St. James, the Elder
Dear friends in Christ. Today the western Church remembers our Lord’s Apostle, St. James. He is the brother of John, who wrote the Gospel and epistles bearing his name, as well as the Revelation. This James is called the “Elder,” that is the “Greater” to distinguish him from the other James who was also an Apostle of our Lord. James whom we are remembering today probably got the title the "Elder" or "Greater" because, along with Peter and John, he was one of the three close disciples of our Lord.
What makes James’ martyrdom at the hand of Herod that we read about in our text so significant is that it is the only death of an apostle that is recorded in Scripture. Since we know from Scripture that James was killed around Easter, why is it that we remember him today? July 25th apparently recalls the later 9th century removal of his body from Palestine to Campostella, Spain because of fear of the Arabs. Why Spain? Supposedly James had visited Spain before his martyrdom.
After the Gospels and the listing of James among the apostles at the beginning of Acts before Pentecost, we hear nothing about James until our text: Now about that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the Church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword. We read a lot in Acts about Peter, about John and certainly about Paul who brought the Gospel to Rome, which was the theme Luke was following when he wrote Acts; but this is all we read about James. Does that mean that James was not important, that the Lord did not use James as His instrument to bring His saving word to the world? Certainly not! What the Holy Spirit had St. Mark (16.20) record about the disciples still stands true: And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Again, the point is this: just because not much is said about James, just because he was a “silent” apostle, does not take anything away from him. Yes, the Lord did work great things through him; yes, James did great things for the Lord; for example there's the tradition that he made it to Spain but it's just that we just don’t hear about it.
This is a great comfort to so many Christians today. The vast majority of Christians do not have famous lives. They do not go to far off lands. They do not bring the Gospel to thousands. But they are still our Lord’s instruments; they still live their lives to the glory of God, doing the simple, humble work He has given them to do. Do not let anyone shame you or make you think you are any less of a Christian if you don’t go on grand mission tours, if your bean counter doesn’t register many conversions, etc.
This is not a call to laziness for the kingdom, but a reminder that the Lord has given all of us different tasks in the kingdom. There are many “behind the scenes” Christians doing everything to the glory of God. There are many doing great things that we never hear about; they are simply letting their faith shine where the Lord has placed them. And yes, like we see in our text, like we see with James, our Lord’s “silent” disciples still testify of Him.
1. All of our Lord’s dear Christian, as they are led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, testify of Christ even if it is not with shining, spectacular gifts. In our text we meet prophets who went from the Jerusalem mother church, which was mainly Jewish, to the Antioch church, which was a Gentile church. They had fraternal relations, or as we would say today: altar and pulpit fellowship. These prophets knew the Scriptures; they were good interpreters of Scripture so that they could teach and continue to ground this congregation in God’s saving Word after Paul’s departure to go on a mission tour. One of them also had that spectacular gift that the Holy Spirit gave to some in the early Church of being able to foretell certain events. Our text: Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. This was a great spectacular gift that confirmed to the people that what these prophets said was true. It was a great gift used to establish the truth of Christianity. Agabus testified of the Lord with this spectacular gift.
Also in our text we meet St. Peter. And because [Herod] saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Of course, we know about Peter’s bold confession of Christ. We have Peter’s own Spirit-inspired words preserved down to us today in Scripture with the 2 epistles bearing his name. Tradition places Peter in many places, ending with his martyrdom in Rome under the persecution of Nero. We read in Acts of his preaching by which the Holy Spirit brought thousands to faith. We read of his bold preaching in the temple and before the religious leaders of the Jews. Peter, by the Holy Spirit, possessed and used many shining gifts of the Holy Spirit. We know about his early work because the Holy Spirit saw fit to record it in Scripture.
Let us remember, though, that the Church is the Lord’s and He gives His gifts to people when and where He wishes for the blessing and benefit of His Church. Certainly not all will have the spectacular gifts and be used by the Lord like Agabus and Peter were. Even today, not all should go out and do grand spectacular works, knock on thousands of doors, become a missionary to some heathen land, etc. Just because we don’t do these things, though, doesn’t make us any less of a Christian.
We may not have the shining spectacular gifts, but listen to St. Paul (1 Cor. 12.4): Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them in everyone. Paul then goes on to compare the Church to the body. Just like one body is made up of all kinds of parts each doing a necessary but completely different job, so also the Church is one, made up of different Christians each with a different gift from the Lord. It’s not that one is better than another, just different. That means that God has given each of us just the right gift to serve Him, just the right gift so that He may be glorified as led and empowered by Him, we use that gift.
He has also placed each one of us exactly where He wants us to serve Him—be it in the home as a spouse helping or encouraging the other; as a parent raising children in the fear and love of the Lord; as a child loving and honoring the parents as we grow in the fear and love of the Lord, as a grandparent who by wisdom and experience can help children and grandchildren grow in their faith and love of the Lord; be it in the workplace where by our following the leading and prompting of the Holy Spirit we let our light shine by our words or actions, being a beacon, honoring and serving the boss as the Lord, recognizing him as the one He placed over us; be it among the people He has placed around us so that again by our words and actions we serve as beacon so that they ask us about our faith. These are quiet, humble, sincere ways we testify of the Lord. We won’t get any notoriety but as a “silent disciple” we still testify of our Lord. In this way, we will be like James—although he gets only a few lines here in Scripture, no telling in what ways the Lord wonderfully used him and the gifts He gave him.
2. Even if we may not have great mighty deeds, we, our Lord’s “silent disciples” still testify of Him. Again our text: when Agabus had foretold the coming great famine that would take place, we then read of the Gentile Christians in Antioch: Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. These Christians, who were probably wealthy [since Antioch was a wealthy city], wanted to help their fellow Christians so they each personally and together as a group gave as much as each was able—some gave more, some less. Here was the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts leading them to give as each was able. It was a family effort—of Gentile Christians helping their Jewish Christian brothers.
Was this a great mighty deed as the world would judge it? Not really. Did each one get credit for doing it? No, it came from the congregation as a whole. Do we know today any of those Antiochene Christians? No. They too are “silent disciples” but their love testified of their Lord; their love for their fellow Christians who first brought them the Gospel, proclaims their faith in Jesus. Many, if they were to hear a famine was coming, would hoard their goods but these Christians, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, here used their material blessings to help. They proclaimed by their actions that the Good News about Jesus worked faith in their hearts, faith that received Jesus and His forgiveness, life and salvation, faith that the Holy Spirit had worked. That faith showed itself in simple works of love; and how this strengthened and encouraged the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
Our text has another deed that the “silent disciples” of the Church in Jerusalem did: Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. Prayer for our fellow Christians in need testifies of Christ because it is an act of worship in which we confess that He, the true God, alone and can help in that situation. Do we today know who these Christians were that prayed for Peter? No! But the Lord does and He answered their prayer as they prayed for Peter’s release or for the strength and fortitude that he be able to bear the persecution and martyrdom. We “silent disciples” can accomplish mighty things with prayer.
3. As we see, even if we don’t have seemingly mighty deeds or shining gifts, we still testify of our Lord by a gentle and quiet spirit. This is precious to the Lord. We see this gentle, quiet spirit in the Gentile Christian congregation in Antioch; we see it in the Jewish Christian congregation of Jerusalem; and we see it in James about whom we practically hear nothing. This is a great contrast from what we heard James brashly say in today’s Gospel, that he could drink the cup that Christ was about to drink and be baptized with the baptism Christ was about to be baptized with—that is, James brazenly proclaimed he would be able to suffer and die. But, like the rest, he ran away when Jesus was arrested.
But now we hear no brashness from James. We hear simply that Herod murdered him. By this, he is seemingly a “silent disciple,” one from whom we hear nothing. But isn’t this to his credit? Before when we heard from him in today’s Gospel, he was impatient, wanted glory and gain; he had pride in self, self-reliance. Now when he is seemingly silent, that is faith in action, reliance on the Lord. In the OT (Is. 30.15) the Lord promises: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.
When we are gentle and quiet, resting in the Lord, that is faith at work. We are certain that in Christ our sins are forgiven, we are reconciled to God, we are God’s dear children, that heaven is opened to us. We need not be ashamed if seemingly great things are not written of us, if we seemingly have no spectacular gifts, if we seemingly don’t have mighty deeds. We remember St. James, one about whom nothing much is written. Yet, he was one who rested in the Lord and through whom the Lord worked mightily, though we don’t know what. Let these “silent disciples” of St. James, of the Antioch church and of the Jerusalem Church be our examples. Let us simply follow where the Holy Spirit leads us and do what He strengthens us to do and live our lives of faith to the glory of God where He has placed us. As we “silent disciples” rest in the Lord we still testify of Him. INJ Amen