Yesterday the Church celebrated the festival of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr. Though considered a minor festival by many (and celebrated by even fewer) its significance is multivalent.
Secondly, it is vital to note that according to the Scriptures, James was converted out of his earlier skepticism regarding Jesus' messianic work. He was brought from unbelief to faith (just like the disciples; and the rest of us) by means of Christ's death and resurrection; by means of the proclamation: Christ crucified and risen for you! Before Holy Week, in John 7:3-5, the evangelist records that not even Jesus' brothers believed in him. And then later, following Jesus' resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul cites James as an eyewitness to Jesus' resurrected body after Easter Sunday. This will be important when we come back to the correlation of James' eyewitness testimony and the defense of Jesus' resurrection. For now it is important to note the change, namely, the gift of faith brought about by Christ's work and the message he declared as a result of that work: it is finished. His resurrection vindicates his entire messianic work that James had previously doubted and now - by God's grace - had come to believe.
This is why Paul cites James as trustworthy evidence concerning Jesus' resurrection. James was a credible eyewitness. And he also declared the good news to Paul as well, news that in turn was passed along to us through Paul. That was James calling after the resurrection: apostle, evangelist, apologist.
This brings us to the third point. James was also the bishop of the church in Jerusalem. In Acts 12 Peter recounts his rescue from imprisonment to James and the other brothers (i.e. pastors and members of the council). And in Acts 15 James is instrumental both in hearing Paul's account of the mission to the Gentiles and the Council's response, an unwavering confession that both Jew and Gentile are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11). Perhaps its no accident, then, that the festival of St. James falls so close to that of the Lutheran Reformation, another time in which the church dared to proclaim the gospel: sinners are justified by grace through faith in Christ.
And that gift - faith - is the focus of the fourth point. James was also the writer of the epistle that bears his name. Professor David Scaer has called this James the apostle of faith. An appropriate title given that he is sent to bear witness to the faith given to those who bear the name of his brother. James himself is a key witness in his own proposition and declaration - Mercy triumphs over judgment. Indeed, that's what the cross is all about. And that's what our Christian life - lived in faith and trust - is also to be like, patterned after the Crucified One, just as James was both in life and death. He is true martyr, both in the common definition - that of one who dies for the faith - and the actual Greek definition - a witness.
And that's my last point for this post anyhow. That James is, above all, a witness. A confessor. A herald of the truth. It is here, in James' role as a witness, that we must revisit the vital interaction between James the apostle, bishop, writer, brother of Jesus, martyr and that of apologist. What exactly was it that caused James to go from unbelief - as we saw in John 7 - to staunchly defending, upholding and professing the gospel in Acts? What is the best possible evidence that explains his - and the other disciples - complete 180 degree turn of events? The singular event that shaped the life of the disciples, the church and the cosmos: the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Skeptics can deny the empty tomb but the historical evidence - both from respected secular and Christian scholars - agrees that it is one of the most well attested facts of ancient history. Skeptics may - and will - dispute what happened to the body of Jesus after it was laid in the tomb and in the subsequent days leading up to, and including, Easter Sunday. But none of those alternatives are cogent, let alone plausible. When it comes to the skeptics' fabrication that the disciples stole Jesus' body and lied about it in order to gain power, success, followers, etc., the evidence simply does not lead to that conclusion. James - along with the other disciples - had neither the means, the motive nor the opportunity to pull off such a heist. When in fact the hostile witnesses (Jews and Romans in particular) living in and among the first Christians had every means, motive and opportunity to reveal the body if they had one to put on display in Jerusalem. But they did not.
But for the sake of argument, let's say the disciples had stolen the body. Then what? In order to win friends and influence people, gain great power, wealth and success, they would have had to pull off the biggest lie in history. It's hard enough for one man to keep the story straight, let alone twelve, let alone 500 (1 Corinthians 15). The process of simple (i.e. truthful communication) is quite clear: event, recollection, particular idea to be communicated, symbols and interpretation by listener. When it comes to the lying witness the process is exponentially more difficult to maintain veracity: event, original recollection, distortion to serve witnesses purpose, comparison with other prior statements of witness, estimate chance of discovery, decision to continue with or revise original story, selection of intended communication, symbols, and interpretation by listener. And all the while, comparison with belief or knowledge by the examiner and comparison for discrepancies is taking place compounding the problem of the lie and making the probability that the lie will be maintained remarkably high. And that sequence has to happen correctly for all the eyewitnesses. The best answer is often the simplest ones: Jesus died and rose just as he said.
And for the sake of further argument, let's say the disciples (all of them) were able to pull of the greatest hoax ever. What would they have to gain by it? Absolutely nothing. The alleged fame and riches and followers that would come their way, as described by skeptics, were the exact opposite of Jesus own teaching. Furthermore, Jesus specifically condemned lying as a part of following him. And what would James have gained from this lie? Martyrdom. That's right. The great reward for following Jesus in the 1st century A.D. was the high probability that you would die for the faith. Now, it is true that many men die for lies all the time - the 9/11 terrorists being a prime example. But it is highly unlikely, indeed foolish to conclude that if James and the disciples knew Jesus' resurrection was a hoax, would then go and stake their entire ministries and lives upon that singular claim. Many men die for a lie. Men do not willingly die for something they know to be false.
Again, what's the best explanation once all the evidence is in play? A conspiracy theory? No. Aliens stealing the body of Jesus? No. Jesus switching places with Judas? No. The disciples stealing the body? No. None of these follow the evidence. James points us to the evidence. On Good Friday Jesus was dead. Before Easter he was a skeptic. On Sunday he was a believer. Jesus rose from the dead. That single event not only changed the life of James and the disciples, but also the entire world, turning it upside down. And that is why we should number James among the apologists; he is a faithful eyewitness who has handed down to us the things of first importance: Christ died according to the Scriptures and on the third day He rose again for you and for all, Jew and Gentile alike. And as James proclaimed, so let us declare and defend.
We sing of James, Christ's brother,
Who at Jerusalem
Told how God loved the Gentiles
And, in Christ, welcomed them.
Rejoicing in salvation
May we too, by God's grace,
Extend Christ's invitation
To all the human race.