The following sermon was preached in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel by Dr Wm Mundt for the Festival of St James of Jerusalem on Thursday, 23 October 2014.
10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. 12 And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 15:10-22a)
If there is anything we take away from this observance of St James’s Day perhaps it should be an appreciation for the example or model he provides as a man of moderation. Not moderation in the sense of neither hot nor cold, or indifference, in regards to spiritual matters. The little bit we know about his life easily repudiates such an assertion. Piety was important to him. Remember that point; we will come back to it. Josephus refers to him as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ,” and reports that he was much respected even by the Pharisees for his piety and strict observance of the Law. Jerome quotes Hegesippus’ account from the fifth book of his lost Commentaries: “After the apostles, James the brother of our Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woollen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camel’s knees.” (Orthodox Wiki)
Paul described James as one of the persons to whom the risen Christ showed himself (1 Co 15:3-8) and in Galatians as one of the three pillars of the church, along with Peter and John. Acts shows that James was respected as an important figure. When Peter was miraculously freed from prison and had to flee Jerusalem, he asked that James be informed (12:17). As we see in our text, when Antioch Christians were concerned about what Gentile Christians needed to be saved, they sent Paul and Barnabas to confer with him. And when Paul arrives in Jerusalem to deliver the money raised for the faithful there, he goes to James (21:18).
His influence was by no means confined to Jerusalem. As Bishop he occupied a position of unrivalled importance in the early Christian movement. One indication of this is that although the name “James” was fairly common, he could be identified simply by this name with no need for further explanation.
Even his death, like his life, demonstrated more excess than moderation. During his thirty years as Bishop of Jerusalem, he converted many Jews to Christianity. Annoyed by this, the legend goes, the Scribes and Pharisees plotted to kill him. They led him to the pinnacle of the temple and asked what he thought of Jesus. According to Eusebius (following Hegesippus), they entreated him to “restrain the people, who are led astray after Jesus, as if he were the Messiah.” Instead of denouncing Jesus to the people, he confessed Christ as the Messiah. Greatly angered, the Jewish teachers threw him off the roof. He did not die immediately but with his final strength, prayed for his enemies. Eusebius adds that after the fall failed to kill him, they stoned him and at last broke his skull with a club. This martyrdom is usually ascribed to AD 62.
Not much moderation to be seen here. But he did moderate a dispute over piety or pietism, the form or expression one gives to his/her faith. Perhaps of note is that in spite of his own intense vow as a Nazarene and a corresponding lifestyle of holiness and purity, he was willing to allow Gentile converts to develop and pursue their own expression of faith with only a few conditions. The conference could have ended quite differently. As church history shows, division rather than unity is frequently the result of conferences and conventions and disagreement over practices frequently the cause.
Perhaps the problem is that we are all pietists at heart. The opinio legis convinces us that we must do something to please God—even after we have embraced the Gospel—and furthermore it and our pride generally convince us also that our expression of faith, our form of piety, is to be preferred. This has led to some ugly outcomes: church splits, cutting off fingers in the two- or three-digit controversy in Old Russian Orthodoxy about how to make the sign of the cross, etc. (no, that’s not what happened to me).
Usually where the gospel itself is concerned, a proper distinction between Law and Gospel readily reveals to us that we cannot save ourselves. Time and time again we will be privileged to proclaim and to explain to listeners in sermons, classes and conversations how God’s all-embracing love provided a miraculous remedy for our sinful condition. It was not always that way, of course. In the beginning God designed humans for perfect fellowship and enjoyed daily conversation and walks with his special creations. But Adam and Eve were not programmed like robots; there is no glory for God if one worships and obeys only because there is no other choice. Love, freely received and returned is what God envisioned for His children. But that freedom also allowed a negative choice, a turning away, and with that choice came a curse on all subsequent humans. God’s desire remained for all to be saved, so He sent Jesus to be our substitute under the Law, to suffer and to die as if he had broken the entire Law of God, but in so doing to redeem us, to set us free from such a condemnation. His resurrection assures that because He lives, we shall live too. That’s the easy part to confess.
But in the confession or expression of that faith, sanctified stubbornness becomes perseverance or steadfastness and yielding on any point approaches a near impossibility, taking on the form of an unforgiveable sin. Peter certainly had a stirring and dramatic introduction to the discussion: “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will,” but would that be enough to restrain the pious, previous Jews from insisting on conformity in all aspects of ceremonial Law? Or should one remember to differentiate between the content of faith and the form or expression of that faith?
That always needs to be the starting point. In the Lutheran confessions, the controversy over worship and forms began of all things over the reintroduction of the surplice. Hardly a life or death matter from our point of view. But the issue had already been addressed in the Apology where it was determined that “there are at least four principles applicable to liturgical usages” 1) liberty (compulsory adiaphora is a contradiction in terms); 2) orderliness (Lutherans follow rites and traditions as a matter of utility not merit. Allbeck notes: “It is easy to imitate rites, but not faith. When confidence is placed in rites, many evils follow, the gospel is obscured, and ordinary obligations are neglected. Consciences are disturbed lest something has been omitted. The many books written show the excessive concern with rites. Better than this false wisdom is the gospel of free grace and of liberty from the tyranny of ceremonies” (173). Add to these two the principles of 3) historicity and 4) edification.
I feel sorry for pastors who seek to minister with a my-way-or-the-highway approach, as if everything depended upon them and their personal purification policies and as if their expression of piety was the only permissible (read: God-pleasing” one). I feel sorry for pastors who cannot consult, either with the brethren or even with their members. What might have happened if James had not intervened? We will never know. Rather he gives us a model of moderation, that is, he moderated the discussion, finding a solution which apparently no one else had thought of yet. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all in that approach?
That is one of the advantages of committees, group-think, brain-storming, etc. despite our normal dislike and impatience for meetings. Ministry can happen in meetings, perhaps more so there than in Sunday service, although of course in a different form. Meetings present teaching opportunities, moments when connections between the Bible and the daily business of the church can be made in realistic, relative ways. Since every person around the table or room has a slightly different experience and background, creative conversations can present and evaluate various solutions to the same problem. I have yet to meet a single pastor who knows all the answers (although I have encountered not a few who imagine they do). But ultimately, of course, everything must be decided in a God-pleasing way. Frequently—in fact almost always—the how a decision is achieved is more important than the decision itself. James gives good advice, based on the observation that there were always God-fearing men familiar with Moses’ works even though not Jewish. Should we therefore, he says, turn away people of other cultures and customs who believe in Christ? Should we not be embracing them as brothers, for Christ’s sake, despite varying opinions about Christian piety? Fortunately for the Church-at-large, James’ argument won the day. One of the realities of life in a parish for which we sadly do not prepare you, is the role of mediator or moderator, or more simply put, conflict resolution. Peter and James got it right because they remembered to keep the main thing the main thing. That is, faith in Christ.
Over the years battles have been fought over forms. Our own Synods at times faced the quandary: Can you really be Lutheran if you do not speak German? Löhe decided no, and sent out German instructors to the natives in Michigan so they could eventually study the Catechism once they had mastered the only language God speaks. At Jerusalem the issue was: How Jewish do you have to be in order to be a Christian? And James provided insight in how to evaluate and decide such difficult cases. The ultimate question is not: will that adopt our life style but how can they serve Christ in their culture (and language). Most of the profs here have had the privilege of attending international gatherings of like-minded Lutherans. While we may not always appreciate their music or style, we recognize there is more that unites than divides. Christ is the common denominator; people create denominations. Often for good reasons; other times, for not so good reasons. The LCMS transition was necessitated by a World War but accomplished with relative little upheaval and splitting.
Duplications of the Jerusalem Council will continue to be part of the Church’s life as she struggles to make a bold confession of Christ in an increasingly (or at least it seems so) secular and anti-Christian society. And as God brings His Word of promise of salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ alone to other lands and other peoples, we will be faced with similar fellowship questions and challenges.
Perhaps we should let God have the last word. This time not through James but through St Paul: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus ChriSt 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.(Rom 15)
May God grant us all a St James-like attitude and approach. IJN.