(Not A) Sermon: Beginning the Letter of James

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
2nd of September, Pentecost 15

James 1:17-27

For the next month we are going to be reading our way through the Letter of James, attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, and addressed to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,’ otherwise the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. We first hear of James in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, when people are scoffing at the idea of Jesus being anyone special. ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matt 13:55, also Mark 6:3)

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There are only a few references to James in the rest of the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul lists the people to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared: ‘to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor 15:5-8). In the letter to the Galatians, when Paul describes the beginning of his ministry, he says: ‘after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him for fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother’ (Galatians 1:18). Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy in this letter, because he ate with Gentiles in Antioch until ‘until certain people came from James’. But after that ‘he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction’ (Galatians 2:11-12).

We also hear of James in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is released from prison by an angel and goes to the house of one of the believers. Peter tells them ‘Tell this to James and to the believers’ (Acts 12:17). When Paul and Barnabas tell the Jerusalem church about their ministry to the Gentiles it is James who answers, saying that he has decided that they should only ask the Gentiles ‘to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood’ rather than asking them to become Jews (Acts 15:19-20). Those are the only references to James in the Book of Acts, but he is obviously a person of importance in the Jerusalem church.

Except for the letter of James there are no other references to James. But the story of James’ martyrdom was told in other literature. Eusebius wrote his History of the Church in the fourth century, quoting from earlier material that we have now lost. Among his sources are the books of Hegesippus, who according to Eusebius wrote five books of memoirs in the second century. They now only survive in the quotes in Eusebius’ history, and some of those concern James. As quoted by Eusebius, Hegesippus writes:

Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous, for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people.[1]

According to Hegesippus, James’ martyrdom occurred like this: the scribes and the Pharisees asked James to make the facts of Jesus clear, that he was not the Christ. Everyone would believe James, they said, because of his well-known righteousness. But James does not say that Jesus wasn’t the Christ. Instead, he stood on the parapet of the Temple and told the people that Jesus was now ‘sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of Heaven’.[2] So the scribes and the Pharisees throw James down from the parapet and stone him. As he dies James prays, ‘I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing,’ and when they hear this the descendants of one of the priestly families call out for him to be saved. But James isn’t; and Eusebius says that many intelligent Jews believed that the siege of Jerusalem was punishment for James’ martyrdom.

That’s what the New Testament and the tradition tells us about James. Now let’s see what the University of Nottingham tells us about James’ letter, and then over the next month we’ll explore it further.

[1] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Penguin Books, London, 1989, p. 59.

[2] Eusebius, p. 60.

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