Fourth Sunday of Easter Cycle A
Acts 2:14, 36-44; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10
Today is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” since in all three years of our reading cycle we have a Gospel reading of Christ as a shepherd of his flock of disciples. Of the Apostles, Saint Peter is the most identified with the shepherding, since he was the first shepherd of the universal church, being told by Christ to “feed my sheep” [John 21:17b NABRE]. But today, I want to talk about another of the Apostles that was also an important shepherd to the new Church founded by Christ: our own Saint James the Younger, whose feast day is this week.
There were two Apostles by the name of James. James the Elder, or James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, was one of the first of the twelve called, along with his brother John as well as Peter and Andrew, all fishermen. The Saint James that our church has as its patron is the other James, James the Younger or James the Lesser, depending on the translation. Not much is known about his backstory or occupation prior to being called. His father’s name was Alphaeus, and his mother is believed to be, in Catholic tradition, Mary of Clopas, a woman identified as weeping at the cross of Jesus. James is also identified as a brother of Jesus. The term brother is used in Jewish custom as a term for a biological brother but also for close relatives, so it is believed that James was the cousin of Jesus, and Mary of Clopas was a sister or close relative to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we do know for certain that the first Bishop of Jerusalem was a man named James, also called James the Just, and from the earliest Church records this James has been identified by Catholic Church tradition as none other than James the Younger, and in this capacity was an important shepherd, along with Peter, of the early Church. And he died a shepherd’s death, being martyred for his beliefs while guiding his flock.
James the bishop was an important leader during the very first synod of our Church, what is known today as the Council of Jerusalem. In fact, James is the one that brokered the compromise between those who would, on the one hand, bring all of the Mosaic rules, such as the need for male circumcision and Jewish dietary laws, into the new Christian Church, and on the other hand those who would throw them all out and start anew. This is all documented in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. James’ role was pivotal to the solution, which laid the groundwork for the rules that we continue to follow to this day.
The reason that Catholic Churches have been named for saints from the very beginning is that having a patron saint is important, a symbol that can be held up for those in that parish as well as a canonized figure to ask for particular intercessions from. In honoring a patron saint, we honor that which the saint stood for and accomplished – that is to say, the work of building the kingdom of God here on earth by following the teachings of Jesus the Christ, many – like James – to the point of deach. In the case of Saint James, he was a leader of his new Church, building bridges between the various cultures and traditions of the Jews and Gentiles that were rapidly forming The Way. The teachings of Christ do not include explicit instructions on every aspect of life and religious practice – therefore, we rely on our shepherds, our bishops with their croziers, the technical name for the shepherd’s crook that they carry, to apply the principles of Christ’s teachings to our modern world. In just a few minutes, we will pray the prayer for our ongoing synod. We are praying for all people of the Church, but especially our bishop shepherds who will make any final decrees when they meet in Rome, that they make wise decisions that hold onto those traditions that are most important and can change enough to accommodate those things that have changed over time. It is always a tricky balancing act, but one that is necessary for any organization that is alive, growing, and adapting. There will be some who feel that any change made went too far, and there will be others that feel that they didn’t go far enough. But Jesus gave a special role to the twelve apostles over the other disciples, and we continue to give that special role to the successors to the apostles, the bishops of our Church. We, the flock of these shepherds, should continue to follow their voice, as the earliest Christians did the voice of James the Younger, and James did the voice of Christ himself.
As we continue with our Mass, may the communion that we receive truly be communion with all those who receive today in churches throughout the world, in union with all of the sheep that listen to the word of our one true shepherd, Jesus Christ. Let us ask for the intercession of Saint James, which we should always do anyway since he is our patron, but especially as his feast day nears, that he guide us as we seek to build on what he and the other Apostles started. I will end this homily in the same manor that I end most of the prayers that I make at public events here in our parish: Saint James, pray for us.