Call to Worship/Psalm 103:1-18 (NRSV)
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
God of the ages, we praise you for all your servants who have done justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God. We praise you for all who have sought your new creation, and who, by their steadfast faith, have revealed their discipleship in Christ Jesus. We praise you for those we have known and loved, and we pray that we, with them, may follow the way of Christ, and, at last, dwell in your holy city, sharing the inheritance of the saints in light, through your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Mark 15:33-41 (NRSV)
33When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
Message/James the Lesser
One of my fondest memories of a childhood was watching the great Peanuts holiday specials. Snoopy, Woodstock, Linus, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Schroeder, Marcie, all of Charles Shulz’ creative cast of characters attempting to make sense of yet another holiday season. Who can forget Linus’ humble soliloquy, sharing the birth story of Jesus in the Christmas episode? Or Snoopy getting in the fight with a folding lawn chair while Charlie Brown attempts to prepare a Thanksgiving feast of toast, popcorn, and jelly beans for his friends? Or Snoopy donning his World War One pilot’s cap and goggles, shot down by the Red Baron slinking his way back through enemy lines all while Linus and Sally stubbornly await the arrival of the Great Pumpkin on Halloween night?
There was one moment from the Charlie Brown Christmas episode that came to my mind this week as I read everything I could get my hands on about the apostle whose ministry we will be exploring this morning. Who doesn’t like a good Christmas story—even in July? This is the month when Hallmark debuts its new line of ornaments and the Hallmark Channel features Christmas movies all month long. Let’s face it, Christmas is only 166 days away! Better get shopping…
The particular moment that came to mind is an exchange between Schroeder and Lucy van Pelt. We know Schroeder to be a musical prodigy, who performs complex classical music on his diminutive piano. Lucy is an eager, overbearing, complex young woman who happens to have a slight crush on Schroeder and who has a propensity to get caught up in the worldly trappings of the Christmas season. The exchange begins with Schroder offering music for the Christmas pageant they are putting together. Schroeder tells Lucy, “This is the music I’ve set for the Christmas play.” The somewhat perturbed Lucy inquires, “What kind of music is that?” Proudly, Schroeder responds, “Beethoven Christmas music.” Pushing Schroder’s buttons, Lucy rants, “What’s so great about Beethoven? Everyone talks about how “great” Beethoven was. Beethoven wasn’t so great.” The frustrated Schroder quickly comes to the defense of his hero: “What do you mean Beethoven wasn’t so great?” Lucy then offers her treatise on how one determines if a person is great—”He never got his picture on a bubble gum card. Have you ever seen his picture on a bubble gum card? Hmmm? How can you say someone is great who’s never had his picture on a bubble gum card?” To this, all the flustered Schroeder can resignedly say is, “Good grief.”
We usually assume that the apostles were notable figures. Our churches feature stained glass windows enshrining their memories with hoary countenances and the ancient symbols of their martyrdom. The book of Revelation tells us that the walls of the heavenly city will have twelve foundations bearing their names. When we hear the names of Peter and John our imaginations are fueled with thoughts of these stalwart apostles boldly bearing the message of the resurrected Christ on the steps of the local courthouse or the city square or wherever people might be gathered. But when was the last time that you have given any thought whatsoever to James the Lesser, the son of Alphaeus? As Lucy van Pelt might question, “Is his picture on any bubble gum card?”
The Bible tells us so little about James the Lesser that we can probably sum it all up in one paragraph. His name is mentioned only five times, and each time it is only as part of a list. James the Lesser appears in the listing of the apostles, but nothing further is said about him. Even in our text for this morning of the crucifixion of Jesus found in Mark’s Gospel, he is only a name among names. So, what can be said about him? Like all good bubblegum cards, the front usually has the picture of the notable person and on the back a listing of the statistics, accomplishments, and achievements of that particular athlete. What, then, if we did have a bubblegum card with James the son of Alphaeus’ picture on it, would details would the back of the card reveal about him? Again, we have to use both our knowledge of the context and then sift through the stories, folktales, and legends that have arisen through the traditions of the greater Church over the centuries to get to know this elusive disciple that preacher and author J. Ellsworth Kalas describes as “a figure lost in the deadening shadows of obscurity.”
The New Revised Standard Version translates “lesser” as “younger,” suggesting an age distinction between James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. While some scholars suppose the nomenclature of “the Less” refers to size and physical stature, the name most likely serves to distinguish this James from the more significant, top-tier disciple James the son of Zebedee or James the Greater.
From Mark’s reference, we can extrapolate that James the Less came from a home where at least several members had become followers of Jesus. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, we find several women present, looking on from a distance. These include Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the Less. We are also told that these women had followed Jesus when he was in Galilee and ministered to him there. So whatever else James may or may not have had, we know that he had at least a mother, and most likely a father, who followed Jesus. If one brings in the account of Luke’s story of Cleopas and companion on the road to Emmaus, we learn that the name Cleopas corresponds to the Greek name Alphaeus. If this is true, then James’ parents were among the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Other scholars go on to suggest that James was kin to Jesus, perhaps his first cousin. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, makes this observation as early as the fourth century AD and early church scholar and historian Eusebius makes a similar claim. While we cannot be certain of the relationship between this James and Jesus, we do know that his story is often conflated with the stories of James the son of Zebedee and James the Just who has Jesus’ brother who was also a leader in the early church. There seems to be just too many Jamses around for us to keep everything straight. Modern author Tom Bissell who recently embarked on a journey through Europe and the Near East to track down the different traditions of these first apostles remarks, “The available evidence is confusing enough to baffle the most dogged New Testament detective.”
There is no record of James’ calling or any record of any event specific to him in the Gospels during the era of discipleship. Therefore, we must look to the traditions of the early Church to help us. The Armenian tradition accepts James the Lesser as the brother of Jesus, claiming that his relics are in the Cathedral of St. James on Mount Zion. This suggests that James’ ministry may have been in the area of Parthia which would be the equivalent of modern-day Iraq, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The assertion is that James once lived in Jerusalem and that the cathedral was built where his house had once stood. A fifth century source, the Hieronymian Martyrology identifies a ministry and crucifixion of James in the same region.
Another tradition from Nicetas David, a tenth century priest in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), provides a brief homily on James, explaining the spiritual gifting of the saint by the Holy Spirit and his suffering in ministry. Nicetas describes James as “a genuine child of divine grace, a noble branch of the true grapevine, which is pruned by God, the heavenly farmer, rooted in the Son, and enriched by the Holy Spirit.” After identifying various ministry sufferings for James in an area southwest of Jerusalem, as well as mentioning his travel from Gaza in southern Israel to Tyre in what today would be Lebanon, Nicetas asserts that James the Lesser was later crucified in lower Egypt. A part of this tradition describes a sermon that James gave from his cross, tells of his great agony, and shares about the gesture of a smile accompanying his exhortation against idolatry and to faith in Christ.
The Church, however, has typically conflated the stories of James the son of Alphaeus with those of James the Just, Jesus’ brother and a bishop of the church in Jerusalem. In one account, James is asked to renounce Christ. Instead, he cried in a loud voice that Jesus was the Son of God. When he did so, he was thrown to the ground from the battlements of the temple in Jerusalem. James survived the fall and began to pray for those who were abusing him. Finding him alive, they begin to stone him. At last, a fuller (someone who works processing wool) took James’ life with a blow on the head with a club. Then his persecutors, in a torrent of brutality, sawed his body to pieces. Thusly, the saw and the fuller’s club have become symbolic of James the Lesser, and he is often portrayed holding one or the other of these instruments. While the Armenian church holds to the tradition that James’ relics are in the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, the Western church holds that his relics are at rest in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome alongside those of Philip. Tom Bissell offers this description of the art that accompanies James’ relics in Rome. He shares: “In the upper left of the painting, a kneeling, youthful James, wearing blue and pink robes, looks to the heavens while a savage, shirtless man prepares to brain him with a club…. Adrift around both doomed apostles is the usual swarm of portly cherubs, while behind them looks an opened porthole into heaven itself—a swirling maw of pink light.”
Like Beethoven, I’m not aware of any bubble gum cards of James the son of Alphaeus. His story is shrouded in mystery and confusion by so many other stories about people named James in the early church. But maybe there is something encouraging about the lack of information about him. That regardless of his name or his stature or his age, Jesus chose to include James the Lesser in his band of twelve disciples, seeing something in him that we’re not able to see from our vantage point in history. The story of James the Lesser reminds us that there are persons on the lists of our church, of every church, who remain just names on a list, their pictures and stories, their gifts and their graces, their accomplishments and their achievements are neither recorded nor remembered. But the inclusion of their names suggests that they are a part of our larger story and, while we may have no specifics about the roles they played, we are here because they were true to their calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. We are their legacy. We are, because they were. Indeed, may we ever remember that James the Lesser was the apostle of the One whose name is above every name, the One who invites the very least into his kingdom, the One who gives us a name, a purpose, and an abundant new life.
Loving and faithful God, we bless you for calling us to be a holy people, living for you in service to each other for the sake of your world. We pray that our congregation will experience a rich and free sharing of the gifts you have generously given us. Knowing that we are called to be saints, we humbly ask that your will work powerfully through us to accomplish your purposes in the world. We pray for the courage, the patience, and the generosity of spirit that comes from imitating the love you have shown us in Christ Jesus. We long for your Spirit’s power to make us more Christ-like in our thoughts, words and actions. Help us to think of others and their needs even as we pray for
creation, in all its groaning…
the world, in all its suffering…
our nation, in all its disunity…
and our community, in all its need of healing…
We pray in the name of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
And in whose name we offer these words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
May the blessing of God, the giver of every good and perfect gift,
And of Christ, who summons us to service;
and of the Holy Spirit, who inspires generosity and love, be with us all. Amen.
Next week, we will look at Simon the Zealot. Our text will come from Luke 6:12-25