The Blessed and Holy Apostle, St. James the Elder, was among the first to be called as a disciple of the Lord Jesus, and then to be sent as an apostolic Minister of His Gospel. Along with his brother John and Simon Peter, St. James is one of the “inner three” who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration of our Lord, and the prayer of Christ Jesus in the Garden.
But as the Lord would have it, the special distinction for which St. James is best remembered and honored on this day, is that he was the first of the Twelve to be martyred for the Name of Christ; whereas his brother John lived to be an old man and was the only one of the Twelve not martyred.
From the perspective of the world, according to human wisdom, St. James’ life and Ministry were cut short, so that he had no chance to achieve anything or make a name for himself. Yet, that is precisely the point: St. James desired no other name than that of his Lord Jesus Christ, who, by His Cross and Passion, obtained for St. James all that he would ever need in body and soul.
Not only that, but, by his own suffering and death for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, St. James was given a share in the Glory of Christ Jesus that he and his brother had desired and requested.
It was not St. James, but his brother, St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, who has made it so clear in his Holy Gospel, that the Glory of Christ Jesus is the Hour of His Cross. But neither of the Sons of Zebedee understood that, yet, when they made their bold request in the Holy Gospel appointed to this festival day. Nor did they understand it when Jesus prayed concerning His bitter Cup in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afterwards, however, by His Word and Holy Spirit, they would learn to understand that sharing the Glory of Christ Jesus means sharing His Cross and Passion.
To live and to die in such faith is possible only by the grace of God, and only by the means of His Word and Holy Spirit. It is surely not something that any of your senses or feelings could discern or understand; nor is it anything that you would ever want or be able to choose for yourself. The Cross of Christ, which is His Glory, contradicts everything you think you know and understand. Thus, He must put you to death by His Word of the Cross, in order to raise you up in His Glory.
All your senses, all your instincts and experience, insist that the Cross is bad, and that you must follow your own heart and your own feelings in order to find happiness and glory in your life. Thus do you go crashing into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice, often without even realizing the danger. The Word of the Lord sounds all wrong, foolish, and probably fatal.
Your fallen and perishing flesh supposes that you know better than God what is good and right and safe and true. But it is to your own peril and detriment that you disregard what He says to you. For His Word is Spirit, Truth, and Life, whereas your heart and mind are subject to sin and death.
What, then, does He say? To what does the Lord call you? If you would share His Glory and His Life, if you would sit with Him in His Kingdom, then you must be crucified, put to death, and buried with Him. But how so? And what does this mean for you?
You have heard what Jesus says in His response to James and John: “Can you drink the Cup that I must drink? Can you be baptized with My Baptism?” You can. You must. “You will,” He says! But how? The answer is there in the way that He describes the Glory of His Life and Ministry in the terms of His Holy Sacraments. And to be sure, His Baptism and His Cup really are the heart and center of everything — of all that Jesus does for you, and gives to you, and shares with you.
His Baptism and His Cup are the Means whereby His Cross and Resurrection become yours, and your sins are all forgiven, and you receive His Life and sit with Him in the Glory of His Kingdom.
Now, the Cup was used by the Prophets as an image of God’s wrath and judgment against sin. And that is also the first sense in which Christ speaks of His Cup in this Gospel, as again in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He prays, “Father, if possible, take this Cup from Me.”
The bodily pain of crucifixion would already be enough to cause even the bravest and toughest hearts among us to faint. But the “Cup” that Christ our Lord received and consumed was much worse. It was the everlasting wrath and judgment of hell and damnation, leveled against the sins of the whole world, of all times and places, all of your sins included, carried in the sinless Body of the holy Son of God, and judged forever in His flesh upon the Cross. That is the Cup which He has drained down to the dregs for you and for the many by His bloody Passion unto death.
How, then, are James and John and even you able to drink the Cup of Christ? It is certain that you could not handle, nor would you survive, the Cup of wrath and judgment against even your own sins, far less the sins of others. And yet, you are able to drink the Cup of Christ Jesus, because He has already drained that Cup for you. He shed His Blood of the New Testament for the forgiveness of all your sins. And what was wrath and judgment for Him upon the Cross, has become mercy and everlasting life for you and for the many. In receiving the Cup of Christ, which He pours out for you in the Holy Communion, you drink to the dregs the fullness of His Life and Salvation.
The same thing holds true in the case of His Baptism, with which you also are baptized, as were St. James and his brother. From the moment that Christ Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan River and submitted Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, our dear Lord took upon Himself the sins and iniquities and frailties and burdens of the entire world, and He bore them in His own Body of flesh and blood all the Way to the Cross.
Jesus thus describes His Life — not only here, but elsewhere in the Holy Gospels — as one long, continuous Baptism unto death. It is a Baptism whereby He drowns and dies in the Flood of God’s wrath and judgment against the sins of the world, in order to fulfill all righteousness; that He might bring you through the Red Sea out of Egypt, and through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
So, then, as also in the case of the Cup which He drained in your place, the waters of His Baptism are one thing for Christ and quite another for you and all who are baptized into Him. In each case, it is a Baptism into His Cross. But whereas it is for Him a drowning of judgment and wrath, it has become for you and others a rich and full washing away of sins and a gracious water of Salvation.
This Holy Baptism of Christ Jesus, and the Cup of Christ, as well, have a double significance for St. James. For he was among the first to receive these things from Christ Himself as a disciple, but he was also then sent as an Apostle and a Minister of Christ Jesus, that he should hand over what he had received; that he should baptize and commune disciples from all nations in Jesus’ Name.
It is through these gracious Means of Baptism and the Cup of Christ that St. James did receive exactly what he and his brother requested, though not in the way or in the sense they were hoping. And the same is true for you, as well, by the grace of God, in the Ministry of the Gospel of Christ.
In the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, you are granted to sit with Christ Jesus in the Glory of His Kingdom, because you are united with Him in His Cross and Passion, and you receive the fruits and benefits of His Sacrifice. To be baptized with His Baptism and to drink from His Cup is to be crucified and die with Him, and so to share His Resurrection and His Life.
For St. James, being baptized with Christ and sharing His Cup meant that his life as a disciple and his apostolic ministry were shaped by the Cross. Indeed, he was defined completely by that Cross.
The same thing is true for you, as well, as a Christian — as one who has been baptized into Christ, as one who drinks from His Cup and eats from His hand. In these Gifts Christ freely gives, you are glorified with the greatness of His Holy Cross. Which means that your entire life — everything you are, and all that you do — is now shaped and defined by that same Cross. Not that you will necessarily be martyred in the way that St. James was, but that, whatever you are, whatever you are called to be and do, you live your life and offer up yourself in self-sacrificing love and service, even to the point of death, as needs may be, all for the sake of Christ and in His holy Name.
That all begins with and centers in your own vocations and stations in life, as a husband or wife, as a father or mother, as a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a worker or student, a citizen or whatever, as well as a member of this congregation. Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, and you will know how you are to bear the Cross in love for your neighbors.
In broad and general terms, look for every possible way and means by which you can lay down your life in service to others. That’s usually not through heroic and extraordinary deeds of valor, but in the countless details and little things of life, which afford opportunity to love your neighbor. Thus do you become and show yourself to be a servant of the Lord who loves you, Jesus Christ.
Of course, the harder you try, and the more conscientious you become, the more you find just how far you fall short of the Glory of the Cross of Christ. You do not live and love as you ought to do. But Christ be praised that forgiveness and life and salvation do not depend on you, nor on any of the saints in themselves, but entirely on Christ and His Righteousness and the Glory of His Cross.
So it is that, for St. James and St. John, St. Peter and St. Paul, and all the Apostles, their vocation was the Ministry of Jesus’ Word and His Baptism and His Cup. Their lives were given over to the preaching and administration of these Holy Things, in the Name and stead of Christ, unto others. And with that, their very lives were likewise a display of the Gospel and the Glory of His Cross, as those who spoke the Word and worked the works of Christ Jesus; who suffered and died for it.
We may be especially grateful, therefore, and it is most appropriate that we should give thanks on this day, for the Blessed and Holy Apostle, St. James, through whom the Glory of Christ Jesus has been revealed and made manifest in the Scriptures and in the Church. For in the life and ministry of St. James, so also in his death, it is Christ the Crucified whom you see and hear and receive; just as you also receive the same Christ Jesus to this day in the Ministry of His Baptism and His Cup.
Indeed, the one Lord Jesus Christ has continued to call and send, among His disciples, those men who will serve His people with His Word and with His Holy Sacraments. So has He called me and ordained me to serve you at His Font and at His Table, here within His House on earth. So does the Son of Man continue to come, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His Life for the Many.
And so does He call you and gather you to Himself, in order to lift you up in the forgiveness of His Cross, as often as you have fallen down. By the waters of your Holy Baptism, He continues to cleanse you of your sins, and to usher you into His Kingdom through His Cross and Resurrection. And here within His Church, He invites you to recline here at His Table, where He girds Himself to serve you, presenting you with His Cup and speaking to you His Words of mercy and grace.
“Take, drink. This Cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for the life everlasting.”
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.