Growing up, I remember kids in my class being called by their older brother or sister’s name. On the first or second day of class, the teacher would say, “Are you so-and-so’s brother? I taught him.” And then for the rest of the year the teacher would accidentally mix the two up. As an eldest child, that wasn’t ever a problem for me. In fact, it seemed kind of neat to have someone go before you. I can see, however, that it might be pretty annoying, too.
When I was in high school, I got to know Richard Simmons’ brother. You know, the crazy “Sweating to the Oldies” guy from the television commercials and programs back in the 80s? Well, I was active in Key Club, and his brother, Lenny, was an advisor. Trust me—he wasn’t the one who made the connection for me. I can’t remember whether it was another student or an adult, but someone introduced him by saying, “Hey, have you met Lenny? He’s Richard Simmons’ brother!” Immediately and still to this day, his identity and that of his cult superstar brother get mixed together in my mind. That isn’t fair, but it happens.
So what do you think it was like to be Jesus’ brother? Matthew tells us of James, Joseph, Simeon, and Judas. They were, it seems, his brothers. (There is, of course, a difference of opinion in the Roman Catholic tradition and other Christian traditions about whether Jesus actually had any brothers who were born of the same mother, but I choose not to engage that here.) Can you imagine what it was like to grow up in that household? How do you even live your life when Jesus is your brother? “Oh!” people would exclaim, “you’re Jesus’s brother! How amazing! Tell me what he was like…”
James of Jerusalem, the saint of the church whom we remember today, was one of those brothers, and, despite continually being identified as such, he managed to have a career of sorts. He was an important figure in the Council of Jerusalem—the first great council where the doctrinal controversy of how to treat the Gentiles was resolved. Paul names him as one of the apostles to whom Jesus revealed himself (though I bet James would tell that story a little differently). He was a leader of the church who helped carry the good news of Jesus Christ—his brother—to the ends of the earth. How strange and joyful and frustrating and wonderful that must have been!