Sermon for the Feast of St. James the Elder, AD 2021

Mark 10:35-45; Romans 8:28-39

A blessed feast of St. James to you all, a wonderful day also for a baptism. In our readings today we remember St. James, son of Zebedee and brother of St. John. This is not the James who wrote the book of James, but one of the three of Jesus’ closest “inner circle” of disciples with John and Peter. James was one of the three allowed to see the transfiguration, Jesus’ revelation of his glory before the resurrection. James was also one of the three allowed to see Jesus raise the little girl who had died. One would think that James would go on to do great things as an apostle, just like Peter and John who we hear so much about. Yet as we read in Acts, James is only mentioned by himself in order to let us know that he was killed. This one of the big three was the first apostle to be martyred.

What does this mean if what we heard in Romans is true – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”? Did James not love God enough? Was there something lacking in him that God did not work together all things for his good? When you suffer, do you ever think this? Does it seem like God is not working all things for your good? Here we have one of the closest apostles who is not kept from a martyr’s death. What hope is there for you?

The hope is in a kingdom that is not of this world. It is a kingdom unlike those we see. James and John did not understand this at first. They came to Jesus asking to sit at his right and left when He comes into glory. They knew Jesus would be the king. They knew they were already in the inner circle. They had gotten in on the ground floor of the new movement and were looking forward to the end when they would reign with Him. Yet as Jesus said, they did not know what they were asking. Christ’s kingdom is not one of lording over others. It is not one of conquering as this world conquers. Christ’s kingdom is one of service. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Christ’s life as a ransom for many is the foundation and source of that kingdom. The Son of God became man for this mission of giving his life as a ransom. Our of compassion, the Father sent him to take the place of sinners, those who deserved nothing but punishment. In His life of earthly ministry, He did no evil to sinners, but served them, taught them, loved and healed them. And in return sinners sent Jesus to His death. If you think you don’t deserve to suffer, or St. James did not deserve to die so soon, consider Christ, his suffering, who unlike you or James or any other man committed no sin and deserved no punishment. Jesus took on the greatest punishment of all, taking the sin and suffering of the world, being cut off from the Father.

Yet here at the cross of Jesus, where all the suffering and sin of the world comes on Him, is where our suffering and our hope come together. James and John did not understand that they had not yet earned being at Christ’s right and left. Yet what is earned is not done by their work. It is to join with Christ. Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized? The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism I with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 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.” For James and John to sit at the right and left, they must first join in the baptism and cup which Christ also takes. This baptism is a baptism of suffering and the cup is a cup of suffering. Such places in the kingdom are won by endurance, as Christ endured suffering with humility, most of all on the cross.

This is a sobering thought, but it is also our hope. Today Avalyn has been baptized into Christ. Not baptized in suffering, but given new life and salvation by the Holy Spirit. She has received faith by the water and the Word to believe and hold to Christ. Her sins have been washed away. What Jesus won for her on the cross has been delivered to her here. As Christ died and took her sin, defeating it forever, she too in the waters of baptism has died to sin. Even more, as Christ rose from the dead she too has already risen, begun her resurrection life in faith.

She and all who believe and are baptized have this resurrection life. Yet this resurrection is not yet complete in this life. Sin still clings to us. We still suffer. But in Christ, God is still working all things for our good. As Avalyn was known and loved by her parents even before she was born, even more, God knew and loved us before we were born, and He planned to form us into the image of Son, to make us like Jesus. When St. Paul says that God is still working out things for our good, He means God is making us like Jesus. When James and John have to endure Jesus’ baptism of suffering and cup of suffering, they are being made more like Jesus.

God sent his Son to become our ransom, to pay for the sinners like us who would rather kill him. Yet Christ drank the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs, so we in him only drink a little suffering. Christ was baptized in the fire of God’s wrath, so that in our baptism we are kept from wrath in mercy. I cannot answer for you why James died first. I cannot answer why some people have more difficult lives than others. Yet here is what the scriptures do answer:
God is for us. He is for us so much that He spent His most precious thing to save us. And He raised Christ from the dead who is constantly with us in suffering, who is praying and interceding for us.

Avalyn and all who are baptized are not brought into an easy life. Like James and John, we will face suffering. Some may pay the martyr’s price like James. Most will not. Baptism puts a target on us, for the devil wants nothing more than for us to fall away. Resist him. Confess your sins. Cling to the promises of Christ. Know that Christ, who rules the universe is in your corner. Nothing can separate you from Him. This is why it is so important that every child, every person baptized remains in the word, is taught the word, is brought up knowing Christ and what He has done. Nothing but the Word will sustain the resurrection life.

We remember St. James because of what Christ did in him and through him. James was baptized with the baptism of Christ’s suffering. In his martyrdom to King Herod, it was James who inherited the true kingdom. James remembered Christ promises, and submitted in humility like Christ to God’s will. As we love and serve in humility, even the humility of a little child, we too are being made more like Christ. Suffering and trial should not lead us to doubt, but to remember that God works for our good, and nothing, not even death, can separate us from Him. Amen.

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