Healing Power of Prayer - A sermon from James 5 (World Communion Sunday)
Today is World Communion Sunday. While we may gather at the Table every Sunday, this particular Sunday reminds us that we part of a global fellowship of Christians. Our fellowship crosses ethnic and national boundaries, and with the rise of a nationalistic spirit across the globe, this is an important fact to remember.
This morning we’re bringing to a close a series of sermons exploring the Letter of James, the Lord’s Brother. Although this was the designated reading for last Sunday, I wasn’t here to share it with you. I did preach on this text at Congregational Church of Birmingham, but I’m preaching on it this morning so we can bring this series of sermons to a proper conclusion. While this isn’t the designated text for today, I do believe it’s a fitting text for World Communion Sunday. That’s because it speaks of healing prayer, and our world is crying out for healing.
In the very first chapter of the letter, James speaks of a form of religion that’s pure and undefiled before God. It’s a religion marked by compassion and freedom from worldy enticements. He writes about doing the word, not merely hearing it. He speaks of living a life of wisdom that begins with our tongues and leads to living in peace with one another. This morning we hear a word about healing prayer and restoring the lost to the community. With that, the letter ends abruptly, as if the last page of the letter got lost. Whether or not this was the final ending, James has a word for us today.
James ends his letter with a several words of wisdom. He warns the wealthy against putting their trust in their wealth. Like Jesus, he tells his readers not to take oaths, but simply tell the truth. There’s no need to swear on the Bible as a guarantee. We didn’t read those words, but instead we begin with this word about prayer and healing, and then move to a word about restoration. With so many choices, I decided to narrow things down to healing prayer.
I think we all agree that prayer is a good thing, even if many of us struggle with focusing our energy into our prayers. Now, there is a place for sharing prayers virtually, as Deanna Thompson taught us when she spoke last year about the “virtual body of Christ.” Sometimes the virtual is the only way or may even be the best way of sharing the healing power of prayer, but this word from James speaks of a more intimate, community-based form of prayer.
It’s in the context of the community that James asks three questions and offers three responses: Are you suffering? Then pray. Are you cheerful? Then sing songs of praise. Finally, are you sick? If you’re sick, then call the elders and have them pray for you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. All of this takes place within community. In fact, the connection James makes between sickness and sin, might have something to do with community.
When it comes to the relationship of sin and sickness, we need to remember that we live in a different context from James. For one thing, we look at the causes of illness differently today. But the other reason may have to do with the way James draws on the Wisdom tradition, which at times suggests that bad things happen to people who do bad things. In that case, it makes sense to confess your sins if you’re sick. Job’s friends expressed a similar view of things, though context suggested that Job was righteous. So, we need to be careful in our interpretations and applications of James’ word about the relationship of sin and sickness. Nevertheless, James may have something important to say, even if we need to interpret his words somewhat differently.
In our context we might want to think about the relationship between mind and body. We know, for instance, that stress can make us sick. In this case, confession might involve either ridding ourselves of the causes of our stress or better managing them. There are, of course, many other examples we could lift up.
The central message here, however, is the call for prayer that leads to healing in the context of community. In the words of Mark Douglas, James understands prayer as a force that “helps to shape a particular kind of community in which people are committed to each other.” Therefore, in James’ mind, “the community that prays together, stays together—which is no small feat when there are so many things that can divide a community, many of which he has addressed throughout the book.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 114]. That is an important word for us, since we live in time of deep polarization in our culture. By praying together, God is able to build a bridge between us that brings healing.
When we talk about healing prayer, it’s always good to remember that prayer doesn’t replace modern medicine. They always go together. With that in mind, I recently got my flu shot, in the hope that it would keep me from getting the flu this winter. I expect many of you have done the same or will do the same. Praying that I don’t get the flu without the vaccine could be considered testing God. Or, as Galileo put it long ago: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” So, if you’re sick be sure to pray, and even invite the elders to come and pray for you, but don’t forgo the doctor! When it comes to healing prayers, I appreciate this word from John Koenig, a biblical scholar and Episcopal priest, who reminds Christians that “the central image for us is not cure but wholeness.” He invites us to think in terms of the Hebrew word shalom, which speaks of healing, but also envisions right relationships with God and neighbor. In this context:
Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship. [“Healing,” in Practicing our Faith, pp. 147-148.]
Healing in this context might involve finding peace in the midst of sickness and suffering, even if full restoration of the body is not forthcoming.
This is where James comes in. He encourages us to invite the elders to pray and anoint with oil as a way of participating in God’s acts of divine mercy. When James speaks here of elders, he probably doesn’t have an office in mind. He might simply be thinking of the senior members of the community, regardless of their titles. Call on these senior members and have them come and pray.
When it comes to the oil, James might be thinking in medicinal terms. After all, oil was often used in this way in the ancient world. He could also be thinking of its symbolic value, because anointing with oil was often used to symbolize the presence of the Spirit. In this case, James might have in mind the healing presence of the Spirit who moves through the body of Christ bringing wholeness, even if not a cure.
One of the benefits of anointing is that it involves touch. Touch is an important element in bringing wholeness to body, mind, and spirit. Jesus understood this, because with few exceptions he touched the people he was healing. He even touched the so-called lepers, who were deemed untouchable by society. So, by touching them he restored them to the human community.
In James mind, healing prayers are communal in nature. By taking a person’s hand or laying hands on them they’re connected to the larger community. So, with Howard Thurman we can say to one another:
I know I cannot enter all you feel
Nor bear with you the burden of your pain
I can but offer what my love does give—
The strength of caring
The warmth of one who seeks to understand
This I do in quiet ways—
That on your lonely path you may not walk alone.
[Chalice Hymnal, 508]
So, if you are suffering, pray. If you’re cheerful, “sing songs of praise.” If you’re sick, call the elders and have them pray for you, so even if you can’t get to the community, the community can get to you. As James reminds us, the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. In the Spirit of World Communion Sunday, we can share healing prayers not only for this congregation, but for the world itself. When we pray for the world, we participate in the work of God, who shares divine mercy with the world. This is religion that is pure and undefiled before God. In that spirit, let us pray!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
World Communion Sunday
October 7, 2018