James urges us to not expect magic solutions and sudden divine interventions which will bring justice for all nor simply give assent to metaphysical claims about Jesus and God, but rather that frail, fragmented and very human people, like you and me, will receive the gospel of transforming grace, and in receiving that gospel permit our lives to be transformed into the image of that grace. Thus James echoes Jesus’ own call to perfect obedience, to consistent truthfulness, to whole-hearted faithfulness, and to community without favoritism. Few congregations have ever met this ideal. But instead of writing James off as unrealistic or impractical, maybe we should consider giving these kinds of community practices a good faith effort.
It is always a fascination to me how the scripture readings provided us by the Revised Common Lectionary fit the moment. From the Gospel reading today you might want to read Mark 8:39-40. It gets to something I’ve been observing recently in our life together. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, ad we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “ Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever in not against us is for us.”
The Old Testament reading is from the book of Esther, primarily chapters 7thru 9. Rather than read them I want to use them to set a backdrop for understanding what community is all about. Among the books in the Bible it is rare to find one that bears the name of a woman. Even more rare is to find a book in the Bible that never mentions the name of God. Esther is a fascinating read. It explains the origins of the Jewish Feast of Purim, a lesser celebration that includes the sharing of gifts with one another but also involves remembering the poor. The book of Esther has irony and intrigue, an ever thickening plot, clever characters and evil villains, royal splendor and, of course, a hero who rises to the challenge and saves the day – only this time the hero is a heroine. Esther uses her power and her place in the fabric of society to protect her people, even though she risks her life by ‘coming out’ as one of them.
Isn’t refreshing to have a courageous heroine at the center of a story in a book chock full of male prophets, priests, military leaders and kings? This time, instead of being unnamed or relegated to the margins of the story she and her courage form the very core of the story. Now, it is not without violence and vengeance. We have to keep in mind what Sidnie White Crawford wrote of Esther. She is “locked in a life-and-death struggle not of her own making.”
When you read Esther you will not only not see the name of God, but you will find there no prayers and an absence of any mention of the Law or other practices connected to Judaism. Even the fast which Esther declares is not directed to or by God. These omissions disturbed the Greeks so much that they added 107 verses full of prayer and God talk to the Hebrew text to make Esther seem more religious. Fortunately they have been moved to the Apocrypha, and not considered canonical. With the book of Esther God’s deliverance of the people is not accomplished through amazing and miraculous events but through the actions of flawed but courageous human beings who, in spite of their best efforts, were probably never sure they were doing the right thing or doing things right.
That brings me to the Epistle reading for today: 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.
Christopher Michael Jones, an African American pastor, sees the power of prayer and its appropriateness in every life situation as the major them in this passage. He says that for James, the ministry of intercessory prayer offers the Christian community the best medium by which it can engage in a dedicated struggle against sin and imperialism. Through the power of prayer, total personal and communal healing can occur. James was following the example of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray and showed them that people can be healed through prayer.
The first question raised by James in this passage related to the presence of daily suffering. James understands that our endurance can dwindle when we are exposed to daily persecution. He is also concerned with the emotional discouragement people may feel since the second question “Are any cheerful?” focuses on the mood and state of mind. Even in the face of daily suffering James calls the congregation to prayer and praise: he wants us to focus on tapping into the transcendent power that can sustain us in the midst of social disorder and oppression.
In the fourteenth verse James tells us that daily oppression can paralyze our ability to pray. For James, if one is found to be sick among you, the church should be called by its leaders to prayer. More to the point, the elders of the church should be summoned for the ministry of intercession. In first century Jewish communities it was the duty of the village elders to visit the dangerously ill and pray with them. If such a person was unable to pray, the elders would pray on this person’s behalf while the person prayed in their heart. And the call for anointing them with oil was also a first century custom. James is referring to the common practice of applying oil as a remedy. He is not focused on a ritual as much as he is focused on teaching us that our own prayers can heal the sick. Even in the midst of struggle, faithful prayer is effective. The statement in verse fifteen that “the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up” is important in that while some illnesses were believed to be the result of personal sin, other illnesses were believed to be the result of uncontrollable external forces which sinfully pressed against the oppressed body of the poor and persecuted. James makes clear to the church that the Lord has the power to resist all external and internal forces, healing the sick when believers pray.
A.K.M. Adam, a professor of New Testament at Seabury-Western, says that “the preceding chapters in the Epistle of James have described the ideal of a congregation that lives cooperatively, harmoniously, in concord with heaven’s peaceable grace – that repudiates wrangling, privilege, and domination.” He suggests that more than individuals, James addresses communities and promotes an ethic of integrity that emphasizes building one another up. He further suggests that when we read these verses we would do well to understand them as a description of how the ideal congregation behaves. A harmonious, mutually concerned faith community will be marked by the sort of relationships to which James points. James imagines a community where class and poverty do not divide, here he broadens it to include grief, illness and sin. Where one member is ill, the whole body is weaker. Anyone who is afflicted should feel confident to ask for help fro other persons in the community and in the name of the Lord the leaders will literally apply whatever medicinal remedies available and pray on their behalf.
James advocates a model of community that admits no distinctions between rich and poor, with regard to health and wealth. You see, remedial oil wasn’t in the budget of the poorest of Christians so if the elders were to anoint any member of the congregation the better off members would need to subsidize the practice.
James reintroduces the topic of truthfulness as an aspect of community of life. Earlier he focused on the destructive consequences of intemperate speech, here he emphasizes the positive necessity of telling the truth. In the twelfth verse, just preceding our passage, he insists that disciples tell the truth at all time. But he insists that a community has to sustain a high enough degree of mutual trust to enable people to confess their sins to each other, not as a punishment; not as a means of cult like social control, rather, it constitutes an ingredient of the kind of common life he proposes for all Christians.
Stanley Hauerwas reported that he was often confronted by people who are not Christians but who say they want to know about Christianity. He wrote: “After many years of vain attempts to ‘explain’ God, … I now say, ‘Well, to begin with we Christians have been taught to pray, ‘Our father, who art in heaven…’ I then suggest that a good place to begin to understand what we Christians are about is to join me in that prayer.’” But he continues by saying that to learn to pray is not easy matter. “It requires much training. We learn to pray by praying with other Christians. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.” He then insists that in similar manner we must be trained to be a sinner. To confess our sin, after all, is a theological and moral accomplishment.
Secret sins corrode our souls. They also corrode our relationships. Confession brings with in the assurance of God’s forgiveness; prayer will, in James’ ideal congregation, powerfully and effectually remedy both spiritual and physical ailments. The more fully we can trust others with our painful failings, the more readily we can share with them in the forgiveness that releases us from the power our sins hold over us.
James believes that our faithful solidarity and sharing in cases of both physical illness and spiritual brokenness are effectual in remedying our weakness. This is surely true I plain, common-sense ways; we care for one another by paying attention to symptoms of illness, by providing resources for health, by guarding against irresistible temptations, by living up to others’ high expectations of us. But James also trusts that forces greater than common sense will support and amplify our well being.
Now that is a good place to stop – but I won’t because –
James will not let us write each other off. We cannot be indifferent to either our own sin or the sin of others. He calls us to display a profound level of compassion for others in our worshipping community. Should believers wander into any of the sins James lists in the body of his letter, if falls to their brothers or sisters to seek them out, the salvation of the wandering brother or sister is at stake. The degree to which James imagines believers to be dependent upon each other is staggering. The good news is that success in such a venture “will cover a multitude of sins.”
As with the generosity displayed by Jesus, the compassion James desires believers to show to each other stands in sharp contrast to the way contemporary Christians seem to behave toward each other. It is much more common to see believer separating themselves from each other because of real or perceived sinfulness. Smug indifference and indignant divisiveness are far more common than compassionate pursuit of our brothers and sisters. In the nineteenth verse James encourages his readers to strive to bring back one who ‘wanders from the truth,’ which restoration will have positive effects not only for them but also, apparently, for those who restore them to the ‘truth’.
James reminds the congregation that faithfulness requires patience because the benefits of our caring for one another are not always obvious or immediate. That’s why he points us to Elijah as an example of one whose confident prayer had extraordinary effects. By citing both the importance of patience and the example of Elijah, James frames his exhortation so as to underscore both the possibility of miraculous fulfillment and the inevitable unlikelihood that we will witness such a dramatic response to our prayers.
Through the letter as a whole, James urges us to not expect magic solutions and sudden divine interventions which will bring justice for all nor simply give assent to metaphysical claims about Jesus and God, but rather that frail, fragmented and very human people, like you and me, will receive the gospel of transforming grace, and in receiving that gospel permit our lives to be transformed into the image of that grace. Thus James echoes Jesus’ own call to perfect obedience, to consistent truthfulness, to whole-hearted faithfulness, and to community without favoritism. Few congregations have ever met this ideal. But instead of writing James off as unrealistic or impractical, maybe we should consider giving these kinds of community practices a good faith effort. James would say that such experiments make an occasion for faith to show its effects in our works and for our works to bring faith to completion.