Caesarea and Clement of Alexandria) report that one of the last things James did was convert his jailer… who was subsequently executed with him.

Isn’t it funny how the past is sometimes prologue? Many pundits say that we have arrived at the end of Christendom… a time, at least in the eyes of the Western world, when everyone, or almost everyone was, or should have been, Christian…  when governments recognized and gave special precedence to the precepts of the Christian faith.  Without commenting on the validity of that assumption, Christianity has been the dominant paradigm in our part of the world since the late 4th century when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the faith for his entire empire and made it a function of government.  Certainly, the church has not been “established” (meaning a function of government) in this country since we won our independence from Great Britain, but it’s been pretty much where everyone we knew went on Sunday for as long as we can remember.  Until now.  Now most of us know (and love) many who are “un-churched:” who don’t attend church and/or choose “none” as their denominational affiliation.  Worse, the media is rife with stories of Christians being killed simply on account their faith in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and other places where the Faith once flourished.  The church is at risk not only abroad, but here in our own country by those who would pervert the tenets of their own faith and patriotism to somehow justify the killing of those who are different from themselves.  I won’t reiterate the headlines.  You all have eyes to read, and ears to hear.  It’s easy to become overly nostalgic about the way things (never) used to be: it’s only been 331 years since the Glorious Revolution in mother England, ending decades of periodic bloodshed over differences between Anglican and Catholic doctrine.  And it’s been just over two decades since the end of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, when Protestants and Catholics gave up bombing one another to get their respective points across, and embarked upon a fragile truce.  I could go on… being a Christian has never been all “pony rides and balloons.”

So, how might this inform our understanding of the Great Commission? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).  How might this impact our willingness to follow Jesus’ “new” commandment for us to love one another just as he loves us (John 13:34)?  I sometimes ask myself how far I’d be willing to go to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in the face of deadly opposition.  How about you?  Would you, like our patron James be willing to place yourselves and your families at risk to proclaim the love of Christ?  I hope I would.  I hope we all would.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not asking you to take up arms.  Jesus told Peter to put away his sword (Matt 26:52).  And I’m not asking you to “circle the wagons,” segregating yourselves into communities of like-minded people of faith.  After all, Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors.  I’m asking you if you’re willing to take Jesus’ message of love, and of the coming of God’s kingdom to the ends of Cedartown and Polk County.  And beyond. To the mall, country club and the golf course.  To every nation and to every part of the known world in which you find yourself.  Are you up to that challenge?

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. James the Apostle.  James is our patron saint.  And like it or not, whether we meant to jump on this particular bandwagon or not, this means that we are bound to follow his lead.  Apostolos in Greek means “sent forth” and we, like James have been sent forth to proclaim the love of Christ to those who are far off and to those who are near.  And sometimes, our nearest neighbors may not be all that receptive to what we have to say.  The good news is that, even in a post-Christian era, at least here in the U.S., we’re unlikely to face death “by the sword” for our faith.  But we may be shunned and face the ridicule of some whom we have cultivated as friends.  Are we willing to do that?  Is it worth it?

What would James say?

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