St. James the Elder
We thank you, Lord Jesus, for calling James the Elder as your disciple and apostle. Teach us by his example of faith how to pray boldly and to receive from you whatever is best for ourselves and for the Church. Send ministers who may preach and teach in Your Church with the same boldness and faithfulness to the very last. Through the same, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Today the Church remembers one of the apostles of our Lord, James the Elder. He’s less well-known than his presumably younger brother John, and also less known than the James who wrote the book of James.
Saint James the Elder was one of the twelve disciples later sent out by our risen Lord as an apostle. He has the distinction of being the first martyr in that group, put to death by Herod with the sword as we read in Acts 12:5. This was part of a systematic attack on the growing Church. It also involved Peter’s arrest for execution, which God foiled. But James became a martyr, suffering for his faith even to the point of death. That was the thing that Jesus hinted at in today’s text: the cup of suffering that Jesus, too, would drink to the bottom, and which James also imbibed in his own time. As our text on this day, we hear about a dynamic of jealousy and ambition among the disciples. We hear about Jesus’ correction, and we see that James was in the thick of it. Later as an apostle, James was such a powerful preacher of the truth that enemies of the gospel like Herod wanted him dead.
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Dear fellow redeemed:
The two sons of Zebedee and Salome, James and John, were also two out of three disciples in the group closest to Jesus. Peter was the other one. These three were the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ Transfiguration, and also of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As the Church remembers the faith of James today, we consider in this text how he and John approached Jesus with such a bold request. They asked to be given places of highest honor when the time comes that Jesus’ glory is revealed to everyone. And consider the difference between Jesus and the other disciples. The others thought James and John were reaching too far from their own station. So the other disciples were indignant. But Jesus was not indignant, nor did He chastise them for their willingness to ask. He had been training them to pray boldly. He responded to their request.
The way they asked to be seated with Him in His “glory” shows that they were thinking along the lines of the Transfiguration. St. Mark and St. Matthew include this request just before Jesus enters Jericho on His final trip toward Jerusalem. Assuming it happened at that time, then James and John were already witnesses of the Transfiguration. They already saw Jesus with a glimpse of His heavenly glory.
The word “glory” we see in Mark helps us understand Matthew’s account, where the question uses the word “kingdom” instead. James and John were thinking of Jesus’ glorious reign over all things from His throne with the Father. They were thinking of Jesus’ eventual victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil. Truly, the places to His right and left would be places of the highest honor and great authority!
Jesus did not rebuke their courage in asking for this, but He did need to correct their concept of authority in His Church. This was not only for James and John, but for all of the disciples who were indignant later when they heard about this bold request.
First Jesus described the way authority works in earthly institutions like government or social clubs. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” To be in a position of authority is to be honored and served by others. You can almost see the shining eyes of the disciples as they anticipated possessing this kind of glory in the kingdom of Christ. Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts of glory yourself. Many Christian songs and hymns describe how wonderful it will be in heaven. Some even say that a life of true faith will have the same flavor of glory and victory over all enemies.
Now, heaven will be wonderful. But looking forward to the Church beating back our enemies and ruling the Earth in glory is a false teaching called millennialism or chiliasm. These ideas go back to certain Jewish opinions that were even shared by the disciples after Jesus rose again from the dead. “Lord, at this time will you restore the Kingdom to Israel?” they asked in Acts 1:6. They were hoping for a time when the authority of God’s people (Israel to them, equivalent to the Church for us) would have the highest honor on Earth, especially above Rome. There’s a flavor of American Christianity that sees our country as the fulfillment of that dream: One nation, finally under God before all else. We can be led into this theology of glory ourselves.
No, Jesus had to correct His disciples on this. Authority in His Church works differently. The highest authority is the Word of God. Jesus himself gave us an example of treasuring and obeying it. Those who hold offices of the Word in the Church act not lords, but servants, and He was the prime example. The authority James asked for was given to him when Jesus sent him as an apostle. But the authority of this preaching office is not to have one’s own way. It’s to speak what God says, to apply it to the Church and its community. It’s to handle the holy things publicly with reverence and diligence when the Church gathers around the Word, so that the people of God may see Jesus and benefit from His life-giving presence.
People are usually attracted to something else: a flashy and friendly personality, engaging speaking, and good looks. But what people need is the gracious presence of Jesus and the authority of His Word.
In these ways, James became a servant to Christ and to His Church. And in reward for this faithful service, James had the privilege of drinking the cup that Jesus drank and being baptized with the same baptism. The cup was suffering. The cross turns all our expectations upside down. With Jesus, it looked like defeat, but it was victory. It seemed humiliating, but it was really His great glory. Jesus appears powerless on the cross, but there His authority was established over the greatest enemies: sin and death. By His wounds, we are healed. By His death, we have life. This is where a well-known passage is found. Jesus said, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” So the true glory and reign of Jesus comes from His cross.
“Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” This is a bit cryptic, but it refers to the ways that James and John will suffer for the gospel. They had requested a glorious place in a glorious kingdom. And which of us can say we wouldn’t like that? This might sound like the opposite, but even suffering for the sake of the gospel is a great privilege. James would be the first of the apostles to die, and he would die a martyr.
Since Jesus sent all of the apostles himself to preach and teach His Word, they qualify as genuine preachers and teachers. Even James, though he does not live very long through the book of Acts, is certainly a true apostle.
St. Paul was also a true apostle, though Jesus sent him later. But St. Paul had to deal with false apostles too. They all encountered false teachers, just as Jesus warned in our Gospel today and just as St. Paul warned the pastors who served in Ephesus in our Epistle. False apostles, false teachers, and false prophets were not sent by God. They preach what we want to hear rather than what God says. In today’s OT, God describes them: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people.” How can someone know the difference? As Jesus said, by their fruits. Biblical teaching, the Law and the gospel with comfort for penitent sinners and alarm for the impenitent; a life of service and a willingness to bear the cross. The marks of the Church are God’s pure Word and sacraments. A true apostle, prophet, pastor, or teacher will hold to those and not let go.
The same could be said for faithful hearers of God’s Word, too. Promises of earthly glory are attractive to the sinful flesh, but they would lead us astray. The love of God is not to be sought in a comfortable life and good times. That’s what led the rich man finally to hell! But the faith of the beggar at his gates was in God’s promise of future glory instead, and Lazarus found that God is faithful.
The life and death of James ended up reflecting the life and death of his Savior. He drank from the cup of suffering that God provided him, and received the crown of life through faith in Jesus. So the life of Jesus is the pattern for every Christian. Jesus said to His disciples in John 15(:20), “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” So St. Paul wrote, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
James was strong in Christ, having been forgiven for his sins: strong enough to face execution. Even the foolishness of his bold request was forgiven. So are your sins and your foolishness all forgiven. Therefore let us rejoice in this faith we share with James.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!