All the apostles and elders kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
`After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:12-22a.
In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you all this morning as we observe the Feast of James of Jerusalem, sometimes called James the Just and sometimes called the brother of our Lord.
When we look at the Gospel for this morning, we see James (along with the rest of Jesus’ family) being used as an argument against Jesus’ authority. Having heard Jesus teach and seen his deeds of power, Jesus’ family is used to make the argument that he’s nothing special. We know his mother, we know his brother, he’s the son of a working man. It’s so difficult for us to recognize holiness in our everyday lives. But that’s how God works: he makes the everyday holy. But it’s hard to see sometimes. Even James, we think, did not accept Jesus as messiah, as his Lord, until he witnessed the resurrection.
So, the reading this morning, from the Book of Acts, puts St. James in a place many of us know something about: he is smack dab in the middle of a church fight. Very often in church fights, as is sometimes true in marriages, the fight isn’t really about what the fight is about. The fight isn’t about how messy and chaotic the drawers in the desk are; the fight is about how messy and chaotic our lives are. Or the fight isn’t about the style of worship; it’s about people feeling like they’re losing the church they grew up in. But sometimes a church fight can clarify doctrine, or can offer the Church what we now call a teaching moment.
One of my Jesuit brothers said, “Unity in the essential things, liberty in the nonessential things, and charity in all things.” This fight was about essential things—about the essentials of becoming a Christian and following Jesus and about salvation. So, James is caught up in a fight, and it’s a doozy.
Luke says, “certain individuals” were teaching that circumcision and following the law was necessary for salvation. Now, these folks were Pharisees. And they had heard what was happening with the Gentiles down in Antioch. And they were certainly right: they were correct about what had been the custom of the Jews in Jerusalem. But, like we so often do, they had confused those things that are customary with those things that are necessary.
And on the other side of this fight were Peter and Paul and Barnabas. And Peter, in the verse immediately before this passage we read today, argued that none of those things in the Mosaic law were necessary anymore. He said, “We believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.”
It’s an important lesson for us today as well. Don’t try and out-God God. We so often underestimate the Holy Spirit—underestimate the power of grace. And when it comes time to make a decision, James (the head of the church in Jerusalem) speaks for the whole Church. He hears the voice of the prophet Amos in what’s been happening with the Gentiles. And he concludes, we shouldn’t trouble those who are turning to God. He knows that grace is enough; grace alone suffices to sustain us, to save us. Now, he does caution them about abstaining from food offered to idols, and otherwise acting like pagans. In other words, he advises them not to abuse their liberty.
So, the story of my namesake, St. James, is not a story about a guy who knows the truth in an instant. It’s a story about a guy who makes a couple of mistakes before he finally gets it right. We all need to hear the story of St. James, because it’s a story about the only necessary thing: God’s grace in our lives. And it’s a story about second chances. And, after all, ours is a religion of second chances.
James R. Dennis, O.P.