October 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” The Psalmist’s words extol the goodness and pleasantness that unity brings, especially when it is present in a household. From our experiences, we know that such unity does not always exist. All of us have endured family conflicts, whether it be discord between spouses, struggles between parents and children, rivalries among siblings, or feuds with the in-laws. Those who haven’t witnessed that familial disunity need only live a few more years on earth in order to have their own first-hand experiences.
The Psalmist’s words can be extended beyond just the connections of bloodlines. The “brothers” referred to in Psalm 133 also speak about the members of the household of faith, the community of believers. Among those who are the Lord’s people, unity in faith, life, and purpose brings the same goodness and pleasantness as is seen in earthly families. And the disunity which sin brings, especially the sins of unbelief and failure to abide by the way of life set by the Lord for His people, causes great disruption. It is disruption and dissension that our churchbody, our district, and even our parish have experienced firsthand. But in the readings heard this morning, we are given to see that disruption and dissension among the Lord’s people can be traced back to the earliest days of the Church.
On this day that commemorates St. James, the Brother of Jesus, the Church hears about an incident that happened in Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus: “Coming to His hometown, [Jesus] taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And are not His brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all His sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at Him.” Jesus’ appearance in Nazareth did not bring unity among the Lord’s people there. Even when He brought them the true wisdom about the Lord and performed mighty works, the people refused to accept Him. Nazareth was divided by Jesus: “They took offense at Him.” There was no belief in Jesus and the message that He brought. All the goodness and pleasantness that Jesus could bring to Nazareth was not to be given because of their refusal to receive Him: “And He did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”
In response to Nazareth’s rejection of Him, Jesus declared: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and in his own household.” The proverb stands true: many outside of Nazareth accepted Jesus’ words and works and honored Him as the Messiah. But through the power of His resurrection, Jesus did bring some of His household to faith in Him as the Christ, the promised Redeemer. From His own household, some of Jesus’ brothers became significant disciples of His. That includes James, who would become the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. Reconciled to Jesus, brought to belief in who his Brother truly is, James experienced the unity that the Psalmist extols: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Not only did James experience it for himself, he would be an instrument for bringing the same reconciliation and unity to the Church in its earliest days.
This morning, you also heard about James’ actions at the Jerusalem Council. The disciples of Jesus were divided. Much had happened in the decade following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The Acts of the Apostles records the important events: thousands of people in Jerusalem brought to faith in Jesus, persecution of believers that caused Jesus’ disciples to scatter from Jerusalem, the establishment of congregations in Caesarea and Antioch, new missions in Gentile cities. As these events had taken place, the Church had to deal with a divisive question: What must Gentile believers in Jesus do to be true disciples? Some had insisted that the Gentile believers adopt all the customs of the Old Testament people of the Lord. The 15th Chapter of Acts states at the beginning: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostle and the elders about this question.”
What would the Church do? It was experiencing the division and dissension opposite of its desire. So the Council in Jerusalem was held. And chief among the participants was James, the Brother of Jesus. No longer was he one of those who took offense at Jesus, but was a leader of those devoted to Him. At the Council, the question of the Gentile believers was discussed: “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” But would the Council follow the example of Nazareth? Would it take offense at the wisdom and mighty works that had been done among the Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus? Would it take offense at the way of making disciples that Jesus outlined? Would it take offense at the new people who were brought into the household of faith? Would the Church be a band of brothers that dwelt in disunity and division?
James’ action at the Jerusalem Council brought the Church away from schism and split. You heard what James said: “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’” James points out that what was happening among the Gentiles was what the Lord had made known through the prophets. The royal house of David was being restored. It was rebuilt as Jesus, the Descendant of David, the Promised Christ, came. And the regeneration of the Lord’s people took place as they were brought to faith in Jesus, given the Lord’s name through baptism. That is what took place in the cities of Caesarea and Antioch, as well as the other places where Barnabas and Paul went.
So James sets out the action that would ensure the unity of faith that the Lord had graciously given to people of Jewish and Gentile ancestry: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The Gentiles are not required to adopt all the customs of the Old Testament people; those burdens are not placed on them, even if Jewish believers would continue them. But the Gentiles are instructed to abide by a few rules, so that the faith of Jewish people in Jesus would not be hindered. In this way, the way to salvation is made clear: it is through the Lord giving people His Name and calling them to faith in Jesus’ words and works that they are saved, Jew and Gentile alike. That is what unites all the Lord’s people together.
This is the example of reconciliation that James brings to us in the Church today. The unity that the Psalmist extols is only possible as we are united in belief about the identity and actions of Jesus. If any of us take offense at Jesus, like the people of Nazareth did, we will not be in fellowship with Him. We will miss out on all that He provides through His death and resurrection. Faith in Jesus is essential to the unity that He creates between God and mankind. Acknowledgment of who Jesus is and what He has done for the salvation of sinners is a condicio sine qua non for the Church. Without that faith, there is no Church. That is why we confess the Creed each week, stating our belief in God’s identity and what He has accomplished for us.
But the Church is faced with challenges in this world beyond our confession of faith about Jesus’ person and work. At those times, our desire is to have the unity that should be found among the household of God’s people. We want the goodness and pleasantness that such unity brings among the brothers and sisters of Christ. So like James and the others at the Jerusalem Council did, we must engage those challenges by looking to what the Lord has declared about the matter. Then actions can be taken consistent with those divine statements, taking no offense at what our Lord has declared.
What took place at the Jerusalem Council is a good example of what divine wisdom brings. That wisdom is given through the Lord’s words, what He has spoken. Later, James would write about that wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given to him.” It is a petition that we must frequently offer. Relying on our own fallible minds, we would have nothing but folly that leads to sin and destruction. But God the Father knows that, and so He has provided us the greatest wisdom in His Son, the One of whom the people in Nazareth asked: “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” As we receive what Jesus gives, we are made wise for salvation. Additionally, we in His Church are given wisdom to deal with the challenges we face, as long as we do not take offense at Jesus, but rely on what He has said and done. Believing that our Heavenly Father will give us wisdom, we ask Him for it. It will be given, as He directs us to what He has said and done, especially through His Son.
Receiving the same wisdom given through Jesus, we will follow James’ example of prayer and reconciliation. Likewise, we will be able to endure the trials that this world brings to us, whether as individual followers of Jesus or as His Church on earth. Relying on what is provided for us through Jesus, we will remain steadfastly faithful in Him, even unto death. We also will receive what His brother James received, as he was turned from taking offense at Jesus to being a devoted disciple: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” And then we will eternally dwell in unity with all of Jesus’ followers, all who have turned to God and who bear His Name. Jew and Gentile, they and we are made part of the David’s rebuilt household, the line established by Jesus, the Promised Messiah who abides in the celestial Zion: “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.