Text: Matt. 13:54-58
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is something to the old cliché, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” We tend to regard the things we’re used to as less special. Sometimes we even get tired of them. Consider this: there are some things that we’re willing to hear from someone we don’t know as well—think of a therapist, counselor, trainer—things that we will not suffer a family member to say to us, especially if it’s something that we need to work on or less than complimentary. Even the ancient pagan philosophers noticed that it was extremely difficult for someone to be a philosopher and speak hard truths to the people who knew him from before.
We see yet another, more spiritual lesson about that in the Gospel reading today. Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth, tucked away in the hills, after speaking to the crowds that had flocked to see him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. They heard Him speak some very hard truths about the kingdom of heaven in His parables. They heard Him say that some of them wouldn’t understand Him at all—their eyes and ears hadn’t been opened yet. But still, even mystified, the crowds came to hear Him. But when Jesus returned to Nazareth and taught in the synagogue, as was customary for visiting rabbis to do, the people turned their wonder into something wicked. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” they wondered aloud. “Who gave Him this kind of authority and power? Isn’t this Joseph the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother Mary? Aren’t James and Joseph and Simon and Judas His brothers? We know His whole family. We remember Him as a kid. Where did He get all this? Who does He think He is, coming in here and preaching to us like that?” The evangelist Mark records an even worse reaction: Jesus’ family, His brothers—including James of Jerusalem, whom we give thanks for today—tried to restrain Him and get Him out of the public eye, saying that He had obviously lost His mind to be preaching the things He was.
It’s a pretty typical reaction. We like remembering who people were before they were famous or important. Those who knew politicians when they were younger love telling stories about it, especially if it takes them down a peg or two. Those who knew celebrities before they were famous enjoy basking in that. We do that with family members, even if they aren’t famous, reminding them of stories from their youth that might make them seem silly, some gentle embarrassment to remind them of who they really are to you.
But there’s something else at work in these situations sometimes, and it’s definitely at work in the situation in our reading. We fallen sinners also have a tendency to not want to admit that someone might be better than us—especially if we have to admit that they’re a better moral person, or greater accomplished, or better liked. We enjoy it when people on pedestals are knocked down, meanwhile we want only good and golden things to be said about us. And in the case of our Gospel reading, the people of Nazareth had someone on a very high pedestal they thought needed to be knocked down a notch or two. Or perhaps even thrown down a cliff.
Today we recognize St. James of Jerusalem, brother of our Lord. He has a unique title among the saints’ days we observe. He alone receives the title “brother of our Lord.” That’s because he’s the James that’s mentioned in that list of Jesus’ siblings when Jesus comes home to Nazareth. That means that he was among those siblings when they tried to shut Jesus up and claimed He had lost His mind. We know that he was among the unbelievers in Nazareth.
But we also know that something changed for James, brother of our Lord. St. Paul provides a hint. Talking about Jesus’ appearances after His resurrection, Paul says, “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,” that is, Peter, “then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” Jesus appeared to His brother, James, privately. This event isn’t recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Jesus desired it to be private. But the early Church, including St. Paul, knew that it happened. We don’t know how the conversation went, but we do know that afterwards James is converted. He believes in his Brother as Lord and James becomes a pillar in the Church during those earliest days. He guided the Church through their first major controversy, whether the Gentiles had to adopt all the Jewish laws and practices of keeping kosher and so on. His wise guidance earned him the name James the Just. James recognized that the Gentiles were saved by God’s grace, received by faith alone, just as the Jews were. So James ruled and announced, “My judgment is that we should not trouble these Gentiles who turn to God, but we should write to them to only keep those things that would threaten their faith and the damage the faith of their Jewish fellow believers: abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” Those were the things in the pagan temples that could easily lure them away from the true God in Jesus Christ, and were the most scandalous to the Jewish believers in Jesus.
Likely, James of Jerusalem was able to look back at his own life and conversion, being brought from unfaith to faith, and so he could acknowledge that even the Gentiles, utter outsiders who had lived in the shadows of unfaith for generations, that even these could be given grace, mercy, and forgiveness from Jesus. They also had faith in the same forgiving Lord that he did. They were converted by the same word of Jesus’ resurrection that he was. So although it was radical for a Jew to proclaim fellowship with lifelong Gentiles in this way, James made the proclamation. The Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit and believed in the same Three-in-One God that the Hebrew Christians believed in. It was all according to the Lord’s purpose.
It always seems to go that way with Jesus, doesn’t it? He takes the least likely candidate and brings them to His light, gives them special purpose. Moses, who couldn’t publicly speak, is made the leader of the Israelites out of Egypt. David, the youngest of his brothers and shepherd in the fields, is made king over Israel. St. Paul, persecutor of the Church, becomes its most avid missionary. James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus, is turned around and made a pillar of the Church. The Gentiles, lost in error and sin for centuries, are brought to Jesus’ righteousness and salvation. Even in His own life, Jesus takes the least likely means, the cross, an instrument of torture and death, and turns it into the source of forgiveness and everlasting life.
So we learn two things on this Feast of St. James of Jerusalem: First, don’t ever despise those who seem too far gone. They might be wandering, they might be outsiders, they might be lost. They might even be an enemy of the Church and an opponent of everything good. But they are not too far for God to reach. They’re not too far for Jesus to change them, as completely as He changed James. It’s not too late for them to repent and come to the light of faith. And I mean no matter who they are, no matter how evil you think they are. Jesus died and rose for them and He can change them.
This leads us to the second thing we learn today. We ourselves have been in that position of outsider, now brought in. You may be a cradle Christian, or always a member of the Lutheran Church, but at times you also have been an outsider. You’ve wandered. You’ve doubted. You’ve questioned whether Jesus really meant that when He said it. Or, perhaps you came to faith later in life. Something happened and Jesus was waiting there with His Word, with His gifts, and He received you. No matter what your story, Jesus has changed you. He’s brought you in. He’s transformed you. And in doing so, He’s given you a special, beautiful purpose. You don’t have to go out seeking it, somewhere out there. He’s brought you to it. So no matter where you are, Jerusalem or Elmhurst, He’s giving you purpose. No matter what your profession, fisherman, bishop, teacher, mother, father, salesman, engineer, artist—He’s the One giving you meaning. He’s changed you and that means He’s changed your life to make it what it was always meant to be: filled with His gifts, gifts received by you and gifts given through you.
James learned this. So he writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Always ask for wisdom, in faith. Look always to the God who makes the unworthy, the lost cause, worthy and righteous and holy by His own cross and death. And in that you will be given wisdom, light to see that you have been brought in the same way as any of Jesus disciples have been, the same way the Lord desires to bring in everyone: by His grace and His grace alone. In the name of Jesus, who makes us worthy. Amen.