St. James, Brother of Jesus and Martyr
Dear friends in Christ. Today our Lord’s Church remembers a perhaps controversial saint—St. James. He’s not controversial because of what he did—namely being the head of the Church in Jerusalem, if you will, the first Christian bishop there. As we heard in the first reading today, he rendered a decision about the place of the Gentiles, the non-Jews, in the Church. Led by the Holy Spirit, he did so, on the basis of the OT prophets. Through the Old Testament prophets, James recognized that the Lord had said that the non-Jews would be saved and become part of the NT Church. We also remember that according to the Church Historian of the Early Church, Eusebius, James was stoned to death in 62 AD by the Jewish High Priest. None of this is what makes James controversial.
What does make James controversial, though, is what we read in our text of what the crowds said about Jesus: This One is the Son of the carpenter, is He not? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Jude? James becomes controversial because of who he is. Is he the actual physical half-brother of Jesus, the true first son of both Mary and Joseph, or is James merely some close relative with the term “brother” being used loosely? It is interesting to note that later in his Gospel, at Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew [27.56] refers to Mary, not as Jesus’ mother but as the mother of James and Joseph. Clearly, to Matthew’s first readers, James and Joseph were well known.
But the “prominence” of James in the early church was soon eclipsed by a rising devotion to Mary in the following centuries, leading to the teaching of her perpetual virginity, meaning that she and Joseph never had relations, let alone any children. Luther himself held to this view. He writes in the Smalcald Articles, which are part of our confessional writing: The Son became man in this manner: He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Spirit and was born of the pure, holy [and always] Virgin Mary. However, the always virgin only appears in the Latin and not the German text. The great Missouri Synod theologian, Franz Pieper writes: If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in a natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God [II, 308].
B. Legitimate arguments have been made on both sides of the question. Christendom has lived comfortably with either view. It does not at all pertain to our salvation whether James was the actual son of Mary and Joseph or a merely close relative. But this discussion of whether James was Jesus’ actual physical half-brother or merely some other close relation does drive home the very vital fact that is necessary for our salvation: that Jesus is true man. Jesus is truly the Descendant, true man, promised Adam and Eve after the fall into sin who would destroy, undo, the devil’s work. He is truly the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, true mn,—just as God promised them. He is truly the One man prophesied who was to be born of a virgin.
This controversy about James points us to the reality of Jesus’ humanity—that Jesus is the true God, the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who also became a real, true human being. And this is for us men and for salvation. The only reason that God became also true Man was for our salvation, was to save us from sin, death, devil and hell. Jesus is the God-Man. The one Person of Christ Jesus is both true 100% God and true 100% man.
Because Jesus is true man means that He can place Himself, as our Substitute, under God’s Holy Law and keep it for us; give that perfect obedience to God that He demands of all peoplebut that we because of our sin cannot give. Every step of the way, already in the womb—beginning with His holy, sinless conception, Jesus was obeying God’s Law perfectly for us. Because He is true man, He can truly be our Substitute. God gave His holy Law for people to keep and because Jesus is truly one of us, true man, He can be our Substitute under God’s Law.
Not only that, but because He is true Man, Jesus can also take our place, as our Substitute, under wrath of God and suffer and die for all our sins. Because Jesus is also true man, He had blood to shed. All of the sins of the world were laid on Him and He endured their punishment. Man had sinned and Man, namely Christ, had endured the wrath of God for those sins. Because this Man, Jesus, was not just any person, any man but the God-Man, the true Man who is also true God—His death His sacrifice has infinite worth and value for all people. That’s why we now have the forgiveness of sins and peace and reconciliation with God.
James is physically closely related to Jesus—be it as a half-brother or some other close relative. That’s what this controversy so wonderfully drives home—Jesus’ humanity, and as true man that means that Jesus is also our brother—though quite distantly; He’s one of us and so He can be our Savior.
C. But there’s also a warning here as well. Because Jesus is true man, not God in all of his unconcealed glory and majesty, but covered with His humanity; because Jesus is James’ brother, Jesus can easily be rejected—like we see in our text: Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? This One is the carpenter’s Son, is He not? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Jude? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things? And they kept stumbling over Him. The people of Jesus’ hometown were saying: He’s one of us! He’s a common worker with His hands. They saw no reason to believe that He was different than them. Satan worked through this to get the people jealous—what makes Jesus so different special. Satan worked through this contempt of the familiar and the simple and humble. He got them to reject Jesus by leading them to think that a person of such humble origins could not possibly be the Messiah; by having their jealousy and contempt cover over the prophecies that called the coming Savior a Shoot coming from a chopped down tree, or as not having any form or beauty causing people to be attracted to Him [Is. 11.1; 53.2].
Here we see the crux of the matter: who exactly is Jesus? Yes, Jesus is true man. He is physically, biologically, a brother of James. He is true man—an every day man, a carpenter’s son, a common worker with His hands. But Jesus is also much more—He is also the very God Himself, very God of very God. If someone thinks of Jesus as the people in His hometown did—as just one of them, as just a man, as merely the brother of James, then all is lost; then the person has missed the boat on who Jesus is and thus has missed out and rejected the salvation He brings. If someone even looks upon Jesus as a great teacher of truth and righteousness, if someone is merely amazed at His teaching like the Nazareth crowds that day, then all is lost. Again, not only is Jesus the brother of James, but He is also the very God and the Savior of the world; in Him alone is our eternal salvation.
Even for us, it’s easy to think of Jesus as man, as the baby born of Mary. But let us also listen to what He says about Himself and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt with His miracles—He is also the true God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Just as this hometown crowd saw no reason to believe that Jesus was any different from them and took offense, stumbled over Jesus’ lowliness, so let us be on guard lest we stumble over the lowliness of the Gospel—we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, apart from any and all works we do. Because this simple, central teaching of the Bible is so simple, many reject it as “too easy”; “there’s something I have to do” and so they run to all these man-made religions that put the focus on the outward, on what we do.
Jesus—the physical brother of James—is seemingly unspectacular to this crowd. Sadly, basic Christian doctrine/ teaching which we have heard from little on, seems unspectacular to so many raised in the Church and so they look for “something more,” “something new,” and they run off and join some cult or other false religion because, like this crowd in the synagogue, they did not listen, ponder, take to heart what Jesus was saying; they merely looked at the outward.
Like today, so many hucksters can gather an unthinking crowd around them because they think the “new thing” being proclaimed is something worthwhile. May we be warned, lest we merely look on Jesus as the simple brother of James and forget that He is the true God and Savior of the world.
2. As we remember St. James of Jerusalem today, what makes James St. James, and why we even remember him today is not because he is one degree or another a physical brother of Jesus, but because James is twice a brother of Jesus—not just physically but also spiritually. Here is Jesus’ true family. Just a short time before, we read in Matthew’s Gospel [12.48]:
While He 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."
Jesus here says that His true family is not the tie of blood, but the tie of faith—those who do the will of the Father, namely, who believe in Jesus as their Savior.
We would not be remembering James today unless Jesus had showed him grace and brought him into His holy family, the Church; unless Jesus was his spiritual brother. During our Lord’s earthly ministry we read [Jn. 7.5]: For even [Jesus’] brothers did not believe in Him. But Jesus showed James grace, a special grace. Although James’ conversion, when the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart, is not recorded in Scripture, we know that at first this brother of Jesus according to the flesh refused to be Jesus’ brother according to faith, but that after His resurrection Jesus appeared to Him [1 Cor. 15.7] and that after Jesus’ ascension we read [Ac 1.14] that the disciples all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. From the days of the early Church in Jerusalem, after the Apostles had been forced to flee, to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel James became head of the Church in Jerusalem, its first bishop. It was James who led by the Holy Spirit spoke the decree about the Gentiles joining the Church we read in our first lesson. And led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, James confessed his faith in Jesus, his physical brother and more importantly his spiritual brother, and his Savior from sin all the way the end and was killed on account of that faith and confession.
We too, dear Christian, have been shown the same great grace. By His Holy Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament, we have been brought to faith; we, who are born sinners and hostile to Him, have been made Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters, brought into His holy family. We don’t have a close bloodline link with Jesus as James did, but we have that link of the water of baptism—for we are baptized into Christ and His death and resurrection; we are brought into His Holy family by the grace of God. The Spirit says through the Apostle [John 1.12]: but as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
St. James was twice a brother of Jesus—physically by birth and spiritually by grace. As we remember James today, let us rejoice that Jesus is our brother—He, the true God became also true man, born of the virgin to be Brother and our Savior; and let us rejoice in His grace that called both James, His earthly brother, and us into His holy family the Church. INJ Amen.