Text: Acts 15:12-22a; James 1:1-12
Today we’re doing something a little different. It may seem different to us here in 2016, but we’re participating today in a practice that has been celebrated by Lutherans for nearly 500 years. You’ll notice that our altars are clothed in red. As far as Church colors go, purple is the color of repentance, white the color of Christ, green the color of the Church, blue the color of hope; red is the color of the Holy Spirit. The Church’s altars are adorned in red for Pentecost, for the ordination and installation of her pastors, and for the festival of the Reformation. If you know your calendar you know that Reformation Sunday isn’t until the 31st, or the last Sunday in October. So why are we red today? Because red is also the color of blood.
Red is the color of the martyrs, those who die for confessing faith in Jesus Christ, one of which the Church remembers on the 23rd of October. Today is marked as the death of James the brother of Jesus. He is the James who, with the Apostles John and Peter, was a leader in the Jerusalem congregation. He also wrote the epistle bearing his name. Though he did not believe in Jesus until after the resurrection, the faith given to him by the Holy Spirit led him to boldly confess the Gospel of Christ, calling for the reconciliation of Jewish and Gentile Christians. He preached and confessed the saving Gospel of Jesus for all people, even in his death. In our readings from Acts and James we see that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and free salvation in Him, produces a Godly desire for reconciliation, even in the face of trials and temptations.
Today we pause to remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, grace which we have received as well. This is the proper way of going about this subject. We do not honor James as one blessed by God above and beyond us, but as a fellow Christian was connected to Christ in a unique way (such as knowing Him in the flesh) and from whom we could learn much. This is the Lutheran understanding of the saints. If you open to the front of the hymnal, it speaks of the three appropriate ways to honor the saints. I’m going to read the section of the Book of Concord that the hymnal cites.
Our Confession approves honoring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. We should thank God because He has shown examples of mercy, because He wishes to save people, and because He has given teachers and other gifts to the Church…The second service is the strengthening of our faith… The third honor is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues. Everyone should imitate the saints according to his calling.
What that means is we see in people like James, Paul, Peter, John, and the other apostles examples of God’s mercy and grace. These people were gifts of God to the Church and we give thanks to God for the mercy and talents He gave them. By their example we are also strengthened in the faith. Such as, if Peter could be forgiven for denying the Lord and Paul for persecuting the Church and participating in the murder of Stephen, we also can be forgiven. Lastly, we can also imitate them in our own vocations, such as by imitating their faith or, in the case of James, praying for the reconciliation of all Christians.
That said, who is this James we’re talking about? There are a number of them in the New Testament, which is this? We’ll start with who he’s not. He’s not either of the two disciples named James. There was James the brother of John, who was martyred by king Herod Agrippa in 48. James the son of Alphaeus served and preached in Egypt. This James is the one included in the Gospel with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as brothers (or in most interpretations, cousins) of Jesus. In Galatians 1, St. Paul also calls him, “James the Lord’s brother.” What we know from Scripture is that, although with Jesus’ other relatives he did not believe, Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. Having seen the Lord he now believed. By the grace of God he was called to be a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. He was a well-respected Christian and was the final word at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. He also authored the epistle that is called James.
Tradition tells us that James was an old man when some leaders of the Jews came to him. They knew he was a leader of the Church and that people listened to him. They led him to the top of the temple and compelled him to renounce faith in Christ. Instead, he boldly confessed that Jesus is the Lord. Enraged, they threw him from the building. As he did not die from the fall, they stoned him. We have the last words of James as the enemies of Christ were killing him, “I beseech thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” His last words were Christ’s.
We remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James even in the face of death, but what we can we also learn today? Our first reading was from Acts and comes from an event called the Jerusalem council, which happened about 49. We think we have problems in the Church today, but perhaps they were even more serious in the first generation. Sometimes we take the Gospel we’ve received for granted. We understand that the forgiveness of sins won on the cross by Jesus Christ is for the whole world and He calls all people to faith through the preaching of the Word. In regards to salvation through faith in Christ there is no difference between one person and another. As St. Paul says, in Baptism, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Imagine living in world and church that doesn’t see things that way, that excludes entire chunks and races of people from salvation in Christ. Rather than call all to repentance and faith in Christ, suppose we categorically excluded a particular ethnicity from salvation, like Swedes. Yet, that was what was going on. The Jewish Christians were openly and fiercely excluding Gentile converts from the faith. Or, at least they must first become Jews, and only then become Christians. Of course this was contrary to the Gospel, but that didn’t stop men from going and preaching exactly that. It caused a large controversy, and prompted heated debate until a council was called in Jerusalem. A council is a meeting of the whole Church.
Sts. Paul and Barnabas were sent up to Jerusalem to relate to the Apostles and pastors there the work of God among the Gentiles. St. Peter likewise bore witness to the fact that God had also chosen to preach through him not just Jews but Gentiles also. Still, there were some maintaining that pagan converts to Christianity must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Finally, James – who was presiding over the council – spoke. Rather than give a purely human opinion, he turned the council to the Word of God. It had always been God’s plan, as revealed through the prophets, to gather for Himself one holy people from all mankind. God is not a God of partiality, but of free grace and mercy for all, both Jew and Greek. Through the wisdom given him by God and from relying on the plain words of Scripture, James preached that the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no bounds. There is no one for whom Christ did not die. And there is no one outside of His forgiveness.
Confessing that sort of faith will not win you any friends from the world. James confessed that all people are sinners and are freely forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. For that, enemies of the Christ and His bride threw James from the temple and stoned him. These sorts of things still happen around the world, even if they are absent from our country. Here our persecution at this time is mostly economic and personal. There are Christians who have been bankrupted for refusing to give in to the demands of society. And who has not received a sideways glance for standing up for marriage, or even daring to talk about Jesus in public? We may even receive ire for stating that we believe Lutheranism is the right interpretation of the Scripture. As Christians, we should expect this treatment and not lose heart.
James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and mature, lacking nothing.” We know how James’ story ends, the persecution and death he endured, yet he would say it was a joy for him to bear the reproach of Christ. He knew the hatred he bore was not against him, but Christ. Those trials produced steadfastness in him, and they will in us. James knew that those who suffer the hatred of the world for the sake of Christ are called blessed by our Savior.
Let us then also learn this wisdom James, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” Today we remember and give thanks to God for the grace given to James, which we have also received. We believe and confess with James that Jesus Christ died for all and desire for all Christians to be united as the body of Christ. For that faith, we will also suffer with James. But in our trials, we do not suffer alone. We suffer with Christ. Let us pray that God would continue to grant us the forgiveness of our sins through His Word and Sacrament, and that He would, with James, keep us steadfast in the one true faith until we die and receive with all the saints the crown of life that never fades. In Jesus’ name. Amen.