Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 14, 2018
James 5: 13-20 (CEB)
If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. 14If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 17Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. 18He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
19My brothers and sisters, if any of you wander from the truth and someone turns back the wanderer, 20recognize that whoever brings a sinner back from the wrong path will save them from death and will bring about the forgiveness of many sins.
How can I pray for you? These words are so simple. Around the church, we hear this question raised often. It may not seem like much, but this is an important question, especially if it is actually followed up with a faithful prayer.
In Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, the author describes her tortured journey through ten years of extreme depression and bipolar disorder. Concerning the importance of Christian fellowship while in recovery, she writes, “This is why it is so important to worship in community—to ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you…Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you.” She continues, “Sometimes I cannot even recite the Creed unless I am doing it in the context of worship, along with all the Body of Christ…When reciting the Creed, I borrow from the recitation of others.”
Our scripture passage for this morning from James is about healing. And not just plain old healing, it’s about healing in community, in the community of faith. There really is no such thing as Christianity outside the Church. And when I say this, I’m not talking about institutions and dogma. I’m not talking about the sanctuary or the church building. I am talking about brothers and sisters in Christ. Other human beings who are being human together by trusting, and hoping, and believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; by loving one another, lifting one another up in prayer, listening to one another without judgment, sympathizing with one another, just being there.
Here’s the thing, we all need healing. James understands that and lifts it up. Often, we think of healing only in terms of physical ailments, medical problems. But James understands there are many more reasons that all of us need healing, and he touches on some of the major reasons as he brings his writing to a close.
As you heard, our passage this morning opens with a suggestion from James that any who are suffering should pray. Suffering could mean a lot of different things—suffering could be caused by ill-treatment, or loneliness, or worry, or guilt. Just think about the power of prayer in times of suffering. In the case of ill-treatment or abuse, prayer could help us feel God’s hand of protection around us, or it could illumine a way out. In the midst of loneliness, prayer could connect us with God’s presence—a source of companionship and love. If our problem is worry, prayer might enable us to hand our worry off to God and rest in the assurances of his abiding care. And if we suffer from guilt, well, James has an answer for that as well, which is where I want us to spend a bit of time today because we have proven we are not very good at this on our own.
In verse 15, James says, “Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” Then he goes on, “For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” If we suffer from guilt, it is because we are sinners. Every single one of us. And one of the realities I see in our world today, even among self-proclaimed Christians, is that we are terrible at admitting our mistakes; we are awful at confessing our sins, and we almost never truly repent. Our world has taught us that admitting wrong-doing is bad, it’s a sign of weakness. So we just don’t do it. And sometimes, we even wear our wrong-doing like a badge of honor, or a sign of our power over someone or something. This plays out in our news nearly every day: politicians, athletes, and superstars who have clearly acted wrongly but who stubbornly defend their hurtful behavior for fear of appearing weak or “less than.”
Wrong, James says to us. If you have sinned, confess your sin to one another. Carry that to its full measure. If you have wronged another, go directly to that person and repent, ask for their forgiveness. If that’s not possible, then James suggests we should confess our sins within our community of fellow believers, and in making that confession, we can solicit the prayers of the faithful, seeking forgiveness to free us from the burden of guilt. This is what it means to be in community. This is why the church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, matter so much. We need prayer and support to overcome all that keeps us from God and to help us grow as followers of Christ. Our power is not from ourselves anyway. Our power is from God and God alone. So why wouldn’t we confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness?!? Friends, let me stress that this is the only way, the only way, we can ever find freedom from our burdens and our suffering; this is the only way to experience true life and abundant happiness.
The prayers of our fellow Christians are powerful, but they are only available if we seek them out, if we repent and seek reconciliation and forgiveness. We see and proclaim the power of prayer among the sick all the time. Why wouldn’t we do the same when it comes to the other burdens we carry? I think one of the truly remarkable attributes of our church is the way you all care for one another in times of illness and difficulty. Nearly every time I sit with one of you in the hospital or in the midst of illness, you remark on how you can feel the prayers being lifted on your behalf. Some of you have even reflected that you could not imagine facing a difficult illness without the support of your church family. I have heard this enough times now that I feel as if this is a sort of spiritual gift of this congregation; perhaps even a gift we could offer into our community so that others might experience the healing and anointing of God in times of illness and difficulty.
But what we need to hear James saying to us this morning is that it doesn’t stop there. The power of prayer can and should extend into every facet of our lives. We should draw together as a community that prays for one another in all things—not in judgment, but in a sincere desire to bring about the best life possible, a life connected to God by prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot live under the false illusion that power or strength is something that we achieve by our own doing. Instead, in drawing near to one another in repentance, reconciliation, and prayer, we can draw near to God in whom is our power and our strength.
A Christian Pastor—John Ortberg– writes about the power of what he calls: “No-secret Friendships.”
“One of the most important moments in my spiritual life,” writes John, “was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, ‘I don’t want to have any secrets anymore.’” John continues, “I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.”
John continues, “I will never forget his next words. ‘John,’ he said. ‘I have never loved you more than I love you right now.’” John continues, “The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.”
I think it’s interesting that James chooses to end his book with these thoughts about the importance of prayer in all things. In some ways, it feels as if he is trying to make sure that he hasn’t forgotten anything as he quickly lists off other matters to attend to. But in reality, prayer is the basis of achieving everything else James has impressed upon his readers. We need to pray in all things, we need to pray without ceasing. We need to lay bare our souls, not only before God, but before one another so that we can pray for each other. And we should be doing this every single day, and we should be doing it together! As the body of Christ we are called to carry one another’s burdens, to pray for one another, as our scripture lesson teaches us, we are called to share one another’s suffering, to turn back the wanderer. We were not created to be alone. We all need community. We need each other, and when we are in community—in God’s Kingdom—this is where we should be able to learn what it means to be truly human together.
Prayer is the basis of everything else; the bond that ties us together, the source of all our power, and even our salvation. “If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them….”
How can I pray for you?