Saint James the Brother of the Lord … icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, for Saint James Episcopal Church, Parkton, Maryland dedicated 26 October 2008
Today in the Church Calendar [23 October 2018] we commemorate one of the key figures in the New Testament, Saint James the Brother of the Lord, who is described in the New Testament as a ‘brother of the Lord’ and in the Liturgy of Saint James as ‘the brother of God’ (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Jácobos Adelphótheos).
The relationship of James and Jesus is difficult to unravel for those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions say he was the half-brother or step-brother of Jesus and that Joseph already had children – that James was already a boy when Jesus was born (see Matthew 13: 55). The Gospels name the brothers of Jesus as James, Jude, Simon and Joses or Joseph (Matthew 13: 55; Mark 6: 3; see also Galatians 1: 19). Even Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20.9.1) describes James as ‘the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.’
Some would say that James could have been a nephew of Joseph, that cousins could have been called ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ in the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, and that the Greek words adelphos and adelphe were not restricted to their literal meaning of a full brother or sister.
Whichever opinion you accept, this James is the James who is called James the Less (Mark 15: 4) to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, who we encountered with John in our Gospel reading on Sunday last; or from James the Great, and who is also called James the Just because of his great holiness and righteousness.
We identify today’s James with the author of the Epistle of James. The Apostle Paul names him as one of the witnesses to the Risen Christ (I Corinthians 15: 3–8), and describes James, alongside Peter and John, as a pillar of the early Church (Galatians 2: 9).
The Letter of James, which we read in the Lectionary throughout the month of September, can be compared with some of the wonderful Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, with for example, its words of wisdom on true worship (James 1: 19-20), on discrimination and respect for the poor (2: 1-13), on the false dichotomy of faith and works (2: 14-26), on truth and careful speech (3: 1-12), godliness and worldliness (4: 1 to 5:6), on putting love at the heart of all relationships in the Christian community … and so on.
They are words of wisdom that we can all take to heart in a community such as this. The speak of how we speak about one another, how we respect one another, how we hold up one another, how we love each other even in spite of our failings towards one another.
We are to value one another, but not because of wealth or status or intellect; we are to listen to one another, and to be slow to speak and equally slow to anger; we are to bridle our tongues and not to speak loosely about one another. We are not just called to be Christians, but we must do Christianity too.
When we have difficulties, are hurt or tugging against one another in any Christian community – whether it is here, in our families, in your future parishes or dioceses – then the words of James are a wise reminder of how we can how that our Christian faith is not just a matter of being but also doing.
James was so important in the Early Church in Jerusalem that Eusebius describes him as the first Bishop of Jerusalem (Eccl. Hist., Book II: 23).
But how important was James in the Early Church in Jerusalem?
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that when Peter escapes from prison and flees Jerusalem, he asks that James be informed (Acts 12: 17).
Later, the Christians of Antioch ask whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised and send Paul and Barnabas to confer with the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 12-22). James charts a middle course, supporting those who oppose demanding circumcision for Gentile converts but suggesting prohibitions against eating blood and against eating meat sacrificed to idols.
When Saint Paul arrives in Jerusalem with the money he has raised for the Church there, he speaks to James, and James insists Paul should ritually cleanse himself at the Temple to prove his faith and to counter rumours of teaching rebellion against the Torah (Acts 21: 18ff).
The Acts of the Apostles is silent about James after the year 60. However, according to Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20: 9), ‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James’ met his death in the year 62, when he was condemned ‘on the charge of breaking the law.’
He was thrown from the wall of the Temple on the day of the Passover and was stoned. As he prayed for his slayers, his head was crushed by a wooden club wielded by a scribe.
How many of us would like to die like this? How many of us would aspire to being pillars of the Church? How many of us would like to be so close to Christ that we could be called brothers or sisters of the Lord, still more ‘the brother of God’ (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Jákobos Adelphótheos).
But to be a real brother of Christ, to be a real brother of God, is to be brothers and sisters to one another in Christ.
Many years ago, when a colleague who was leaving The Irish Times ahead of his ordination, a senior editorial figure said he was moving from being ‘a column in the Times to being a pillar of the Church.’
This morning we give thanks for James who was an early disciple and apostle, a witness to the Resurrection, a reconciler and a mediator in the early Church, a pillar of the Church, a writer, the author of a New Testament epistle, an early martyr, and a wise counsellor.
Readings: Isaiah 49: 1-6; Psalm 1; Acts 15: 12-22; Mark 3: 31-35.
Lord God of peace:
Grant that after the example of your servant,
James the brother of our Lord,
your Church may give itself continually to prayer
and to the reconciliation of all
who are caught up in hatred or enmity;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Post Communion Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that after your Resurrection you appeared to James,
and endowed him with gifts of leadership for your Church.
May we, who have known you now in the breaking of the bread,
be people of prayer and reconciliation.
We ask it for your love’s sake. Amen.