How many public figures have had to dodge the bad press that comes from a notorious sibling? Didn’t Clinton have a half-brother, whom he later pardoned for a cocaine conviction in the 1980s? Likewise, there are plenty of Internet stories about Obama’s alcoholic half-brother, who lives in a Nairobi slum. Can these really be the brothers of presidents?
One day, while trying to teach in his hometown synagogue, Jesus was interrupted by the people’s murmuring: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Aren’t his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Who does he think he is?” Even Jesus, it seems, was known by his siblings—a burden he tried to shake: “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town.” The backstories that everyone knew made it hard for them to believe in the otherworldliness of Jesus.
And then there’s James. Who was he? The bishop of Jerusalem? The author of the book in the New Testament that bears his name? Today’s reading from Acts suggests he was a leader of the early church. In the middle of a controversy, he spoke up with a clear and clarifying voice of reason—a gift the church needs today. As the debate over the role and identity of Gentile Christians rolled on, James made a simplifying point: “…we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”
Sounds simple enough. What must a Gentile do to become a Christian? Let’s keep it simple. Avoid meat sacrificed to idols, steer clear of fornication, and don’t eat strangled or blood food. Those three things should let us move forward as a church and get past this controversy. It was a case of adiaphora—determining what wasn’t important enough to fight over. If that word sounds familiar, it’s probably because the Windsor Report, which was developed in 2004 as a response to the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. What must we agree on? What can we just let go? Whatever your position on issues of human sexuality, I hope you can see an attempt to maintain the unity of the church in the Report’s language.
Again and again, we face challenges in the church—things that threaten to tear us apart. What matters? What can we let go of? James seemed to rise above his label as the unworthy brother of Christ. To the early church, he contributed by listening and sharing what he heard. He started with the scriptures, but he listened with an ear for what was needed to hold everything together. It was, in fact, a creative listening. He was willing to let go of some important things (circumcision) because he knew that unity in others (blood, fornication, idols) was more important as a way of holding the church together. Who out there is listening and reinterpreting the way James did? How can we all learn to listen like James?