I delivered this sermon this Sunday morning at Providence Reformed Episcopal Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. After I was asked to preach, I noticed that St. James Day this year fell on today, the 8th Sunday After Trinity. When I read the Gospel lessons for both, I found that providential as the two Gospels together present a balance very much needed in the church today, including in the Anglican Church in North America. So with that in mind…
Ravenous Wolves and Errant Sheep
Today is a special day. For this year, today, St. James Day, falls on a Sunday. Those interested in how the math of the church calendar works may find it interesting that this happens every 6, 5, 6, and then 11 years. It turns out today is the end of an 11 year gap. The last time the Feast of St. James fell on a Sunday was in 2010.
To many who are particularly devoted to St. James the Apostle, this correspondence makes this a Holy Year. And that makes the popular pilgrimage to the relics of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain that much more popular. And since this is a Holy Year, a special door that is normally locked is opened for pilgrims to enter the cathedral.
The popularity of the pilgrimage to the relics of St. James was aided through the years by this bit of history: In 1122 Pope Calixtus II gave that cathedral the privilege of granting a plenary indulgence to those who visited the shrine of James in the years when the Saint’s day fell on a Sunday. This is recorded in the Papal Bull, Regis Aeterni, issued by Pope Alexander III in 1179. And the Holy Year plenary indulgence is still in effect! I checked the cathedral’s web site.
Now us reformed Anglicans are not fans of indulgences. And we leave the observance of pilgrimages and holy years to the consciences of the faithful. And I have no opinion on whether the relics of St. James are really in Spain. But this day and this year have an interesting history, and the historian in me could not resist noting it.
But what makes this unusual correspondence of St. James Day and the 8th Sunday after Trinity particularly edifying and even providential for us are the two Gospel lessons. We just heard in the Gospel for this 8th Sunday Jesus’ warning about “false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Jesus tells us to beware of them and that we “shall know them by their fruits.”
That sounds simple and sometimes it is. If someone claiming to be a Christian teacher denies the authority of Scripture or other basics of the faith or he claims Jesus’ purpose is to give you a brand new car, providing you give a generous offering to the man of God, of course, then it is safe to say you are dealing with a wolf, with a false and predatory teacher.
But often it is not so simple. Jesus did not say “you shall know them immediately by their fruits.” One reason is that is it can take awhile for fruit to become evident.
As you all know, I like to grow peppers – because I like to eat peppers. And when I buy plants for my pepper garden in the Spring and Fall, I try to buy plants that will produce plenty of tasty peppers. But no matter how careful I am in choosing them and planting them, there will always be a few plants that do not produce well. And I cannot predict which ones they will be. Some grow well at first, but the peppers are disappointing. Others are slow to grow but produce well when the time comes. But it takes a few weeks and sometimes months to tell which plants will produce good peppers.
In the meantime, there are always other forms of vegetation that invade my garden that may look good and grow faster, but they produce nothing and steal water. And if they are not evicted from the garden, they harm the production of my precious peppers.
Well, those who attain to leadership in the church can be that way, too. It can sometimes take awhile to see if they are really faithful, if they really bear the good fruit of faithfulness or not, if they teach Biblical truth or harmful error.
Jesus adds another complication:
Not everyone that saith unto me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
There are and will be people who sound good, who say the right words, who even call Jesus “Lord” . . . who are phonies – some who are even false teachers, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
About twenty years ago, around the turn of the millennium, there was something called the Emerging Church movement. And the leaders in it seemed to be devoted to the Gospel and were persuasive and had good points to make. Among other things, they pointed out that we needed to take the influence of post-modernism into account when we witness to people. And they were right.
But eventually, key Emergent leaders changed the Gospel itself. It became evident they were post-modern themselves, not faithful Christians. The most prominent leader, Brian McLaren, called for “a generous orthodoxy.” It turned out to be no orthodoxy at all; it was apostasy. But it took years for that to become evident.
At this point, it would be a mistake to give Emergent leaders like McLaren or any fake like him any platform in the church. Paul and John and Jude make that very clear in Scripture. St. Paul from his letter to the Galatians:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
St. John in his second epistle instructed that if someone claims to be a Christian teacher but does not teach the basics of the Faith, you do not welcome him. John even wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
And if you think I can rant about false teachers, you ought to read the Epistle of St. Jude. It is high octane!
[I departed from my text here to emphasize that the Apostles were writing about false teachers posing as Christian leaders, that there were not writing about honest people who are not Christians. Honest non-Christians are to be treated with respect as Paul treated the Athenians with respect.]
Well, thankfully, you don’t hear much about the Emerging Church anymore. Perhaps that’s because the main differences between them and boring mainline apostates are cool glasses and skinny jeans.
Yes, giving such as these a platform in the church would be a serious mistake. But you know what else would be a mistake? To write off as apostates everyone who was involved in the Emerging Church movement. I know. I was one of them. Now I do not want to exaggerate my influence or my villainy. I was on the periphery of the Emerging Church movement. But I did write an article or two for their venues and was at times an avid and sympathetic reader of them. I even had a friendly lunch with two of their leaders at a conference. But I hope none of you write me off as just another apostate from that time. Because I learned even if it took me a while.
That is one important difference between real sheep and deceptive wolves – repentance. Wayward sheep eventually learn and repent of their serious errors although it may take a while. Wolves do not so repent or they may put on a show of repentance only in order to justify additional error. We see that in some woke church leaders who repent of past racism against people of color, but they do so in order to justify racism against white people and slander against those who rightly oppose Critical Race Theory. More famously, there have been television evangelists and other prominent preachers who have confessed grievous sin with lots of tears, but do so in order to have their position and income restored with unseemly speed, adding scandal upon scandal.
A positive example of repentance is that of Edward Pusey. In his younger days, he was influenced by German higher criticism. But he soon came to see higher criticism as a great danger to the orthodoxy of the church, and he was right. Dr. Pusey rejected his earlier sympathetic views to the point that he eventually directed that his early writings influenced by German higher criticism not be published.
I am among those thankful that Dr. Pusey repented while still young. His scholarship remains a great aid to orthodox Anglicanism and has certainly aided me. But most sheep, including sheep in leadership, are not as brilliant as Pusey and can be slow to repent when repentance is needed. And that’s one of several reasons wayward sheep and predatory wolves can be hard to tell apart at times.
But faithful sheep do eventually repent and get back on the path of following Jesus and his teaching. And that brings me to the Gospel for St. James Day from Matthew 20:20 and following:
Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father. And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Now one would think that when we remember an Apostle in our liturgy and celebrate the feast of an Apostle, we would remember his good moments. But it’s not necessarily so. Right before Christmas every year, I feel sorry for ol’ St. Thomas. First, his day is right before Christmas, so who remembers it? And then the Gospel lesson is – you guessed it – him being Doubting Thomas, him doubting the Resurrection of Christ.
For St. James’ Day today, one would think the Gospel lesson might be him and his brother John boldly leaving their fishing nets immediately to follow the call of Jesus. But no. Instead we have him maneuvering to get a special status from Jesus and using his mom to do so. It is not a good look.
Yet Jesus was patient with him. And James turned out to be a faithful and trusted leader. And then he fulfilled Jesus’ prophesy – “Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” – James the Great fulfilled that by becoming the first Apostle to be martyred in 44. A. D. as we see in Acts 12. He turned out to be faithful and great indeed, even unto a martyr’s death.
So it would have been a serious mistake to write off James based on the episode we see in the Gospel lesson from Matthew 20, just as it would have been a mistake to write off Thomas because of his doubts or to write off Peter because of denying Christ not once, not twice, but three times. We should be thankful that Jesus forgave and restored all of them.
We all have bad days, sometimes really bad days. I know I do! We all need grace and forgiveness from God and from each other. And the occasion of St. James Day falling on the 8th Sunday after Trinity reminds us that we need to exercise a wise balance accordingly. While we need to beware of false teachers as the Gospel for this Sunday warns, we also need to avoid hasty judgements based on incomplete information or incomplete Christian growth as the Gospel for St. James Day and James’ career afterward illustrates. In short, while we guard against and oppose false teachers, we need to be careful that we do not write off or harm errant sheep. And that not only for their good but for the good of the church. We don’t want to lose people like James! Or Thomas! Or Peter!
But that’s not simple, is it? There is a difference between ravenous wolves and errant sheep. But sometimes the wolves can be so winsome and deceptive and the sheep so stupid – sheep are not smartest animals around, you know – that it can be hard to tell the difference. Perhaps, most of the time at least, sorting wolves from the sheep should be left to God.
But there are times when difficult decisions must be made. And that is one reason it is so important to have wise bishops and priests to, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word” and at the same time to be gentle shepherds to errant sheep – and aren’t we all errant sheep? And we are blessed with such bishops and priests in the Reformed Episcopal Church. And we need to pray for them as they carry out these difficult tasks.
But let us also use this rare correspondence of St. James Day and the 8th Sunday After Trinity to look to ourselves and to our attitudes. Let us follow Jesus’ warning not to be naïve but to beware of false and deceptive leaders and teachers. At the same time, let us learn from the Gospel lesson of St. James Day. Let give each other and ourselves the space and the grace and the forgiveness and the time that we need to learn and to grow into faithfulness. With Christ’s help, let us help each other to follow the good example of St. James the Apostle, who, although he was once foolish and a bit selfish, he grew into a wise and faithful follower and leader, who was faithful even unto death.
Let us pray.
Collect for the Feast of St. James the Apostle
Grant O merciful God, that as thine holy Apostle Saint James, leaving his father and all that he had, without delay was obedient unto the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him; so we, forsaking all worldly and carnal affections, may be evermore ready to follow thy holy commandments; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.