“O gracious God, Your servant and apostle James was the first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the name of Jesus Christ. Pour out upon the leaders of Your Church that spirit of self-denying service that they may forsake all false and passing allurements and follow Christ alone, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”
[Collect for St. James the Elder]
Peter, James, and John: these three apostles were the Inner Circle of Jesus’ followers. Sometimes, being the lead people in a group brings benefits. They were the witnesses of Jesus’ transfiguration. Their names roll off the tongues of Christians who live centuries after they walked the earth. But other times, being the lead people in a group brings negatives. All three of them were with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, unable to stay awake one little hour with Him in His prayerful anguish. For James the Elder, whose festival day the Church celebrates on July 25, being a leading disciple of Jesus led to his martyrdom.
James’ earthly demise is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and read on his festival day: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread.”(Ac 12:1-3) This was the beginning of great oppression against the followers of Jesus. Not only was the Jewish religious establishment against those who confessed Jesus as Lord, now the earthly governing authorities were entering the act. That coinciding of opposition to Jesus and His believers made James the first of the Twelve to be killed for the faith.
But what James suffered was not a surprise; his Lord told him that it would occur. An incident earlier in James’ life brought that to light. In the Gospel Reading for James’ festival day, the Church reads about a request that James and his brother John made: “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to [Jesus] and said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.’ And He said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to Him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.’”(Mk 10:35-37) Jesus’ response to James’ request foretold what would happen: “Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ And they said to Him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism 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.’”(Mk 10:38-40)
James’ martyrdom was his drinking the cup that Jesus drank and being baptized as Jesus was. As his Master went to death, so did James. King Herod sought to kill Jesus in His youth and one of his descendants would not receive Jesus; another of that Herodian dynasty would strike down James. So it was meant to be for this apostle. But Herod’s sword could only accomplish sever head from body; it could not sever James from the salvation that Jesus had granted to him. That truth is what Paul records in the Epistle Reading read on James’ festival day: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Rm 8:35-39)
James’ death ended in life. For his Lord had conquered death and removed its great power. Whether James would sit at Jesus’ left or right in His glory is not known. But he does sit enthroned with Jesus who had served him: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”(Mk 10:45) That service rendered by Jesus, that love displayed through sacrificially dying and victoriously rising, ensures James and all of His followers a place in His kingdom. The Father’s favor is still shown to James and all of Jesus’ disciples: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”(Rm 8:31-32) A place is eternally set for James in the kingdom.
The Church comforts herself with this truth when faced with persecution and opposition. What may seem like total loss and despair in this time does not overturn what has been established for you through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ believers don’t turn a blind eye to the evil that assaults them. No, God’s people pray with the psalmist: “Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. . . . All day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God! You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?”(Ps 56:1-2, 5-8) But the Church’s cries for vengeance and aid are always spoken through the prism of faith in the One to whom she prays: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? . . . In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?”(Ps 56:3-4, 10-11)
Your faith, hope, and trust are in the Lord who has done great things for you. Like James, you may be called to drink the cup that Jesus drank and undergo His baptism. But you know that in all opposition—whether from your own sinful nature, other men, demons, death, or Satan himself—you are made secure by Jesus who has overcome all these opponents. They cannot separate you from the love of God. They cannot negate Jesus’ death and resurrection. They cannot overrule the Father’s election of you. So in this life, go forward like James did, following Jesus alone and confessing the truth about Him: “You have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”(Ps 56:13) Then you, like James, will have the rightful place prepared for you in the eternal kingdom.