Today we celebrate the feast of St. James of Jerusalem, brother of Jesus and son of Mary. We take our devotional reading from James, The Apostle of Faith about the Epistle James and its origins.
- Acts 15:12-22a
- Psalm 133; anitphon: v. 1
- James 1:1-12
- Matthew 13:54-58
James can be dated shortly after the persecution recorded in Acts 8 and before the preaching of Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Plans for the wholesale missionary endeavors of the Antiochian church were still on the drawing boards (Acts 13:1-2). James’ epistle is a valuable telescope into an often-forgotten period of the church’s life. From our perspective we are more interested in learning how the Gospel went from a Jewish milieu to a Gentile one. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is the great watershed chapter for that problem. Our minds leapfrog over the problems of those Christians who still thought of themselves as Jews and who saw Israel as God’s chosen nation. For us the church seems always Gentile and was never Jewish.
The Epistle of James reflects problems faced by Jewish Christians who were learning to disassociate themselves from the personal company of the apostles and from the city of Jerusalem, the city whose air breathed of religious ritual and the acts of salvation. As long as the early Christians remained in Jerusalem, none of the apostles would start writing those letters which later would be collected as our New Testament. The absence of the apostles required that the first New Testament writing come into existence. It is not unlikely that some of the se first Christians had been converted by Jesus. Perhaps nearly all of them had actually heard Him preach. They may have been the unidentified faces in those crowds, mention with exceptional frequency in Matthew, whose curiosity was never sufficiently satisfied by the Rabbi from Nazareth , whom they called the Son of Dave and less complimentary the carpenter’s son. Some may have been the witnesses of His crucifixion or in the mob that had called for His death.
The importance of the historical continuity between the Jews of Jesus’ day and the Jewish Christians to whom James writes should not be underestimated. It is difficult to escape the notion that in certain places James is reindicting his readers, or those troubling his readers, for His death (5:6). With the Epistle of James so close to Jesus in time, place, and audience, there is no reason why the words of the Epistle of James and those of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels should not serve to interpret one another. Acts 1 and 2 tell us about how the disciples had to carry on the work of Jesus with His personal presence. This was the first crisis. The second crisis came when the responsibilities given by Jesus to the apostles had to be shifted to another generation. The Epistle of James will tell how they were to survive this.
The salutation to the readers is amazingly brief: “Greeting” (chairein). Striking is that only this epistle and the one whose contents are recorded in Acts 15:23-29, both attributed to a certain James, begin with the simple “Greeting.” To base an entire argument for the authorship of the two letters on just the one word “Greeting” would, of course, be absurd, but in both cases the author is identified as James. The word “Greeting” (or “Hail”) is used by those who mocked Jesus as King of the Jews on the cross (Matt. 27:29) and used by Jesus in His resurrection appearance to the woman (Matt. 28:9). The word is not as theologically freighted as Paul’s “grace,” but in the early Christian community it carried the idea of that peace which was derived from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The custom of Christians wishing peace to their fellow believers is perpetuated most noticeably in some Communion liturgies, where the pastor still gives a greeting of peace of the congregation.
Devotional reading is adapted from James, the Apostle of Faith by David P. Scaer, pages 29-30. ©1983 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.