(Preached at Aldersgate UMC on 9/30/2012)
James 5.13-20: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James, the brother of Jesus wrote to the early Christians: Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. Let us pray.
The man was dying. The sterile controlled atmosphere of the hospital room was almost beyond comprehension. Electronic devices were hung particularly from metallic arms, fluids were flowing, and the low buzz of the oxygen machine provided the only audible accompaniment. The man in the bed was dying and he knew it. His pale blue eyes rested upon mine as I sat across from him not knowing what to say. The sounds of the hospital filled the void of our conversation while his wife wept next to me and his 12 year old son sat stoically staring out the window. I was in the first week of my internship in Birmingham, Michigan and had naively volunteered to make the hospital visits that day. The Henry Ford Hospital was what the parishioners affectionately referred to as the “Cadillac of Hospitals” and it certainly felt that way. Upon entering through the magnificently large main entrance, you were greeted by an assortment of boutiques and small restaurants; there were more trees planted inside the opulent hospital than there were outside on the grounds. Everything about it screamed the opposite of hospital until you explored far enough in to find the patients in their rooms.
The man continued to stare at me from his bed; his eyes spoke more to me than anything conversation would have. I expected to see fear and anxiety in those pale blue eyes, but instead I saw peace, a peace that existed in stark contrast with the tears being spilled on the couch next to me. I had attempted to initiate small talk when I had entered the room, but it went nowhere. As I returned to the dying man’s gaze I was overwhelmed with a profound desire, one that was instigated beyond myself. I leaned forward from my chair toward his bed and though I was afraid of how he would respond, I asked, “May we pray together?”
Throughout the gospel narrative Jesus constantly finds himself in a setting where his saving touch is required. As he made his way throughout Galilee, droves of suffering human beings followed the humble rabbi and implored him to make them well. He was dragged into houses to cure fevers, followed by crawling lepers seeking his simple touch, compelled by friends of a paralytic to bring back restoration. He was confronted with people consumed by demons that were then cast out at the touch and sound of Jesus’ voice. A woman with a hemorrhage reached out just to touch the hem of his garment as he passed by. The blind and deaf were brought before him over and over again, requiring only the simplest touch from Jesus to be made well.
The God who became flesh in Jesus Christ was intimately involved in the healing business. The church, it seems then, should be decidedly emphasizing the healing power that Jesus presented in his earthly ministry. Important for us is that according to the New Testament Jesus also laid his hands on his disciples enabling them to perform similar miracles to those that he himself had accomplished. He sent out the twelve two by two in order to proclaim the Good News and “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6.13) Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church continued in this tradition and was capable of healing the crippled, casting out demons, and even restoring the dead back to life (Acts 3.1-10; 5.12-16; 9.32-43).
Written at some point in the latter half of the first century, the epistle of James has been traditionally connected with James, the younger brother of Jesus. The letter is famous for being Martin Luther’s least favorite book of the bible. Part of the letter addresses the difficult problem of wrestling between faith and work, and what really accomplishes salvation. But this morning we find ourselves at the end of the letter, and James confronts us: Are any of you suffering? You should pray. Are any of you cheerful? You should sing songs of praise. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.
I wonder about what it really means to be healed. Its very clear in the Bible that when Jesus and the disciples pray or lay their hands on someone that they are physiologically healed from their suffering: the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. But is this the full intent of healing? What does the “prayer of faith” have to do with being made well? Do we gather every week in order to worship the God who fixes broken bones, or is there more to “healing?”
Beyond physical restoration, Jesus places significant emphasis on the power of being healed in the community. Because of the fear of weakness and sickness in the first century, many who suffered were ostracized from their families and were isolated outside of the community. The people of the New Testament were very logical: they needed to isolate the sick from those who were well. However, Jesus does not agree with the logic of the world. After most of the healing narratives, Jesus commands the newly restored to return to their family or town. Jesus inverts this prescription institutionalized on the suffering with his resounding command: “Go home to your friends.”
The letter of James falls completely in line with Jesus’ perspective of the way the church should stand in contrast to the world. James specifically addresses those within the community who are suffering and sick and admonishes them to call upon the elders to pray over them. James, in line with Jesus, places all of the power with the weak and the last rather than the strong and the first.
Though James’ letter is filled with many commands for Christian living, this scripture right at the very end of the letter is the first and only time that he addresses the ekklesia, the church. The church of the first century existed in sharp contradiction to the expectations of the world. Can you imagine what that community looked like, where the sick had the power to call on the elders to come visit them; a place where the weak and lonely were no longer isolated from their families and friends; an intentional way of living predicated on the practice of mutuality? Remember this: What we believe shapes how we behave.
When I asked the dying man if we could pray together, I did not know how he would respond. The tension in the room was palpable, but he held my gaze and nodded in approval. Before I reached out my hands, I asked if there were certain things I could pray for in that moment. Usually, when I’ve asked this question in hospital rooms the answer is same: “Pray for this to go away, pray for me to get better.” But that afternoon in Michigan, the dying man turned my world upside down: “I want you to pray for the church,” he said, “I want you to pray for the church so that it can take care of my wife, so that my son can have role-models to emulate. I want you to pray for the church so that my wife won’t remain lonely without me, so that my son has someone to throw a baseball with. I want you to pray for the church so that it can be a family for mine… I know I’m dying, but I’m not worried about that anymore because I have faith in our God”
That dying man’s faith is what grace is all about. He believed in something greater, more wonderful, and magnificently mysterious. He, in those simple words, spoke the truth of Gospel better than many preachers ever have. Living a life of faith is not about what you do but it’s about who you are. It’s not about signing up for every Sunday suppers or mission trips, but about believing in the goodness of God and the redemptive quality of Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s not about isolating the weak and the sick away from the healthy; it’s about making community. It’s about being the place where the dying man’s wife and son could be family. The life of faith is predicated on the grace poured out on us everyday of our lives, whether its the simple touch of a hand in a hospital room, or a young boy hugging his father when he finally comes home from work.
The dying man, James, and Jesus all show us how grace works. We are called to live in such a way that we can live up to the expectations of that dying man’s prayer. The church, this church, is the place where we can answer his prayer. We can come together in our suffering through praying and being present with one another. We can come together in our cheerfulness singing our songs of joy and praise. We can come together when we are sick and weak calling for everyone in the church to pray over one another.
How many of us our suffering? How easy it is to pretend like we’re okay when everything is falling apart around us? Have we told anyone about our suffering? Over the last month and a half I have been interning for a church in Durham, North Carolina. As the church’s congregational care intern, it is my responsibility to visit members from the church in the hospital or those who can no longer make it to church. Maybe it’s because they know I’m studying to be a pastor, but many of the people I have visited have shared with me the depth of their being: I have learned about cancers, divorces, unemployment. What I come to discover later is that I am the only one who knows about any of it. Many of these people have not shared their suffering with the best friends, or even their real pastors. Why are we so afraid to open up with on another? Have you told anyone about how you’re suffering? Listen to the command of Jesus through his brother James! We are the church James is speaking to! What would it mean for you to share your fears and failures with your brothers and sisters in Christ. How differently might we view each other when we know the depth of one another’s being?
James is showing us how we can be healed. Part of that responsibility rests on our shoulders: Are any of you sick? You should call for the church to pray over you! We are called to be a community committed to the welfare of the entire body of Christ, one where we know how we are doing, and what we can do for each other. That is our responsibility. What we believe shapes how we behave!
“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”
Our belief is that through God’s grace that we find our truest wellness. The grace that he gave to us without any merit of our own, the grace that was poured upon us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, the grace that knows no bounds! Through grace, the Lord will raise us up.