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Have We, Like St. James, a Testimony?
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity VIII - St. James - 07/18/10
Jer. 45; Psalm 34; Acts 11:27-12:3; Mt. 20:20-28
We have two St. Jameses, both of whom were killed for their witness to Jesus.
St. James, the Apostle, was the brother of John, the Apostle. He is not the same James who was killed, apparently at the order of the high priest, who was the brother of Jesus. Many think it was the brother of Jesus who wrote the epistle of James, not James the Apostle.
James, the Lord's brother, at least at a couple of points in the Gospel story, was not a believer in Jesus. He thought even that Jesus might have lost His senses. He obviously became a believer later on, becoming one of the primary leaders in Jerusalem.
We know very little about James the Apostle, our saint for today, other than that he was the brother of John and gave his life for the Gospel at the hand of Herod. He and John were called "boanerges" by Jesus, meaning "Sons of Thunder", no doubt for their ready-for-action spirits. At one point, the two wanted to call down fire from heaven when a Samaritan village showed them poor hospitality. The two must have been quite a pair, but they were, with Peter, another intriguing figure, that inner circle of three, who accompanied Jesus up on the Mount of Transfiguration, and at various healings.
John is, I think, the primary theologian of the Bible. He does not think logically in the manner of Paul, he thinks very sensitively, intuitively and analogically, not the kind of person I would expect to be nicknamed Son of Thunder. Of all the Biblical writers, he presents the most powerful, consistent, and relationship-oriented interpretation of who Jesus is.
We know, as the collect for St. James Day reads, that James left his father and all that he had without delay, being obedient to the call of Jesus. We then in the collect ask God to make us like him -- to give us a testimony like him.
That is a dangerous thing to do -- asking God to make us willing to leave all for Jesus. We think of James as embarking on a rather extreme adventure with Jesus. And indeed so. We know the end of the earthly story of James -- death at the hand of Herod. Are we prepared for God to make us like James? What would have to happen in our personal lives for that to be truly and substantially the case? How many changes would have to happen in our spiritual lives?
There is more than one sense to leaving one's family. We learn in Genesis at the marriage of Adam to Eve, that the man is to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. That requires a certain kind of growing up, learning how to stand on one's own two feet, provide for oneself rather than still leaning on one's parents to do for one.
And, indeed, that should be learned before one thinks about marriage. I ought to bring into my marriage a maturity, a whole self, not lean on my marriage to "find myself", as people do so often today.
So, there is a sense of leaving one's parents which applies generically to all of us. It would apply to both men and women. We need to grow up. We need to take charge of this little kingdom of self which God has bestowed upon us, learn how to govern that kingdom under the law and grace of God.
We are not born into the world that way. We come self-centered, needy, and incomplete. We take longer than any other animal to mature into adulthood and reasonable independence from parents. Again, Jesus' 12-year-old comment at the Temple with His parents, "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" suggests that we all ought to know who our real Father is by 12 years old. We all ought to have that spiritual maturity by 12. And in that sense, we all ought to have "left our parents" by 12. Jesus remained with his human parents and continued maturing, but He must have already had some awareness of His mission here on earth and was, in that sense, already living beyond His human parents.
It is only after I have left my parents in that healthy sense of the word, and am now dependent on God and obedient to God, that I can in a healthy sense cleave to my wife, or my wife to me. Only our childhood-in-God sets us free to be in healthy relationships in the world. Only if our basic needs are met by God, not the world, can we be true adults in the world. There is no other way.
To be an adult in the world, you must be first a child in God. Only if I am dependent on God can I be in a healthy way independent of the world. Only if I am obedient to God can I successfully and over time stand my moral ground in the world.
Some of that must have been true of James as he and his brother left their fishing nets to become, as Jesus promised, fishers of men. Jesus was calling His disciples to Himself precisely so that He could cement into their souls a firm and secure foundation of trust and obedience to God, their Father in heaven. But Jesus would do it through first cementing them to Himself, and leading them through His death, and thus their own death-to-self. They had to be disciplined first before being sent out, they had to be disciples before becoming apostles.
After in the collect noting what James had done, "that, as Thy holy Apostle St. James....." we then pray, "so we, forsaking all worldly and carnal affections, may be evermore ready to follow thy holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord."
We can breeze through this simple little collect much too easily. We are asking the Lord to prepare us to be witnesses like James. The Greek word for a 'witness' is 'martus', which came to mean martyr, one who dies because of his witness or testimony. It is our witness to Jesus that draws the fire of the enemy upon us. And, that is, of course, the primary reason why we draw back. We may be happy to witness, we just do not want to be hurt.
God invites us, "Come, let us reason together...." in Isaiah 1:18. Reasoning together means meeting on a level playing field where each party is able to present its case on an issue, and there is honest discussion to seek the truth of the matter. That is what legislatures, courts, science, and education are supposed to be about. It is right at the foundation of the spiritual life. It means that nobody, not even God, has an advantage over others. Each party is required to listen politely to the others, and to examine his own view to see if the opposing side might not have a valid point to make. Persons who really are truth-seekers will profit enormously from such a process.
However, there are several problems. (1) the few numbers of persons who even show up for the discussion -- like those invited to the king's feast, we may have better things to do; (2) the large numbers of persons who do not believe that God means business, that He, God of the Universe, will submit Himself to such humility ("You can't expect God to do that...!"); and (3) the large numbers of persons who have no intention of engaging in an honest discussion -- they want their way at any cost, not to themselves, but at any cost to others. For this latter category, life is about power-struggle, not about honest discussion to find the truth. And they think they hold the cards for winning by power, not by truth.
That means that engaging in honest discussion on a level playing field will almost always lead to crucifixion. The tellers of truth will be shut down, forced out, and, if necessary, crucified by the power-brokers. It is happening with regularity today in our public arena. Our present government is a master at it, and has been -- off and on for much of the preceding 200 years. Our judicial system is corrupt, our legislatures have no idea what honest government is about. And, worst of all, the Church, for the most part, being oblivious to the real problems, is ineffective and irrelevant. Good politicians cannot win against the evil-minded because they do not realize that we are in a primarily spiritual, not just a political, war.
The forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil have no intention of letting us get away with a truly level playing field -- certainly not in politics which is about government and coercive power. They know that they would not win their case in an honest open field. They know that they must, they must subvert the discussion, tilt the field one way or another. And if that subversion fails, if lies and deceit fail, then they resort to coercion.
Nothing has changed since the killing of St. James by Herod. That is the spiritual warfare with which true witnesses for Jesus Christ will always be faced -- sooner or later.
There are persons who really do want the truth, who are searching for something better than the mess they currently have, and who are willing to consider the possibility that they, themselves, just might be part of their own problem. They just might be their own worst enemies. And they would be willing to do what they must to change that.
Those people will always, I think, be a minority of the population, but they are the ones we must find and reach out to with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And in doing so, we must learn how to fight the spiritual warfare with those who wish to subvert the playing field for their own ends.
The majority of any population will probably be what Jesus in the Book of Revelation calls the lukewarm, the insipid ones who value comfort rather than freedom in Christ. That probably describes all of us to some degree.
And there will be another minority, the evil-minded, who will be absolutely dedicated to their own control of everything in sight. They will probably be involved in the occult, and they will be without compassion or mercy. They will do whatever they think they can get away with. And they are good at it.
But, they are enormously vulnerable -- if you know how to pull out their props.
(1) The evil-minded cannot control society on their own, they must persuade a sufficient number of the people to support them. They depend on the masses for their power base, mostly that lukewarm mass of people who never learned to think for themselves, who put feeling-good above everything else, and who are suckers for promises of comfort and feeling-good from those who have power. They are the "useful idiots" for the power-hungry.
(2) The evil-minded cannot stand in the light of day. They cannot survive an honest truth-seeking process, so they know they have to shut down honest persons and honest communities. Either that or they retreat into the caves and under the rocks. Only as long as they can put on an aura of helping the poor and raising up the downtrodden can they snooker the masses into believing in them.
(3) That means that the evil-minded are very, very vulnerable to persons who will tell the truth at any cost to themselves, persons who will speak for Christ, who will declare that Jesus is Lord, at any cost to themselves, and who will back up their words with Godly behavior, loving God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving their neighbors just like they love themselves -- even if their neighbor is an enemy. The evil-minded are very vulnerable to well-trained missionaries.
What can an evil people do against persons who are willing to die for their enemies? What can evil people do against persons who will not stop talking about Jesus, even at the cost of their lives? The moral and spiritual witness is eventually overpowering because those in the muddled middle begin to see a moral challenge and to feel a moral conviction. Then the power of the wicked begins to fail, even they themselves begin to rot at the core and lose their momentum. They cannot sustain the purity and temper of their own evil.
And then, those Christians who keep faith, who endure through the hard times, will have the wherewithal to begin rebuilding a new civilization, a new Godly order. That is what Christians did as Rome fell , emerging out of those Dark Ages with the foundations and beginnings of a truly Christian civilization.
That is where we are today. The top, I believe, is lost. We will not be able to elect truth-seekers and truth-speakers to any high office in the near future. And if they do get there, their lives will be at risk. Like Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, they will probably not survive. We must begin at the bottom, with little communities like St. Luke's, where we grow in our spiritual lives together, more and more deeply committed to God and to one another.
Only a saved people can save a civilization. We have only tattered remnants of a once, not wholly, but significantly, Christian civilization. We will not get it back without rebuilding from the bottom. That means rebuilding the Church, those who want to do what St. James did. He could have hardly known what he was in for, but he stayed with Jesus, growing in his dependency upon Jesus, and his obedience to Jesus. And then, through the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, James became the kind of man who would not back down, even at the threat of Herod's sword.
The Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah is striking. Baruch was Jeremiah's secretary, writing down the words of Jeremiah's prophecies, perhaps for distribution to the king or to the nobles, or to the people at large. But, Baruch had become discouraged and depressed, and had complained deeply to the Lord.
The Lord's answer was a rebuke: "Behold! what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up -- that is the whole land. And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not; for, behold, I am bringing evil upon all flesh, says the Lord; but I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go."
The prophets did not typically leave to get out of the coming disaster. They were Hebrews, and they remained Hebrews, even with their disobedient, unfaithful, and traitorous fellow citizens. They did not form a new denomination. They were Hebrews and stood with them, for good or evil. Though God was punishing the Hebrews, they would stay with their people through it all.
That was not the way to failure, that was the way to glory and renewed Israel.
Our being here in this church suggests that we might be interested in that to which God is calling us -- that same discipleship to Jesus.
Let us pray the collect again -- the Book of Common Prayer, page 263
Grant, O merciful God, that, as thy holy Apostle Saint James, leaving his father and all that he had, without delay was obedient unto the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him; so we, forsaking all worldly and carnal affections, may be evermore ready to follow thy holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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