(The following sermon was preached at the Welcome Back Eucharist for Cursillo #147 of the Acadiana Convocation in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, held on the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude at 6:30pm at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.)
“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”–John 15.20[i]
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!
This past Thursday, October 23, the Church celebrated the Feast of Saint James the Just, who is specifically mentioned in Mark 6.3 as the “brother” of our Lord Jesus.[ii] According to tradition, James was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, hailed as the “Bishop of Bishops,” and regarded higher than Peter and Paul due to his ministry being in the principle city of the Holy Land. His most important contribution to the Christian faith came from his presiding of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, during which debate the main question centered on whether or not Gentiles, who were increasingly receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, were to be required to undergo circumcision and become Jews before becoming full members of the developing Christian community. Scripture states that after a time of debate, James offered the proposal “that 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.”[iii] The “Apostolic Decree” of James was a recognition that God’s offering of salvation to the Gentiles was long within His plan and, therefore, was a crucial factor in turning the hearts of the early Christian leaders to this long foreseen reality.
In the Gospel appointed for Saint James Day, Matthew 13.54-58, Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth teaching in the synagogue. Instead of receiving His teaching with openness and gratitude, the Nazarene villagers are “repulsed by him,”[iv] asking themselves a series of rhetorical questions stressing, in their minds, the fact that Jesus was nothing more than a regular villager just like them. To put it another way, the people of Nazareth felt that Jesus was being a little “uppity,” wondering who the heck He thought He was coming into their synagogue, teaching them with a sense of authority. For the Nazarene villagers, Jesus did not fit into their categories; He did not embody those things that they felt He should have embodied. Based on His reception, Jesus makes a statement that has manifested itself throughout all span of time: “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns and in their own households.”[v] The fact that Jesus is different is something that the Nazarene villagers cannot handle nor accept, which causes Him to be subjected to the same treatment that was oftentimes afflicted upon the Old Testament prophets.
Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts as being among the Twelve Apostles. Apart from their listing as being two of the Twelve, not much more is known about them. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Simon is called “the Canaanaean” and in the Gospel of Luke as “the Zealot,” denoting that he may have, at one time, had an association with the Zealots, a political movement of 1st century Second Temple Judaism that encouraged rebellion against the Roman Empire, seeking to expel it from the Holy Land. Judas, clarified as “Judas, not Iscariot” in John 14.22, is reported to have spent 10 years preaching the Gospel in Mesopotamia, as well as laboring together with Simon in Persia and being martyred with him on the same day.[vi] In the West, Simon and Jude are commemorated on the same day, whereas in the East, Simon is remembered on May 10 and Jude on June 19.
Whereas the Gospel that was heard on Saint James Day showcased the repulsion that Jesus was met with from his fellow Nazarene villagers, the Gospel appointed for today for Saints Simon and Jude gives us a variation on that theme, extending the repulsion from Jesus to His followers. Speaking to the Apostles, Jesus is reiterating a point that He oftentimes made—that “servants are not greater than their master.”[vii] Jesus is reminding the Apostles that the treatment He is given will be the same treatment given to them. He is simply being real with them in the fact that persecution will happen—“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” But in conveying the truth of the reality they face, Jesus gives this piece of the Good News: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”[viii] To be hated, despised, and persecuted for believing in Jesus is, our Lord says, grounds to be exceedingly glad, for the persecution becomes proof for those being persecuted that they are living in right relationship with Jesus and, just like all the prophets who were also persecuted, that God’s richest blessings are awaiting them.[ix] Paul witnesses to the truth of our Lord’s assurance: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”[x]
Although Simon and Jude are held in high esteem as two of the Twelve Apostles, the fact of their obscurity among the Twelve is an important distinction worth noting. Their obscurity is an important reminder that the reception of grace is not dependent upon particular human merit, achievement, or personality. Simon and Jude both remind us that grace is the gift of God offered freely to all, either well known, little known, or unknown. Paul tells Titus: “…The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…”[xi] A hymn by Charles Wesley, an 18th century Church of England clergyman, who, with his brother John, was a founder of the Methodist movement, says: “Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast, every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”[xii]
In verse 19 of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” Saint John exhorts us “not to love the world or the things in the world…For all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world…But those who do the will of God live forever.”[xiii] All of this makes clear the fact that those who follow Christ are called to be different and will be treated differently, oftentimes very negatively. Paul tells Timothy, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”[xiv] But, again, remember the Good News that Jesus tells us: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…for surely your reward is great in heaven…”
But can we truly believe that? With all of this talk about persecution, what is it about Jesus that can convince us that He is worth our while? What has Jesus done for us to make us trust that what He says is true? Why should we follow Jesus? The answer I have comes from a story.
During the course of my final year at my previous parish in Tuscaloosa, a couple of my campus ministry students and I took a trip to see the Roman Catholic Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, located 104 miles northeast in Hanceville, Alabama in Cullman County. While walking up one of the outside porticos, we came upon a tall crucifix affixed to the wall at its end. Although I had seen many other crucifixes before, the one that we saw then was unlike any other. Whereas a majority of crucifixes show Christ hanging on the cross with a look of agony that is restrained and somewhat dignified, this particular crucifix exhibited Christ in an agony that was not at all restrained, totally devoid of dignity, and in which the emotion made the worst kick in the gut that I had ever felt. Our Lord’s body was completely covered in scars, so much so that it looked like there was hardly any skin left on His body. Every part of His body, from head to toe, was covered with dripping blood. There were gapping wounds and pulsing veins. Looking at this crucifix, I said to my companions, “In all the times that I’ve thought about the crucifixion, I never imagined Jesus looking like this.” “How do we know that it wasn’t worse than this?” one companion responded.
So, why should we trust Jesus and follow Him? The answer is the cross. The fact that Jesus suffered social persecution from the people of his hometown is one thing. But the fact that the persecution He felt on the cross cut so deep, so deep that there is no possible way to comprehend the weight of its pain, and that He endured that persecution for all of us provides, for me, the most compelling argument. Simon and Jude, two of the most obscure of all the Twelve Apostles, exemplify what Paul proclaims about the cross of Christ—on the cross, Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.[xv] Simon and Jude believed in Jesus and, because of their belief, gained new life in Christ, were raised with him in His resurrection, and used by the Holy Spirit to do some marvelous, wonderful things. Some of the Twelve went on to gain great notoriety for their ministries; others, including Simon and Jude, not so much. But from them both, we know these two things to be true: 1) Regardless of who you are and how well known, little known, or unknown you are, the grace of Christ is offered freely to all, without reservation or prerequisite, and 2) as Paul says, “…The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[xvi] Therefore, because of Jesus and what He has done, may we all have the courage to meet with joy the hatred and persecution that comes our way for following Him. Amen.
[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[ii] In addition to Mark 6.3, John 7.3, Acts 1.14, and I Corinthians 9.5 all make mention of Jesus having brothers. Since the time of the early Church, there has been considerable debate regarding what exactly is meant by the use of this term. Helvidius, in a 4th century treatise against the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, stated that the New Testament’s mention of Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” was enough evidence to prove that Mary and Joseph engaged in normal martial relations after Jesus’ conception and birth. Saint Jerome, responding to Helvidius with a treatise of his own, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, stated that Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” were either step-siblings, children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or cousins, children of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias and the siblings of Saint John the Baptist. The view of Jesus’ “sisters and brothers” being children from a previous marriage of Joseph is one maintained by the Eastern Church.
[iii] Acts 15.19-20
[iv] Matthew 13.57 (Common English Bible)
[vi] Passion of Simon and Jude
[vii] John 15.20 (cf. Matthew 10.24; Luke 6.40; Luke 22.27)
[viii] Luke 6.22-23 (cf. Matthew 5.10)
[ix] Geldenhuys, Norval. The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 210.
[x] Romans 8.35, 37
[xi] Titus 2.11
[xii] Wesley, Charles. “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, Tennessee: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 616.
[xiii] I John 2.15-17
[xiv] II Timothy 3.12
[xv] II Corinthians 5.15
[xvi] I Corinthians 1.18