Saint James of Jerusalem served as the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was known by many epithets: James the Just, James the Righteous, James Adelphotheos (brother of God), and the Brother of Our Lord. The gospels of Matthew and Mark list James first in the list among the brothers of Jesus. Church tradition has differed on what exactly is meant by ‘brother of Jesus.’ Some have suggested that these brothers were sons of Joseph by another earlier marriage. Others have observed that the word for brother in Greek (adelphos) often was used to describe the relationship of cousins. Yet others have simply suggested that the brothers of Jesus were younger biological children of Joseph and Mary.
Regardless of the exact relationship between Jesus and James, Paul tells us that James was an apostle, though not one of the original Twelve Disciples. Paul also tells us that Jesus appeared specially to James after the Resurrection and Paul says that James was one of the three pillars of the Church in Jerusalem, along with Peter and John.
James is also mentioned several times in the Acts of the Apostles. Here, he plays a vital role in presiding over the first Church Council, the Council of Jerusalem. In Acts 15 we are told that the apostles all gathered at the Council of Jerusalem to decide on the divisive issue of whether Gentile converts to Christianity must observe Mosaic Law and be circumcised prior to baptism if they are to be saved. James stood up and said:
“Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name…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.” (Acts 15:13-14, 19-21)
James of Jerusalem is almost certainly the author of the Epistle of James. Written predominantly to Jewish Christians, James admonishes them to persevere in the face of temptations and to grow into a mature faith by living what they claim to believe. James insists that faith is evidenced in a transformed life.
One of the oldest complete forms of the Eastern liturgy is attributed to James as well- The Liturgy of Saint James. The liturgy draws from the traditions of the ancient rites of the Church in Jerusalem. One of the liturgy’s Cherubic Hymns chanted during the Eucharist has made its way into the Western Church as the great Eucharistic hymn, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
The Church historian Eusebius tells us that James was so effective and persuasive in leading people to faith in Jesus that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem commanded that he “restrain the people, who are led astray after Jesus, as if he were the Messiah.” When James refused, he was led to the peak of the Temple and admonished to denounce Jesus to the people. When he again refused, he was thrown from the height of the Temple. Remaining alive upon the pavement below, he was reportedly beaten to death.
Anglicans celebrate the life of James of Jerusalem this year on Wednesday, October 23rd. And so we pray:
Grant, O God, that, following the example of your apostle James the Just, kinsman of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.