Once, for a class in college, I had to look up my family tree. It wasn’t that easy, because (a) though actually in existence (surprise!), the internet was largely unavailable to a “mere” undergraduate student like me and (b) there are some decided gaps in my ancestry. For one thing, many of my ancestors came from rural North Carolina, and records were scant (my great-grandfather was murdered, which someday I’ll write a song about, but that’s another story. Literally.)
One thread of my ancestors, however, was easy to find. I actually traced our arrival in the colonies(!) to somewhere in the late 1600s. From that point on, my ancestors were actually pretty active in the birth of our country. It was pretty cool to see, but one thing stood out. Though our family did a lot of really impactful things, my direct ancestors weren’t always the ones pulling the trigger, or signing the document, or meeting the President. Most of the time, it seemed like it was a brother. My direct ancestor was at home on the farm while the famous older or younger brother was out changing the direction of this young country…
Some friends of mine come over every other week or so to study the bible. This year we spent a lot of time in the book of James, and something struck me early on in the discussion. James, as best we can tell, was the brother of Jesus, and though he wasn’t a follower of Jesus while he was alive, somewhere after the resurrection James came to believe, and eventually became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, we see James’ significance in chapter 15, where Paul and Barnabas come to report on their activities around rest of the region.
“The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied…”
According to the setting here, James has authority. Because of where he speaks (after the report), his words matter (and we see later that they actually do).
Anyway, I started thinking a lot about James, especially compared to Paul, Peter, and even Barnabas:
- Paul (and Barnabas) travel the Mediterranean, “bringing the light” to the Gentiles (and writing what becomes much of the New Testament)
- Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom by Jesus, eventually ends up in Rome, becomes the first “Pope” and is martyred.
But you know what James did?
James stayed behind.
He stayed behind, and he became a pastor to this little splinter group of Jewish folks who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that something amazing had bloomed into the world. He taught them, encouraged them, warned them, and protected them as best he could.
Mostly in obscurity, for even though at least one biblical scholar called James “The true first Pope” (by virtue of his stature and authority in Jerusalem as shown in Acts 15), James is largely unknown by people today.
While Paul got top billing (and let’s be clear, a whole lot of abuse as well), James quietly, obscurely led the Jerusalem church—the first mother church—through persecution and poverty.
Sometimes, I think about James, and I think about my ancestors (the Brevards, by the way: look them up, they were pretty major players in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina), and I think about myself.
The fact is, I like it when my friends go out and do big things. I like feeling a part of their success, like my behind the scenes contributions have somehow made a difference in their work. That I helped.
But you know what?
Sometimes, I think I need to step out too.
Ultimately, I’m glad James stayed in Jerusalem. He had to. Someone had to. And eventually a little piece of his story got told, in five short chapters, included right between Paul’s letters and Peter’s in the Bible.
I don’t want to be in the Bible.
But sometimes I think I should think about “leaving Jerusalem” as well.