Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon for the Feast of St. James (October 23, 2016)

St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr (October 23, 2016)
“St. James and the Power of the Resurrection” (Ac 15:12-22a; Jas 1:1-12; Mt 13:54-58)
In the readings assigned for the festival of St. James, we learn a little bit about his life, but more specifically about the power of the resurrection of Jesus in the life of St. James.  The resurrection of Jesus brought James to repentance.  It led him to see the importance of reconciliation between two groups once opposed to each other.  And it inspired him to remain steadfast in the face of suffering and death.
The resurrection of Jesus brought James to repentance and conversion.  It turned him from unbelief to belief.  His once dead heart was made alive with the message of the living Christ who had died for the sins of the world but now had risen from the dead.
Today’s Gospel reading mentions Jesus’ family members, including his brother James.  It’s most natural to assume that these brothers and sisters of Jesus were born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus was born…although some hold to the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and believe that these siblings were step-sons and step-daughters of Joseph from a previous marriage.  Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that not only did the folks of his hometown take offense at him.  His family did, too.  And not only did they take offense at him.  In Mark chapter 3, they were so concerned about him that they tried to seize him because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). They wanted to shuffle him off and shut him up. He was an embarrassment to the family!
So what made the difference?  James doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Gospel accounts, but he does in the book of Acts, where all of a sudden he is a leader in the Jerusalem church.  So what happened?  We don’t know exactly when James came to believe, but it apparently was after the resurrection.  According to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, the risen Jesus specifically and personally appeared to his brother James.  The resurrection made all the difference.
The resurrection makes all the difference today.  The risen Jesus is present and active for us.  He is present in his Church.  He is present with his body and blood for you today.  When Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins is preached, he gives the Holy Spirit to convert dead hearts from unbelief to belief.  The unbelieving world will think we are not in our right minds.  But faith in Christ is the only sane option in a world that has gone quite mad.
            The resurrection of Jesus led James to see the importance of reconciliation between two groups of people opposed to each other, specifically Jews and Gentiles.  This was the issue at the Jerusalem council in our reading from Acts this morning.  Some people from Judea had travelled to Antioch teaching that Gentiles could not be considered Christians unless they were circumcised according to the Law of Moses.  Paul and Barnabas were sent from Antioch to discuss this with the church in Jerusalem.  The Apostles and elders gathered to debate.  Peter shared the vision he had received before visiting the Gentile household of Cornelius, where the Lord told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15).  Paul and Barnabas related the signs and wonders done through them among the Gentiles whom they visited in their travels in Syria and Cyprus and Galatia in Asia Minor.
Then James gave his speech to the council that we hear in the reading.  He declares that the Gentiles are most definitely included in God’s plan.  Even the Old Testament prophets foretold this, and he quotes Amos, saying that the house of David will be rebuilt and restored … the people of Israel … but now this people will include Gentiles, as well.  At the same time, James teaches that it is important to show cultural sensitivity.  Gentiles who become Christians should abstain from certain things in order not to offend their Jewish neighbors.  Have nothing to do with things that have come in contact with or dedicated to idols, such as meat sold in the marketplace.  Avoid sexual immorality.  That seems like a no-brainer for a Christian, but among the Gentiles, consciences were not as well-formed.  Theirs was a very libertine society.  Also, they were to avoid eating blood and meat from animals that had been strangled, that is, with the blood still in it, something strictly forbidden among the Jews.
            James’ speech, of course, applies to any group of brothers or sisters in Christ, not merely those ethnically and culturally divided.  We should all be willing to reach out and forgive one another, reconcile with each other, because we are already truly one in Christ, a part of his Body, saved by grace alone, empowered with the peace of Christ to live at peace with each other and to show respect to one another.  We should also seek to find ways to avoid unintentionally offending our neighbor … not compromising doctrine, not setting aside the truths of Holy Scripture, but being sensitive so as not to set up any unnecessary barriers to people hearing the Word of God.  What does that mean for us today in our context?  I’m still trying to figure that out, especially in this day and age when people are so easily offended over any number of things.  Maybe one aspect for us is the way we speak to our neighbors who have no faith.  Perhaps we need to learn to speak clearly and winsomely about our faith without sounding superior or judgmental, but being merciful and compassionate instead, admitting that we are sinners, too, in need of a Savior.
            We have one other reading to mention, the epistle of James.  In the opening portion of this letter, James teaches us that the resurrection of Jesus also enables us to remain steadfast … to have patience, endurance, perseverance, to stand firm in the faith even when we face trials.  When trials come, when your faith is put to the test, James says to “count it all joy.”  That seems contrary to how we feel in times of testing and trial.  But this is exactly where faith comes in, trusting God in spite of what you see, in spite of your circumstances, having an eternal perspective, having God’s perspective.
            In an essay presented at last summer’s LCMS convention, the Rev. Dr. Berhanu Ofgaa told how many Ethiopian Lutherans endured trials, yet trusted God with an eternal perspective.  He is the secretary general of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, “one of the largest and fastest growing Lutheran church bodies in the world,” with an estimated 5.2 million members and 2 million children in Sunday School every Sunday.[1]
            In his essay, Dr. Ofgaa spoke of the years they spent under the thumb of Communism:
The closing down of congregations, banning of worship services, detention of many ministers, severe trials and death of many ministers and church leaders, and loss of church properties had severely damaged the church. It was a duration when church properties were confiscated and the existence of God and his church were totally denied. It was a duration when many believers had been brutally tortured, beaten, harassed, intimidated, lost their jobs, detained, and faced various sorts of sufferings and trials. Those evil moments were when many leaders and ministers of the gospel were brutally tortured to death, when many top leaders like the Rev. Gudina Tumsa suffered repeated imprisonments and faced a cruel death. Especially, it was the moment when many young people were atrociously tortured and faced various sorts of trials, including being forced to deny Christ. As I myself have been a partaker of these trials and sufferings, I testify this as a living witness. Nevertheless, all these horrible actions didn’t and couldn’t stop the church from boldly declaring the Lordship of Christ. Although heavily challenged, the survival of the church was certain because of Jesus’ promise. The persecution couldn’t move the church an inch from her firm confession and witnessing to the Lordship of Jesus in public. The church was counted worthy to suffer and to sacrifice for Jesus. All these challenges and confrontations from the forces of evil couldn’t prevail against this church, as Jesus said. The words of Jesus, “the gates of hell cannot prevail against it,” have been demonstrated and proven in the experiences the church in Ethiopia underwent. This severe persecution and test of faith endured by [our church] in those horrible days, even though it shocked and rocked her foundation, did not move her an inch from her firm confession.[2]
Our Lord uses trials not to weaken but to strengthen us.  His desire is to produce steadfastness in our hearts and lives, so that even though our foundations are rocked and shocked, we are never moved an inch from our firm confession.  In this way, we are made “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” … not that we are perfect and without sin … that awaits until the day of our own resurrection.  But in Christ Jesus, through faith in Christ Jesus – in spite of the brokenness that we see in our world and in our lives – in him we are whole and complete.  In Christ Jesus we are forgiven, we are saved, we are whole, we are perfect.  And James invites us to pray for wisdom so that we can recognize the ways in which God is working to produce steadfastness in our lives, to strengthen our faith … so we can trust in his steadfast love for us, giving thanks for the ways in which he is always so patient with us, showing that steadfast love for us at the cross.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life.”  That’s an apt description of James, the brother of our Lord.  James remained steadfast under trial.  He stood the test.  He received the crown of life.  James was martyred for his confession of faith in his brother, his Savior, Jesus.  Hegesippus, an early church historian, says that at Passover, James was preaching that Jesus was the Christ.  His opponents dragged him to the pinnacle of the temple and threw him down.  But James did not die immediately.  Instead, he knelt and prayed, echoing his brother’s words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” At that point, James was stoned and beaten with a club until he finally died.[3]
Repentance, reconciliation, and remaining steadfast, even unto death … all fruits of the resurrection in the life of James.  We pray that the Lord would have mercy upon us, and grant us the same fruits of the resurrection in his Holy Church today.

[2]Berhanu Ofgaa, “Rejoice: The Church is Built on the Rock,” Journal of Lutheran Mission, September 2016, vol. 3, no. 2, pages 58-59.
[3] Roudkovski, V. (2016). James, Brother of Jesus. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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