Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
We begin our message this morning with a few words about the apostle James. He was a member of Jesus’ inner circle, along with his brother John and Peter. He witnessed the Transfiguration personally and also the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Jesus called him aside with the two others who were closest to him to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was crucified. James was the first of the twelve apostles to suffer a martyr’s death and the only one whose passing away is recorded in the New Testament.
We know a few things about him other than this and if we look at the New Testament texts that mention him, we can learn a lot about what it means to be a Christian and a saint. James was a fisherman, an ordinary person. Jesus once called him and his brother the sons of thunder because they were impulsive, strong-headed, and full of zeal for the work Jesus gave them. Most people today admire different qualities – polish, smoothness of manner, a quick wit, and the ability to express yourself in public. Anyone who feels strongly about something is likely to be called a fanatic, but firmness of purpose and refusal to bend can be good traits, especially if God calls you to be a saint.
Now, we should say a few words about what it means to be a saint. In everyday usage, a saint is someone who tries hard all the time and has a pile of good deeds to his or her credit. The Bible means something else when its writers use the word saint: someone who keeps faith with God no matter what. A person who trusts God’s word, who turns his or her cares over to the Lord, and who seeks and accepts God’s forgiveness is a saint. This frame of mind naturally leads to good works and a desire to please God. The disposition of the heart is what counts. Faith makes a saint and faith creates eagerness to live with God. With this way of looking at things, we can say that St. Peter’s people are saints. It’s a high calling, and when we think about each other, I hope we’ll remember that God looks on us as saints.
This may surprise us when we hear it, because we know how sinful we are. We fall way short when we measure ourselves against the Lord’s standards. And this is exactly the point. Paul wrote that we are saints and sinners at the same time. But we live in God’s grace and mercy, so the saint part predominates. We are more saints than we are sinners. If we are still doubtful, it helps to recall how we came by this calling, not as a result of our own works and deeds, but because of God’s holy and unchangeable declaration. He declares that we are saints. If we ever pass through a rough time and wonder what will become of us, we have the right to remember that because of our faith and for the sake of his Son, God has determined that we are saints. It’s like an invisible brand that each one of us carries after our baptisms. God claims us as his saints whom he loves.
Now, God conferred the same high status on James that he bestows on us, and as we look at the few gospel passages that refer to James, we learn something about what happens as God’s saints live out their lives before him. To begin with, God doesn’t want us to rest complacently in the gifts he has given us. He expects us to be spiritually active. He wants us to grow and mature. We see this in the case of James.
There was the time just after the Transfiguration when a certain Samaritan village refused hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. James and his brother suggested that they call down fire to destroy the town just as Elijah had called down fire on a gathering of pagans. James didn’t consider that the situation was much different in Elijah’s day. He acted in a very human way. Some people focus on one thing and commit themselves to it completely. They wish to protect it, even to the point of punishing others when they don’t have the authority to do so. James felt that way about Jesus. His loyalty must have pleased the Lord, but his understanding needed to be refined. Jesus pointed out that he didn’t know the spirit that he was now made of. Christ’s disciples are agents of salvation, not destruction. The gospel had not yet been preached in the Samaritan village. The people there had not yet had the chance either to accept or reject the Lord. They were still ignorant, and the Lord wishes to cut off no one’s chance to learn. The Lord is patient and forbearing; he doesn’t act in haste. He wants everyone to hear the gospel and to discover that it’s full of grace and truth. This means that James – and all of Christ’s disciples – put up with numerous inconveniences out of love for God and our neighbors. We try to understand what other people are thinking and feeling and work to find God-pleasing words that will reach them. this isn’t always easy. We sometimes must struggle to keep from lashing out or expressing our personal opinions in full about one thing or another. Sometimes we can be so devoted to what we know to be true that we give offense without meaning to. There are times, of course, when people need to be offended so that they will wake up. Again, what counts is what’s in our hearts. We don’t act so as to get our own back but to serve the Lord and to encourage our neighbors along the road to salvation. This is part of what it means to be a saint.
Jesus makes a similar point in this morning’s gospel. James and his brother are concerned about the very human question of who will be first. Some people love the limelight and are most happy when their good deeds are recognized and they reach positions of special prominence.
Jesus says that the way of the saint is the way of suffering. The world takes one path, God’s saints take another. Our age pays a lot of attention to celebrities. We watch them and because of what seems like their wonderful lives, many people imagine what it’s like to be in their places and live alongside them. An experienced observer once said that everyone besides rock stars and movie stars is deprived. Maybe so, maybe the rest of us have seeds of unfulfillment and frustration growing in our hearts so that we long to be in first place. The point is that saints work with earthly inequities and make something good out of them for themselves, their neighbors, and the Lord. The strong oppress the weak, but God, who is the strongest of all, lifts up the humble of heart. He sustains and supports. He doesn’t ignore the poor. He blesses the faithfulness of his saints as we give our testimony to a greater more, substantial reality than the earthly one. Questions of prestige and precedence can be interesting, but the affirmations of God are more substantial and trustworthy. The Bible teaches us that a lot of life on earth is full of vanity. Nothing on earth will endure forever. Many things are constantly changing. Our true home is with God, who created us, who ransomed us by his blood, and who never changes. How valuable is the witness of God’s people in a world that loves to chase fleeting things. Living as a saint does sometimes call for putting up with inconvenience, especially when people reject the truth and mock the Lord. God’s people endure the bad side of life on earth and keep our minds fixed on Jesus – his mercy now and his promises of a better kingdom to come in heaven. We keep on going with joyfulness. Our neighbors need the steady light of faith that shines from us. Our lives as saints are much more valuable than we may suppose.
This brings us, then, to a third feature of our lives as saints that the Lord refers to – the importance of service. The other disciples were angry with James and his brother because they sought preference they weren’t entitled to. It’s always vexing, for example, if someone jumps ahead of us in a line that we’re patiently waiting in. One of the first things I learned when I came to Canada was that Canadians generally disapprove of line-jumping and this is a good thing. But competitive striving is a big part of the rat-race in the world we live in. someone wants to rush ahead; others are bound to get crushed. The situation is different in God’s kingdom, as Jesus said. He didn’t say it’s wrong to want to be first, but the way to achieve first place is by service. The one who serves rules.
Jesus is the chief of servants. He set aside his divine status and took on humble human flesh. Then he gave up his earthly life to redeem the world from sin. Christians take the ideal of service from the Lord’s example.
St. Peter’s people know a lot about being servants. The purpose of the gospel text for us is to encourage us in our callings. There is no shame in being a servant, God tells us. For Christians, service is the only way of life. How much better the world would be if everyone submerged their love for power and prestige and welcomed lives of service. Here again, God’s saints show the way. We know that the ups and downs of earthly life can’t injure our immortal souls, so we serve in joy, knowing that God is pleased and that our neighbors benefit. He calls us to look ahead confidently to a better day when we will receive a reward that we can now scarcely imagine. In the meantime, we have the reward of satisfaction that comes when we know that we have carried out our tasks as well as we can.
Living as saints; isn’t easy. We sometimes have to struggle to subdue the desire to be in first place or to thirst for revenge. To accept the burdens of sacrifice and service calls for a depth of character that only God can give. Jesus walked the path ahead of us and shows us how it’s done. What’s more, he accepted death on the cross so that you and I might find comfort and peace and the encouragement to keep on. We bring our doubts to the cross and our feelings of failure and our rebelliousness. Jesus pardons and gives us the hope and strength to go on. He loves his saints and will not give up on us. He will carry us along every winding road to the great day of his return that is to come. In his name, we give thanks. AMEN.