Today we celebrate St. James of Jerusalem, whom we also know as the brother of Jesus, James the Just, pillar of the church.
Was he a brother to Jesus, as the gospels and the historian Josephus refer to him? Born to Mary and Joseph in later years, maybe, or perhaps the son from an earlier marriage of Joseph, before he was widowed? “Brother” could also be understood to mean a cousin or relative of Jesus’. John’s gospel tells us “not even his brothers believed” Jesus; whatever their precise relation, James was likely not a follower until his experience of the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15).
He was called James the Just because he was highly respected for his personal holiness and reverence for the law and tradition of his faith. Legends compare his knees to a camel’s, hardened from hours of fervent prayer! St. Paul speaks of him in Galatians as one of the “pillars” of the community of early Christians in Jerusalem.
He presided over the Jerusalem Council, which dealt with what would be required of Gentile converts to the gospel—would they be subject to the whole law, including the requirement for circumcision?
That question can seem abstract, with the distance of years, but the pattern brings us right into the present when we recognize the elements:
- A community divided over things held dear by both sides.
- Practical implications with costs on either side. Could there be true fellowship if one faction or another “won”?
How many of our current events—in politics or in our church deliberations—get stuck in frustrating stalemates? How about in parent-child relationships? We long for wisdom (or Wisdom) to take its place in those face-offs, moving us toward justice and generosity. Which means toward one another.
James would not lightly disregard the traditions that formed and held his community. He was not a neutral bystander.
And yet, he recognized God at work beyond the comfortable bounds he treasured. He listened to what God had been doing among the Gentiles. When he spoke, he appealed to the prophets who had long proclaimed God’s desire to draw all people in. “We should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,” James declared. Beyond very few essentials, they would not be burdened in their approach to God.
The picture of God we have in Jesus is one willing to be vulnerable, to give up power and advantage, for the sake of others whom he loved.
James of Jerusalem was faithful to that Way when he proclaimed with justice and love that the community must err on the side of those beyond the inner circle. Rather than shore up his own position, he cooperated with the Spirit’s efforts and made way for the gospel to spread.
There was a cost for his community as they adjusted to the new order, and eventually to James himself. Some who believed James had gone too far in his teaching demanded that he turn the people back from Jesus. When he instead doubled down and preached the gospel, he was put to death.
A person of faith
With love for the tradition
And an experience of Jesus
Listened to others’ experience of Jesus,
Brought wisdom to an intense conflict,
And helped the gospel spread.
A Simple Craft for Today
To honor James of Jerusalem, let’s celebrate others who follow Christ’s pattern of vulnerable love. These “pillars” build our faith and share the love of Christ.
On this feast day, we’ll be making a pillar to put in the center of the table.
You’ll need simple supplies, likely already on hand:
- Two sheets of paper, in any color.
- Markers, crayons, or stickers
Decorate the paper to be festive and lovely. You can make a pattern, draw a picture of James, use lines to represent a column. Keep in mind one sheet will be cut.
Roll one sheet of paper into a tube so the short ends overlap. Tape the edge.
From the other sheet, cut two equal shapes to form the top and bottom of your pillar. Tape to the tube.
Now, tell stories of people you’ve seen standing up for others, or giving something up for somebody else’s sake.
You can prime the pump with examples of sharing or courage you’ve noticed with your kids, or throw in a pop culture reference—Anna in Frozen is a great example of self-giving love. Tell the story of James. Each person takes a turn “placing” someone on the pillar, telling their story, and giving thanks for them.
A Prayer for Today
Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.