Reading one of the lists of disciples recently, one name jumped off the page at me: James the son of Alphaeus. The church has traditionally referred to him as “James the Less.” Not a favorable nickname by American standards. The reason for the name is the adjective used in Mark 15:40 to describe him: “micro.” Sometimes that Greek word means “small.” Sometimes it means “young.” Newer translations make the decision for us and call him “James the younger.”
Whatever the exact meaning might have been, it’s clear that his nickname was given to differentiate this James from the other James in the group of disciples. That James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, was one of the more important disciples and a part of Jesus’ inner circle. That was “James the leader,” “big James.” This was “little James” or “young James.”
In the four Gospels, “little James” doesn’t ask Jesus a question. He doesn’t answer a question. He doesn’t get into arguments with any of the other disciples. In fact, he doesn’t do anything. He’s like an extra in the crowd scene of a movie. He’s there. You can find him as the camera pans the multitude…but you have to pause the movie to catch a glimpse of him. In other words, he’s easy to miss.
I’m not sure when the pejorative idiom “flyover country” replaced the heretofore preferred “American heartland.” “Flyover” reminds us of our place – not so much physically, but our place within the American caste system. The important people, the opinion-makers, the ones everyone should follow, all live on the Eastern and Western seaboards. They are the politicians and lobbyists, the industrialists, the media, Wall Street and Madison Avenue, the Ivy League, the wealthy, the movie stars. They speak to themselves in echo chambers. They give themselves standing ovations.
Everything and everyone in between these important places and people is called “flyover country.” It’s in the way. Farmland is easy to ignore, easy to dismiss. It just makes your flight longer and gives you time for one more cocktail.
The people that live in flyover country are quiet, steady, tax-paying workers. They are patriotic. They tend to be resistant to change. Because they don’t crave the limelight, they’re often ignored. But they can be riled. For years, political types have underestimated flyover types to their own detriment (they are either “bitter, clinging to their guns and religion;” or “baskets of deplorables”). Sometimes the flyovers get mad enough to vote. George Bailey might have described these folks to Mr. Potter: “This rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.”
James the Less was one of these guys. We know next to nothing about him. He didn’t make the headlines…his nickname is “Less!” Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that he was one of the foundational pillars of the church (Eph. 2:20)…and one of the foundation stones of heaven itself bears his name (Rev. 21:14). Jesus was right: the first will be last and the last will be first. Less is more in a biblical economy!
In a similar way, the American church is predominantly “flyover.” But you might not know this from the media. The media covers “religion” as a necessity, but their research tends to go no deeper than the megachurches. We’re kept abreast of “religion in America” by the media’s faithful consultation with about ten or so pastors who supposedly speak for the rest of us. Because of this, the church has found her own equivalent to Hollywood “stars” to be followed. We read their books and blogs, listen to their podcasts, and buy their accompanying swag.
In the Second Temple period (the several centuries before Jesus’ birth), rabbis had a word for these flyover people: Am Ha’aretz. The Hebrew phrase literally means “people of the land.” But the meaning behind the words was something like “uncivilized, ignorant, or uneducated.” The political parties forming during this time (the Sadducees and Pharisees) found it easy to ignore “the people of the land.”
Then came John the Baptist – he was a member in good standing with the Am Ha’aretz. Jesus, though he had royalty in his bloodline, was born in a stable. You can’t get more Am Ha’aretz than that. The twelve disciples Jesus chose – all Am Ha’aretz. The people who flocked to him and responded to his message: Am Ha’aretz.
Mary, in her Magnificat, reminds us of the Am Ha’aretz nature of Jesus’ ministry: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53).”
Paul was one of the Am Ha’aretz ignorers until he met Jesus. That moment produced quite a sea change in his theology:
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:20, 26-29).”
Paul’s describing you and me. He’s describing “James the Less” in a pew of a flyover church. We quietly attend church week in, week out. We give sacrificially, we serve at VBS and youth camps. We live the gospel as best we can at home, work, and our communities. We pray together, worship together, work together. Like James the Less, the world may never hear of us…but heaven has. And as he did with James, God can use us to change the world.
Much is made in the media of the shrinking American Church. But perhaps, like water receding before a wave, God is about to visit on the America church another Great Awakening. I believe this will start in flyover churches. May the Lord grant it…may we be prepared.