Thursday, April 03, 2008

3/30/08 Message

I was hoping to post the audio of the message on the web but the quality on the audio was not good this week so here are the notes:

The beginning of a multi-week series on the communities of Jesus after Easter, including James, Paul, Mark, Thomas, Mary, and John.

I want to begin today by making the seemingly obvious observation that Jesus had brothers and sisters. It's seemingly obvious because the Gospel of Mark tells us that he did, and names the brothers: James, Josie's, Judas, and Simon. The sisters are not named. In early Christian history this wasn't a problem. Most of the early Christian writings before the fourth century took for granted that the brothers and sisters of Jesus with a natural born children of Joseph and Mary. But by the late fourth century, as the theology of Mary's perpetual virginity develops, siblings become a problem. In the Western tradition, the Roman Catholic tradition, the brothers become cousins. In Eastern tradition, the Orthodox tradition the brothers were sons of Joseph but by a previous marriage, and thus had no blood ties to Jesus or his mother.

All of that is a subject for another discussion sometime. I want to talk about today is the role of James, the brother of Jesus who plays a prominent role in the early Jesus movement, but whose role is greatly eclipsed by Peter and Paul as the tradition and develops.

We learned of the prominent role played by James from Paul, who names him as one of the pillars of the Jerusalem church. In fact it might be fair to infer from Paul that James was more prominent in Jerusalem then Peter. Here's what he has to say in Galatians about Peter and James, and he's not very happy with either of them:

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 5we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. 6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) —those leaders contributed nothing to me. 7On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), 9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.

So basically what Paul is saying here is that he thought he had an agreement with James and Peter and John. That agreement allow him to talk about Jesus with Gentiles, and Peter has the mission to the Jews. And the agreement is that the Gentiles would not have to observe the key Jewish boundary markers -- follow Jewish dietary restrictions or be circumcised -- to be part of the Jesus movement. It is enough for them to accept Jesus as savior. That agreement, he thinks, is being broken. And, according to Paul, when Peter visits Paul he doesn’t' act very Jewish. He eats with the Gentiles... until a group sent by James visits and forces Peter to separate himself from the Gentiles. So James clearly is an authority in the Jerusalem church.

This is confirmed in several other early Christian sources. In the Gospel of Thomas we read:

12 The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

It is also confirmed by Clement of Alexandria, who wrote in the late second century: "Peter and James and John after the ascension of the Savior did not struggle for glory, because they had previously been given honor by the Savior, but chose James just as overseer of Jerusalem."

But we don't know very much about James beyond this. The only other historical fact we have comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, who writes that in 62 the Sanhedrin, the priestly leadership in the temple moved against James and has him stoned to death. So for 30 years James, the brother of Jesus is in Jerusalem as the primary leader of the Jesus movement. And interestingly, when he is killed tradition has it that one of the other brothers of Jesus, Simon, or Simeon, is named as the head of the church. It is the Jesus family dynasty, that gets lost in Christian history.

But James is important because he gives us a window into one branch of the early Jesus movement. What seems likely is that James was the acknowledged leader of a group of Jesus' followers, all Jews, who believed that Jesus had been anointed by God as the Jewish Messiah whose presence would usher in God's kingdom on earth. Sometime after the death of Jesus they took up residence in Jerusalem; they went to the temple regularly and lived as observant Jews, and looked forward to the return of Jesus and the ushering in of God's kingdom.

They probably found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand their fellow Jews were not buying their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. The death of James at the hands of Jewish leadership is evidence of their troubled situation there. And on the other hand Paul's writings suggest that they also had trouble with the direction the movement was going under his leadership. The Jesus movement is taking off in a direction that, they believed, would have been unrecognizable to Jesus himself.

In the NT, Paul's legacy, though corrected by Acts and some of the letters attributed to Paul, overshadows the legacy of James and Jewish Christians. Which is not surprising since the movement eventually becomes a Gentile movement.

But the influence of James and Jewish Christianity is there in the NT. In the Gospel of Matthew, considered the most Jewish of Gospels. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus says:

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

And in the book of James, attributed to James the brother of Jesus but written long after he was dead. Nevertheless James gives us evidence of push-back against Paul's teachings on grace:

14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Although the Jerusalem church died out in the aftermath of the Jewish war the destruction of the temple, Jewish Christianity did not die out completely. A group known as the Ebionites existed for 4 centuries in and around Palestine. The Ebionites were Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. They used a form of the gospel of Matthew as their gospel. It did not have the beginning of the gospel with the story of the virgin birth. They rejected the virgin birth story of Jesus' conception, but believed that Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary and was anointed by God as an adult to be the messiah. They lived as observant Jews. They revered James as the founder of their movement. They were named as heretics by orthodox Christian writers.

I want to say a word about the continuing influence of this way of thinking about Jesus and faith in the Christian story, an influence that lives on because we have Matthew and James in our NT bibles. Because of the over-riding influence of Paul's writings and the Gospel of John's take on Jesus - both of which I am going to address in weeks ahead -a heavy emphasis gets placed on focusing on our relationship with Jesus as the son of God. In contrast, Matthew and James point to what Paul called the works approach to faith, an approach he didn't like. But it is no accident that in the Anabaptist tradition of Mennonites and Brethren that Matthew and James have always been favorite books. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are poor, merciful, peacemakers); James says be doers of the word. This tradition, our tradition, cared relatively less about having a right relationship with Jesus and more about doing what he did. This has been one of my mantra's here forever: I don't worry too much about what a person says about their belief in Jesus. It is what we do that matters. When we are living as peacemakers, living simply, caring for those less fortunate, we are doing what Jesus did. That way of thinking and doing is part of the legacy of James.

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