St. James the Elder
Today we remember St. James. He is called “the Elder” or “the Greater” to distinguish him from another apostle named St. James, who gets the name “St. James the Less,” the son of Alphaeus. James was a common name--it is the English form of the Hebrew name “Jacob,” one of the patriarchs of the Israelites. As we heard in today’s text, St. James is the brother of John, the sons of Zebedee. Very often we hear in the Gospels that Jesus takes with Him alone, Peter, James and John. That James is “James the elder”. They, for example, were with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration and in Gethsemane.
When we remember the saints, we remember--and this is a great comfort to us-- that they are not always saintly. Like us, they, too, are sinners in need of a Savior. In today’s Gospel, we see James and his brother John putting their mother up to ask Jesus for positions in His kingdom. They are asking for power and honor--two things people often make their god/ what they make as a substitute for the true God. While not bad in and of themselves--since the world needs the powerful; and honor is a flag of virtue showing that there’s something worth noticing--the brothers ask in the wrong spirit. The sinful self/ ego wants to use power for its own aggrandizement, not for God’s purposes, not to help others physically or spiritually. And when honor is sought for its own purposes, it puffs up and does/ can not serve the Lord and His purposes.
St. James, together with his brother, St. John, Jesus nicknamed in the Gospel [Mk, 3.17] “the Sons Thunder”. Maybe this was because of their bold temperament/ dispositions. Not only do we have the account of today’s Gospel, but we also read elsewhere [Lk. 9.52-54]: And [Jesus] sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for Him; but the people there did not welcome Him, because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do You want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Even with their sin and weakness, the Lord used James and John in a wonderful and unique way in His kingdom, so He not only saves us by grace but uses us in His kingdom.
St. James is the only one of the apostles whose death/ martyrdom was recorded in holy Scripture. Normally, the holy Church remembers the martyrs on the day of their death--if it is known. But with St. James that’s not the case since his martyrdom was very likely in the spring of the year close to the time of St. Peter’s arrest we heard about in our text since that was during the Days of Unleavened Bread, the Passover. The 25 July date is in remembrance of the “translation” of his body in the 9th Century to Campostella, Spain lest it fall in the hand of Arab invaders. Why Spain? According to tradition, St. James had visited Spain sometime before his martyrdom. The shrine to St. James was a popular place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages and has found a popular resurgence in the past years.
Whenever holy Church remembers the martyrs, we are reminded that as Christians we live in a world that is hostile to Jesus and His Church; we are reminded that our lives are one of constant battle against the devil and his allies: our own sinful nature within us, and the world around us. We are reminded of that hostility and battle by the very first words of our text: Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. We come across the name “Herod”. This Herod was Herod Agrippa who was the grandson of the King Herod who had tried to kill the Baby Jesus by killing all the boy babies in and around Bethlehem; Herod Agrippa was the nephew of Herod Antipas who had beheaded St. John the Baptizer and had tried Jesus. And we are reminded of that hatred the world has for Jesus and His Church/ His dear Christians also by the response to James’ martyrdom: And because [Herod] saw that it pleased the Jews…
So what is our defense/ what are our weapons against the devil and his ally, the sinful world in which we live? As we examine our text today, we will see that the Church’s weapons against her enemies are an unswerving courage in testifying; a quiet patience in suffering; and earnest prayer. These are all the gift and working of the Holy Spirit in us.
The first weapon we have by the Holy Spirit is unswerving courage in testifying. But the way/ the “how” we witness will be different. Our text: Then [Herod] killed James the brother of John with the sword. Here in one sentence are St. James, the first of the apostles killed on account of his faith in Jesus, and his brother St. John, who although suffered persecutions, lived to a ripe old age. But both were faithful witnesses! Our witness as Christians will not be “cookie-cutter.” As we live out our lives as Christians, the Lord will call on each of us to witness to our faith in Him. Very likely none of us will be called on to pour out our blood like St. James, but certainly as we live out our faith, we will stand out; we will be marked; we will face hostility/ opposition--maybe even from our own families or those closest to us; our “cancel culture” will try to “cancel” us.
But as we witness our faith/ as we testify to the truth, that is a weapon against the devil and his allies. What we testify and proclaim as Christians, as we live our lives standing out from the rest of the world, that is the testimony of the truth, of the Holy Spirit working in and through us; that is us as Christians being what Jesus told us we are--the salt and light of the world. As salt we preserve the world from going even further into sin/ corruption, calling it back to the Law and to the Lord. And yes, salt rubbed into the wound burns. We are the light and Jesus says [Mt 5.16]: Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. And that’s exactly what we see happening in our text and throughout history. Herod took the bold step of trying to eliminate the leaders of the Church; but what happened? The Church grew anyway; it grew in spite of all these attempts. In fact one Church Father famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is seed.” That is, as it is shed, more Christians result.
So as we live out our faith and share our faith in natural ways with those the Lord has placed around us, it will take different forms for everyone but the Lord will work through it. That’s our weapon! It is a divine weapon, a weapon of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus told St. James and the other disciples and as tells us today [Mt 10.18-20]: And you will be brought before governors and kings for My sake...But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. Let us take comfort and courage in our sharing our faith--the Lord is working mightily through it, giving us the words to say; through our word and witness He is gathering people into His Church.
The 4th century Church Historian Eusebius tells of an incident that happened at St. James’ martyrdom. Even if it is not true, enough similar things happened in the course of Church history. He writes about Clement of Alexandria who wrote about St. James [2.9]: that the man who brought him into court was so moved by his testimony that he confessed that he too was a Christian: So they were both taken away together, and on the way he asked James to forgive him. James looked at him for a moment and replied, “Peace be with you” and kissed him. So both were beheaded at the same time. So, yes, dear Christian, our unswerving courage in testifying--which is of the Holy Spirit--is one of the Church’s weapons against her enemies.
Another weapon in the Church’s arsenal against her enemies is quiet patience in suffering and, again, this is something the Holy Spirit works in us. When the world looks at suffering, it sees just pointless pain, sorrow and misery. But the Christian, by the work of the Holy Spirit, sees something different! St. Paul writes [Rmk 8.17]: we suffer with [Christ], that we may also be glorified together. Is our suffering, and especially our sufferings on account of Christ, pointless? Is it just dumb luck? Hardly! Our sufferings are joined to the sufferings of Christ. When we suffer, we do not suffer alone. Christ is there with us in the midst of our sufferings; in our sufferings we are sharing in Jesus’ sufferings. St. Paul writes about this [Ph. 3.10]: I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings. And in fact, the sufferings of Christ’s Church, are the sufferings of Christ. At the time of St. Paul’s conversion, what did Jesus say to him? Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? [Ac 9.4]--notice: not the Church, but Me. So closely and intimately is Jesus connected with His Church! We see that close connection in our text: And because [Herod] saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. So when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover. Notice, Peter being seized at the Passover time and the intended death after the Passover; the large numbers of soldiers; the being brought before the people to be accused; the guard to make everything as secure as it can be--this is a repeat of the events of the life of Jesus. We see this throughout the book of Acts--Jesus’ life is repeated in the life of the Church.
This is why we can have quiet patience in the midst of our sufferings. We are united with Christ! Isn’t that what baptism does? When the devil wants to drive us away from God by suffering, when he wants to lead us into despair, our weapon is quiet patience. We know nothing is by fluke or accident. We know we are in God’s gracious loving hands and that He is working out everything for our spiritual good. Instead of despair when suffering, we turn to the Lord in trust. We seek Him all the more and delve all the more into His word in times of suffering. We hold fast to St. Paul’s words [Rm 5.3-5]:
we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who He has given us.
So, with our quiet patience in the midst of our sufferings we have a powerful weapon against our enemies. They cannot drive us away from our Lord; but our sufferings drive us toward our Lord; to recognize our sufferings as a sharing in His sufferings; to recognize He is with us in them; and to drive us to His holy word and Sacrament for His Spirit and strength.
Of course, we have one more powerful weapon against our spiritual enemies --prayer. Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the Church. The Church was in fervent prayer. She had just been robbed of one apostle, certainly they were praying: not another one! This is another blessing when we celebrate the feast days of the saints: we are reminded that the Church is the communion of saints. It’s not just me and Jesus but Jesus and the Church. We are all in this together. And when one suffers, like St. Peter here, we pray for them; when I suffer my fellow Christians pray for me. Where there are shared sufferings, there are shared prayers. There we see what distress and sufferings do--they drive the Christian to prayer, to this powerful weapon. And what do we see in the rest of the chapter--in spite of all the enhanced security, the angel miraculously delivers Peter from the prison. What is stronger--the dungeons and guards or the Church and her prayers?
As Christians living in a world hostile to Christ, His Word, and His Church, we have Spirit given, powerful weapons against our spiritual enemies: courage in our witnessing, quiet patience in our suffering, and fervent prayer. Blessed feast of St. James. INJ