Who Is James?

There are at least two, and possibly as many as four or five, or more, men named James who are mentioned by name in the New Testament. To arrive in church of a Sunday morning and be greeted by a leaflet that announces that we are observing today the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem is to be invited into confusion. Come on in; you are most welcome.

Without question, one of the twelve apostles was called James, who was the brother of John, both sons of Zebedee. This is St. James the Apostle, the Greater, the patron saint of Spain, the path to whose shrine at Santiago de Compostela countless pilgrims have trod – my own self three different times. And he has nothing whatsoever to do with today.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that two Jameses were among the Twelve: the aforementioned son of Zebedee, and another James, the son of Alpheus. This second James is usually nicknamed St. James the Less – probably because he was younger than James the Greater, or possibly because he was shorter. But chances are he is not the person we are here to celebrate either, because his feast day is May 3, so hold your horses.

Some people attribute the Epistle of James, wherein we are exhorted to be doers of the word and not hearers only, to this shorter, younger man. This authorship seems unlikely to me, but what do I know? Could this be yet another James?

More than once, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, we are told that there is a James whose mother is Mary. Well, actually we are told that there is a Mary whose son is James, but you get the point. Is this, too, yet another James? And here is where things begin to get interesting or confusing, as the case may be. Because as you may recall, the mother of Jesus is also named Mary, and in some quarters of the church she is thought of with what you might call high regard. And the Scriptures, specifically the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as those of Paul, all attest that Jesus had brothers (and sisters, but we are by no means ready to deal with sisters today!).

What’s more, the writer of the Epistle of Jude claims to be a “brother” of James, but only a “servant” of Jesus, just in case you are trying to keep track of all the Jameses.

In other iterations of identity, some saintly James has been given the moniker “James the Just,” “James the brother of the Lord,” and eventually “James of Jerusalem,” this latter James, said by the church’s earliest historian to have been the bishop of Jerusalem.

And so, it would appear that it is this last James whose life, witness, and ministry we celebrate today. But I hope I have adequately demonstrated that to say such a thing is to say nearly nothing, for we hardly know about whom it is we are speaking.

Much of the problem in saying anything useful about any of the lesser Jameses is that it tends to bring up the thorny question of whether or not Jesus had brothers, as each and every one of the earliest biblical writers suggests he did, in what you might call no uncertain terms. In and of themselves, siblings would be unobjectionable for our Lord, except, of course, for the long-held tradition that such a thing is impossible since Mary, the Mother of our Lord, was a virgin before, during, and forever after the birth of Jesus. The perpetual virginity of Mary - a teaching with deep and ancient roots in the church - precludes the possibility of siblings for Jesus, making it difficult to say just what the biblical writers might mean when they call James the brother of Jesus, and refer to our Lord’s brothers and sisters.

All of this confusion makes it difficult to say just how many Jameses there were, and what the parentage of each may have been. And of course, all of it makes it difficult to know what or who we should be celebrating today.

It is tempting to turn the tables on James, and more or less ignore him. Taking a cue from this morning’s Gospel reading, and from the church’s preoccupation with what it is that James’s identity says about Mary, it is tempting, instead, to raise a song to our Lady – is not his mother called Mary? Yes! She is! And she has captured our hearts, and led us to faith! The church delights to claim Mary as our mother, too – her perpetual virginity proving no impediment to adopting all humanity as her own children. Hail Mary! Hail Mary! Hail Mary, full of grace!

But if we only fixate on Mary, then it seems likely that we are using her as a way to avoid discussing the elephant in the room, which is that we are deeply uncertain about our own relationship to Jesus. Our confusion about how James might or might not be related to Jesus, just might correlate pretty well to our confusion about how we relate to Jesus. Is Jesus, our friend, our brother, a casual acquaintance? A teacher, master, guru, rabbi? Is Jesus the light of the world? Our Lord and Savior? Or is he just cause for confusion in our lives, and therefore better left unexamined? Is not his mother called Mary? That’s good enough for me!

It is telling that the Gospel reading assigned for today’s feast does not only raise questions about Jesus’ family ties. In this passage we are also famously reminded that the prophet and his message are not without honor except where they are most familiar – like, say, here in church. So, here is a paradox: those most likely to ignore the teachings of the Lord are those to whom he is best known; but those to whom he is best known hardly know him at all. No wonder we have so often preferred to run to his mother, who might at least bake us cookies.

So, forget all the Jameses for a moment, and ask yourself, as I must ask myself, do you really want to know Jesus? Do you really want him in your life? Do you really want to explore what demands he makes, what promises he gives, and what expectations he brings? For Jesus is always asking us to live our lives not for ourselves but for others; to be generous in what we give away; to traverse the boundaries of class, race, religion, etc. that keep us comfortable; to accept pain and suffering as a necessary part of life; to trust in God more than we trust in ourselves; to become better at forgiving one another than we are at judging one another; to choose justice over purity or self-righteousness; to adopt a posture of humility; and to make knowing him – truly knowing him, and welcoming him into our hearts, and being transformed by his love – the object of life’s pilgrimage. Is any of this what you want? Is it why you have come to church today? Is it why I am here?

Perhaps it is one of the ironies of today that we celebrate the James who stayed in Jerusalem – where Jesus was well known – in contrast to Paul, who would carry the Name of Jesus to places where his story was entirely unknown. For if Jesus meant what he said, then it is likely that where he is most-well-known known that he is least-well-loved. This teaching should be a fairly chilling warning to us and to all his church.

And maybe we are destined to be uncertain and confused about the Jameses for as long as we are uncertain and confused about Jesus. But what difference does it make if we are?

At the end of our short Gospel reading today, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus “did not do many deeds of power there [in his hometown, where he was well known] because of their unbelief.”

Well, I need Jesus to do some deeds of power in my life, and I bet you do too. I want Jesus to do some deeds of power here in this church, and in the neighborhood around us, and in our city, our nation, and our world! And I don’t want my unbelief or yours to be an impediment to the power of Jesus in our lives and in the world.

So maybe we should embrace the possibility of being more like James – since someone named James seems to be lurking around practically every corner of the New Testament. James is an apostle, a brother, a cousin, a bishop, a friend. He is there in the company of Jesus at nearly every turn. His humility is such that he is hardly known. His grace is such that he is a leader of the church. His faith is such that he is willing to die for it. Maybe James, like a Waldo for his time, is found wherever we need him to be, as long as it’s near Jesus, encouraging us to be better followers, brothers, sisters, leaders, friends, since this is actually hard for us.

And if some day someone were to come to this place, to this community of people, and ask questions like the ones we hear in the Gospel –

“Where did this man [Jesus] get this wisdom and these deeds of power? 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? And are not all his sisters with us?” –

then we could stand tall, and with confidence and faith cry out, “Yes! We are his brothers and his sisters. And Mary is our mother! Come, and let him be your brother too!”


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 23, 2016 .