The First of the Gang to Die: The Feast of St. James (Acts 12:1-2)

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Today is the Feast of St. James, the first apostle to die.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

He’s not the first martyr, of course. Stephen is killed in Acts 7, a brutal moment after an impassioned speech. If this were Hollywood, the assembled crowd would realise the error of their ways and walk away ashamed; instead Stephen is stoned to death and we catch our first glimpse of one of the architects of persecution – look, there’s Saul, holding the coats as sentence is carried out.

Yes, the same Saul who’ll become a hero of the early church. All mixed up, isn’t it? In a few verses, Peter will be miraculously released from prison; Paul himself will one day have his chains broken by an earthquake but he stays put and his jailer gets converted. James, meanwhile…

Reading the gospels, you’d expect great things of James. Of the Twelve he’s one of a core group of three; along with Peter and John, he’s one of the few to witness the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the full extent of Jesus’s suffering at Gethsemene. Add to that the theory that he was Jesus’s cousin and we’d expect the story to have a different ending. Instead he’s killed in just one verse. And that’s it.

We hear a lot about the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – God wants to bless you with money and cars and health and a private jet and if you don’t have these things then, well, you’re just not believing hard enough. That’s not what we see in the Bible itself, but in my more heretical moments it appeals to an off-kilter sense of fairness.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect God to give me an iPad. But I’ve heard so many stories of doctors being stunned by cancers spontaneously disappearing, while is both glorious and terrifying; after all, my dad succumbed to mesothelioma despite the prayers of numerous churches. What’s the difference? What was the difference between James and Peter?

That’s a personal question, of course, but there are bigger issues here, when people are dying today because of their belief in Christ, when the church has a history of supporting massacres in the name of the gospel.

The fact is, I rebel against the idea of persecution; it’s unjust, evil, a violation of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. People shouldn’t have to die for their beliefs. When asked what we should pray for, those undergoing ask that they would experience endurance rather than deliverance, but why should they need to endure while dictators and warlords prosper? Organisations like Open Doors shouldn’t have to exist and yet they do…

Let no-one say that faith is always ‘fair’.

Like I said, I have no real answers. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe, as we remember James, as we remember the first of the gang to die, we can weep with those who’ve lost loved ones, acknowledge that oppression exists, pray for God’s will to be done. Maybe, in the middle of suffering snd tears, that’s far more important than answers.

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