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James of Jerusalem Sermon – Acts 15:12-22

October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

[James said:] “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.’”

Today the Church commemorates James of Jerusalem, a brother of Jesus who led the congregation of Jesus’ followers in the chief city of Israel. The focus of this day is seen in the Collect that was prayed in the beginning of the service: “Heavenly Father, shepherd of Your people, You raised up James the Just, brother of our Lord, to lead and guide Your Church. Grant that we may follow his example of prayer and reconciliation and be strengthened by the witness of his death.” James’ life was marked by bringing the Church into harmony and demonstrating what faith in Jesus looked like in word and deed.

The major incident in James’ life was recorded in today’s First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The Church faced the question of what was truly required to be a disciple of Jesus. Disagreement had sprung up when some Pharisees who had come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah began to impose the requirements of Moses’ Law on Gentiles who had also been brought to that faith. Were people true disciples of Jesus if they did not undergo circumcision, let alone failing to adhere to the statutes about daily living in Leviticus? Had such people truly become part of the nation that belongs to the LORD?

That matter was decided by the Jerusalem Council. The decision rendered by James of Jerusalem helped to settle it. Recall 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….” James’ statement affirms Simon Peter’s going to Caesarea, where he preached about Jesus to the Italian centurion Cornelius and baptized his household. James notes that these Gentiles now belonged to the LORD. They bore His name. They were His people.

But even more so, James stated that this action had been prophesied in the Old Testament: “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.’” The further work that had been done in the Mediterranean towns visited by Paul and Barnabas had added people to the kingdom that belonged to Jesus, the LORD’s Messiah. Just as Jesus instructed, new disciples had been added from all nations, as they were baptized in the name of the Triune God and taught to keep all that He commanded.

The Mosaic Covenant had been fulfilled by Jesus. So no one was to be burdened by the Levitical Code. Rites of circumcision and sacrifice were no longer needed. Laws that governed ancient Israel’s civic life were no longer in effect. To that end, James had a memorandum drawn up for the new Gentile Christians that encouraged them not to engage in practices that demonstrated past loyalty to pagan gods instead of showing devotion to the LORD: “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.”

This same understanding about how people come to belong to the LORD continues to guide the activities of the Church centuries later. For example: 120 years ago, our congregation began to be formed over in Harrisburg as people of German descent who had Americanized in language and culture began to gather and worship in English. The faith of the fathers was passed down in the language of the children. No one was saying that all the past customs from the Old Country needed to be kept. But all agreed that becoming a disciple of Jesus was dependent upon being baptized and taught His words. If that had to be done in a new language, so be it. A new generation of individuals who were given the LORD’s Name to bear was being raised up.

Today, in our Divine Service, we will receive several individuals into congregational membership here at Calvary. Questions will be asked of them; questions that have been posed to all of you who are communicant members: “Do you this day in the presence of God and of this congregation acknowledge the gifts that God gave you in your Baptism? Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways? Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit?” Note what all of those questions have in common: they focus on how the LORD takes people for Himself by placing His Name on them and leading them to trust in Him alone for salvation.

A few more questions will be asked: “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully? Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Will you support the work our gracious Lord has given this congregation with your prayers and the gifts God has given you?” Again, these have a common theme running through them. Each of those questions is focused on asking about how the disciples of Jesus will live according to His instructions. They speak of what a life of active faith looks like. These are the activities that people devoted to the LORD will carry out.

Those questions provide a central identity for a congregation of Jesus’ disciples. It’s not wrapped up in what positions a person holds in the parish. It’s not concerned with how long people have been a disciple or how long they’ve belonged to a particular congregation. It’s not tied to developing new regulations or rules. It’s not concerned with ancestry or ethnicity or class or any other temporal, worldly division. Instead, what defines this and every other congregation of Jesus’ disciples is that they are a group of people who have been taken by the LORD to bear His Name and to be devoted to the LORD and His way of life.

The acts done by James of Jerusalem mentioned in the Collect of the Day provide an example of what it means to bear the LORD’s Name and to be devoted to His way of life: “Grant that we may follow his example of prayer and reconciliation and be strengthened by the witness of his death.” That is why we emphasize being present in the Divine Service and other times when the congregation gathers for corporate prayer. For that’s where we ask the LORD for the necessary wisdom that leads to righteousness, just as James instructed Jesus’ disciples to do so in his epistle: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” That giving takes place as we hear Jesus’ words of eternal life and receive His sacraments. For that makes us truly wise to salvation.

We also emphasize that life together means reconciling one to each other. Recall what is spoken at the end of the Preparatory Rite. It isn’t in our hymnal, but you’ve heard the words for many years now: “Reconciled to God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ, let us share peace with one another.” That isn’t simply an invitation to greet each other. It’s more than that. It’s a statement that is meant to point out a great truth. We are the individuals who have been reconciled to God because of Jesus’ atoning work. Once we weren’t the LORD’s people. Once we were totally separated from Him. But that separation has been overcome because of Jesus’ sacrifice. And that reconciliation between God and man is also to be seen among all of Jesus’ disciples. All the sins that break bonds have been dealt with by Jesus’ work. That also needs to be recognized by all of His people.

And we also emphasize the witness that is borne when Jesus’ disciples suffer in this world, while maintaining their faith and trust in Him. James wrote: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…. 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.” Steadfastness of faith in Jesus cost James his earthly life in martyrdom. But through that witness, James was made perfect and complete. The same steadfastness is to be seen among Jesus’ disciples now. The LORD calls us, His people, to endure, even as our faith, hope, and trust are pushed to their limits. But the LORD doesn’t only call us to do so; He works through His Spirit to empower His people to remain faithful, as they are connected to His gifts by hearing Jesus’ promises and testimonies.

These are the emphases that are to mark our life together as a congregation of Jesus’ disciples. Now, if they are not present, if they are not being seen, then we need to ask the LORD to be patient with us and to renew His work among us. That won’t be done if we take offense at Jesus, like the people of Nazareth did. in the Gospel Reading. No, in the midst of such unbelief, Jesus will not do many mighty works among us. And that would be the worst of outcomes.

But if we are taken from unbelief to faith—just as Jesus worked to bring His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude to believe in Him and the resurrection—then the outcome will be great and beneficial. We’ve already been given the LORD’s Name. We’ve already been made Jesus’ disciples through baptism and teaching. What is needed is dedication to that faith and to living out that identity. The Jerusalem Council showed that. The emphases in James’ life provided examples for us to follow. If we dwell in that unity of faith and identity, then the end will be great, just as was promised: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of 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.

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One Comment
  1. Edith Pallmann permalink

    Being able to read your sermon throughout the week helps me understand the message better. This old brain takes so long to wrap itself around an idea and you make it happen . Thanks for all you do in His name for all of us at Calvary Lutheran.

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