I have almost nothing in common with the apostle, James. Probably, I have very little in common with any of Christ’s early disciples except perhaps the speed with which they cowered when Christ was attacked. Still, it is the Easter season and the characters in the Passion invite our curiosity.

John McArthur has pegged James, the older brother of John, as “The Apostle of Passion”. He and John shared the nickname of “sons of thunder”.  In Appalachia we might surmise that to indicate that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  These young men with strong, definitive temperaments had a father with a strong, definitive temperament.

There is very little written in scripture, exclusively about James. He is consistently one of the 3 disciples who worked most closely with Christ. The VBS tune to accompany the lyrics of “Peter, James, and John fishing on the water . . .” sounds in my auditory memory as I consider Christ’s inner circle of followers.

A couple of scriptural examples reveal James’ temperament. At one especially interesting instance,  James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven upon Samaria. The narrative is told in Luke 9:51-56. As the story goes, while Christ was traveling to Jerusalem to participate in the last Passover, he selected a path through Samaria. In those days before GPS systems, most Jewish citizens would have had side bar notes on their map scrolls. The notes might have said, “avoid Samaria like a plague” or “don’t be found near Samaria after dark”. The alternative route added several extra miles and took travelers through the barren desert of Perea. It also entailed crossing the Jordan River, two times. Although the cost of avoiding Samaria was high, most Jewish travelers would gladly agree that the cost was worth it. But Jesus was never interested in an economy of avoidance or in keeping the status quo.

As Christ neared the city he sent messengers ahead to make lodging accommodations for himself and his sizeable entourage. Under nonbiased conditions the owners of the Marriott and the Holiday Inn should have smiled at the thoughts of their cash registers ringing. But instead, they instantly painted a giant “NO” in front of their “Vacancy” marquee. The messengers returned with recitations of inhospitable rudeness. Not only was there “no room in the inn” but the reply communicated deliberate rejection.

“How dare they?” all of the apostles may have asked. Hadn’t Jesus repeatedly shown kindness and respect for the Samaritans? Someone recalled, “Hadn’t Jesus healed a Samaritan of leprosy and commended that man for his gratefulness? Luke 17:16 Yes, and hadn’t he accepted water from a Samaritan woman and given her the water of life? John 4:7-29 Hadn’t he forever endeared the Samaritan character to a timeless global community by making him the protagonist in the beloved parable of the Good Samaritan? Luke 10:30-37

James and John reacted with righteous indignation. “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them,… ?” Luke 9:54 OK, OK maybe I do find kinship with James. Fire and lightening do seem like appropriate replies to such deliberate contempt. In fact, I can think of a few instances in my own life when I could have used some fiery darts or well-aimed lightning bolts but alas, Jesus called James and even me, to a higher response capacity.

The Samaritans were humans (remember those creatures that Christ was about to die to save?) Historically they had suffered (sometimes deservedly) harsh social ostracization. Their ethnic identity was rooted in a mixed-race beginning of Israelites from the Northern Kingdom. When Assyria conquered Israel, the prominent and influential people were taken into captivity. The land was resettled with foreigners and pagans, loyal to the king of Assyria. 2 Kings 17:24-34 The non-affluent, non- influential Israelites, left in the land, intermarried with the foreigners.

After a period of time, the king of Assyria recognized that the mixed people group was not prospering.  They lacked identity, traditions, and any vestige of unifying culture.  He responded by sending one of the priests whom he had taken captive. The priest’s assignment was to teach this mix of people, the core of the Jewish religion and heritage. 2 Kings 17:28 The resulting religion, was a hodge-podge that mixed elements of Judaism with paganism. Verse 33 tells us, “They feared the Lord, yet served their own gods: according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away”. They claimed to worship Jehovah as God and to honor the Pentateuch as Scripture but they started their own priesthood, built their own temple, and devised a sacrificial system from their own creativity. The amalgamation was a new religion based on pagan traditions. They are a classic example of what happens when the authority of Scripture is subjugated to human traditions and relativity reigns supreme.

I have said all of that to say this, James was justified. We can understand his outrage. The RSVP returned with a “and don’t ask again” deserved a singeing. But Jesus was just as interested in James long term development as he was interested in mercy for the Samaritans. James greatest strength and weakness was passionate zeal. Jesus knew that zeal without knowledge can be damning, zeal without wisdom is dangerous, zeal mixed with insensitivity can be cruel, and zeal with uncontrolled passion can be deadly.

Poor James. He couldn’t know the measure of happiness reserved for him in the first Easter. He loved Christ without reserve. That loyalty deepened and matured after the resurrection. His passion became defined and his courage was focused. Acts 12:1-3 recounts James’ martyrdom. He was recognized as a leader and threat, even by Herod as he marched bravely to the sword, ever the passionate zealot.

James story spoke to me anew this Easter. I’ve just finished leading a study group on The Reformation and I have been profoundly reformed through the journey. The writings of Huss, Swingley, Sattler, Calvin, and Luther convict me but it is their testimonies that bring me to tears. How is it that we contemporaries take so lightly a faith that was bought at such a price? How do we ignore popular culture as the authority of Scripture is paraded, and mocked? I need some fire and maybe some lightning bolts too, but not for my fellow Samaritans. I need them to light my way to the foot of the cross. There is a culture that has not heard the Easter story and “the no vacancy sign” calls us forward.

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