Note: This originally was delivered at Noon Mass at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla., on Wednesday, 23 October 2019.
Unraveling our identity in Christ, with St. James
I want to thank Fr. John for giving me the opportunity to preach on the Feast of St. James, since he is the source of my given name. That gave some pause for comedic relief last night when I gave a version of this sermon at Enid Community Corrections, when I had a long, awkward pause in my delivery because I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the name of the saint we were honoring.
But, that fits, in a way, with the title of this sermon, which is: “Who am I?” Who are we? What is our identity, and what is the source of that identity?
This question of identity comes up in our Gospel reading from Matthew 13, when the synagogue authorities raise some worldly questions about Jesus’ identity. When he begins to reveal himself as Christ in their midst, they say ‘No, we know who this is — it’s Mary’s boy, the kid from Nazareth.”
From Matthew: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him.
The world takes offense at Christ, especially when Christ is revealed in our midst. But, for Jesus, this passage in Matthew has more to do than with the temple authorities. For Jesus, this was personal: “But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.’”
Not only was Jesus’ identity as Christ rejected at the synagogue. His true identity as Christ was rejected at home – in his own house.
We know from Scripture Jesus had siblings in that home, and for our purposes today we focus on James. Now, there’s different interpretations of what it means for James to be Jesus’ brother. Protestants typically believe James and the other siblings were born to Mary after Jesus. Orthodox and Catholics hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, and say, respectively, James and the other siblings were either from Joseph’s first marriage, or that there’s a misinterpretation of the word ‘brother,’ and James and the other siblings actually were Jesus’ cousins.
Regardless of whether, in modern terms, they were half brothers or cousins, it is clear from Scripture in the context of their day James and Jesus were brothers. They lived together and loved each other in every way brothers can love each other.
And yet, we also know from Scripture that James never accepted Jesus as Christ, from Jesus’ childhood through his ministry and the Crucifixion.
Like James, I think we often get confused, or are blind to Christ’s identity, and Christ’s very real presence in our midst. We can get caught up in daydreaming about what it would have been like to walk in Christ’s midst. But, here’s James – he grew up with Jesus, walked with him, and never knew him as Christ, until Christ was risen.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians today, Jesus appeared to James, and the other apostles, and then James believed. It was only then that James believed and accepted his brother as Christ. Well, folks, we live in the time of the risen Lord. And, like James, Jesus comes to us and says, “I don’t care how many times you’ve fallen, I don’t care how you’ve fallen short in your faith — here I am, believe, be saved, be reborn.” We are blessed beyond James, because we have lived our entire lives in the time of the Resurrection.
James grew up with Christ before him. But, Scripture tells us plainly we don’t even need to look before us, for Christ is within us. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Christ lives within each of us. And, here in a few minutes, we will celebrate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We will gather here, in Christ’s presence, and accept him as our identity, our source and our true meaning.
When we do that, when we truly accept Christ as the source of our being and identity, we cannot help but be changed. And, we cannot help but change the way we interact with the world. In fact, we cannot help but change the world.
James came to know this when he accepted the risen Lord. From Acts 15, James advocated for spreading the Word of Christ’s identity, his saving grace, to all people. Being one who didn’t believe and came to believe, James played a crucial role in extending the faith to the Gentiles. Likewise, when we come to truly know and accept Christ within us, we won’t be able to help but spread the love of Christ into the world, to all who need to hear it. We won’t be able to resist the passion that wells up from knowing Christ within us, to spread his love into a hurting world.
When we live our lives secure in our identity as Children of God, made in the image of God, with Christ within us, our lives, our church, our ministry and the little corner of the kingdom of God we build here will be, in the words of Psalm 1, “like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” We shall prosper, in our identity in Christ.
Let us pray:
O God of all the nations of the earth: Remember the multitudes who have been created in your image but have not known the redeeming work of our Savior Jesus Christ; and grant that, by the prayers and labors of your holy Church, they may be brought to know and worship you as you have been revealed in your Son; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.