Saints are ordinary slobs like us who do some crazy things.
Take James the Apostle, for instance. Sometimes he’s called James the Greater. That’s not because he racked up a showy list of accomplishments.
There were two other Jameses among Jesus’ followers. One was Jesus’ brother. The other was Alphaeus’ boy.
Being named James was sort of like being called Bubba at a Southern family reunion. So we call one of them Big Bubba just to keep them all straight.
In the Gospels James frequently comes as part of a matched set. Jesus calls him and his brother John to follow him while they’re both working on their father’s fishing boat.
Jesus gave the pair a telling nickname: Sons of Thunder. Luke tells a story that might explain why.
A Samaritan village rebuffed Jesus. The rejection deeply offended the brothers. They were ready to go nuclear. They asked Jesus, “Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54)
Not coincidentally, their overreaction follows Jesus’ clear teaching about how to handle rejection and disagreement. Before sending the twelve out on a mission of their own, Jesus had said, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet.” (Luke 9:5) In other words, no nukes. Just move on.
Matthew tells another awkward story about the pair. Their mother Salome asks Jesus to make her sons his chief lieutenants. To give them authority and status above the rest of the twelve. (Luke 20:20-21) As you might imagine, Salome’s pitch for her boys did not sit well with the other apostles.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell different versions of this story.
Matthew has put the request in Salome’s mouth. James and John look a little like the hapless victims of a tiger mother. Mom was overly ambitious, but it wasn’t their fault.
Luke treats the disciples with polite discretion. He doesn’t name names. In his Gospel, we hear only that a dispute had arisen. (Luke 22:24) His version reads sort of like, “Mistakes were made.”
To get an honest picture, it’s important to remember that both Matthew and Luke got this story from the earliest Gospel. From Mark. And Mark is blunt. James and John tried to elbow their way to the top with Jesus. It’s all on them. (Mark 10:35-37) And, given the context, their ambition is especially crass.
Jesus has just foretold his torture, death, and resurrection. James and John have utterly missed the point. Following Jesus has nothing to do with personal advancement. Jesus is a servant. He devotes his life to the healing of the world. That’s what it means to take up the cross. Not only for Jesus, but for his followers as well.
James was hotheaded, passionate, ambitious, and a little slow on the uptake. If you’re looking for a Bible hero—a nice, clean-cut person who obeys the rules and looks good in stained glass—it would be better to look elsewhere.
In fact, aside from Jesus, the Bible doesn’t usually feature stained-glass heroes. Most biblical characters could use an extra swipe of moral antiperspirant and a bit of spiritual mouthwash. The Bible’s stories portray flawed, brilliant, clumsy, compassionate, self-absorbed, courageous characters.
God gets all mixed up with these people. As a result, the world gets turned topsy turvy. In a good but unsettling way. That’s what makes their story worth telling. That’s what makes James an apostle.
An apostle is someone sent by God. That’s what the Greek word means really: the sent one.
James was sent by God into the world to participate in God’s healing of the world. Tradition tells us that James went as far as Spain to serve the world’s wounded and lonely, the sick and the friendless, the oppressed and the forgotten.
In the Acts of the Apostles we learn that Herod Agrippa put James to death. His ministry was brief. He was the first of the twelve to be martyred.
We celebrate a feast day to remember James. We name him as patron to congregations. He has this place in our common life in part because he assures us that we are sent people.
It can be difficult to believe that people like us are sent into the world by the Maker of all things. It would seem that God could find someone without the flaws and shortcomings. Maybe with better skills or flashier looks. Maybe less anxiety or self-doubt. One look at James and we remember that we are just the sort that God sends.
And considering what we are sent to do, we frequently need encouragement to take even the smallest of steps.
We are sent to heal the wounded, to defend the weak, and to nurture the languishing. We are sent to forget ourselves and to remember our neighbor.
We are sent to announce God’s favor to the poor and to the grief-stricken by standing in solidarity with them. We are sent to insist on God’s justice for the oppressed and the marginalized.
We are sent as sheep among wolves. Weakness is our paradoxical power. Love is our sole weapon. Peace is our goal. To a world that habitually puts its trust in political intimidation, financial coercion, and military violence, our approach seems ineffectual and naive.
But really, once you’ve bought the idea that God became flesh and that a crucified man was raised from the dead, you’re probably ready to believe some pretty wild stuff. The hard part, of course, is to act like.
And maybe that’s the main reason we take a day to remember saints like James. Seeing ordinary slobs like us act like they believe the Gospel just might inspire us to act like it, too.
The feast day for James the Apostle is July 25.