The letter of James speaks with great confidence and conviction about prayer, such as we find it hard sometimes to match. It challenges us to move prayer out of the strictly private domain where we might express those things closest to our hearts, into the sphere of community where others can support us and pray with us, even about those things which touch us most deeply.
This letter calls on us to share our joys and sorrows with one another, reminding us that suffering is a matter for prayer, and happiness is an occasion for praise. Both can be shared with others in the context of a strong, loving Christian community. We need to remind ourselves often that we are not alone. Christian community exists for us to share the difficulties and the joys of life together- as well as for many other reasons. The community of faith to which we belong is, in part, a reminder to us that God is there always, “closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet”. The message is that when we pray, God, who creates and redeems us, whose power is expressed most truly in love, is indeed listening.
We read James’ instructions that whoever is sick should call for the elders of the Church, who will anoint the sick person with oil and pray over them. Again, this is a message not to subject ourselves to loneliness and isolation when we need help and comfort. In our society we tend to try to “soldier on” as best we can, and we may see an admission that we are not coping as a weakness. That, surely, is a direct result of our concentration on the individual in contrast to the web of relationships which make up a healthy society. We know that we are not created to be on our own. We are created to be in relationship with God, and with one another. We have seen something of a revival in recent times within the Church of the practice of anointing the sick. It is a powerful reminder to the sick person that others are holding them in their prayers, and that God is very, very near.
The letter goes on to say “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up;” Well, we all know that this is not some simple formula like 1&1=2. Having said that, I personally believe very deeply in committing the sick person to God. I strongly believe that God will deal with their suffering with mercy and compassion. We all do know of times when faithful Christian people have prayed for someone with a life-limiting illness and the person has died. Some lovely Christian people have blamed themselves for not having prayed with enough faith in these cases. Worse still, some have blamed the sick person or their nearest relatives for not having enough faith. That is tragic, and it adds unnecessarily to the burden those people are already carrying. It is wrong to impose a load of guilt upon them, as well as everything else that they are subject to.
When illness results in death, has God “let us down”? We, in our society, tend to see death as something to be shunned. Have we forgotten that it is a normal part of the cycle of life? Have we also forgotten that death has been defeated by the life, death and resurrection of Christ? Scripture assures us that in Christ, death is a transition to a new life in the presence of God. We fear death, but our faith tells us that by death we are ushered into the fullness of the grace, mercy and love of God. Scripture speaks of the defeat of the “last great evil, death”. In Christ, we are held by God until our last breath, and so are ushered into such a close relationship with God that it is beyond what the human heart can conceive of, or the mind understand.
We also need to joyfully acknowledge that in some cases God heals people when we had hardly dared to hope for this. These times are to be celebrated, and we cannot praise God enough when this happens. Scripture doesn’t give us the “proper formula” for getting this wonderful outcome. There is no such formula, just the amazing mercy and grace of God, present in world where life inevitably comes to an end, and a future of intimacy with God is born.
In the letter of James, we read that “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven”. There seems to be an inference of a connection between illness and sin here. The struggle to understand these things has been going on for centuries. The book of Job is a most eloquent dismissal of the notion that illness is a punishment for sin. In our day and age, when we understand a good deal about the connection between lifestyle factors and illness, we can see situations where we could have been more aware of our diet, exercised more, and got sufficient rest. If we don’t pay attention to these things, we bring problems on ourselves. Which is a very different thing to being punished for our sins.
Of course, it should be said that as Christians we know our sins are forgiven through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and it is right to give thanks every day for God’s mercy towards us. We can, as the letter says, find it truly healing to confess our sins to one another. When we have a trusted mentor or spiritual guide, who we know we can take into our confidence, then unburdening ourselves of the mistakes of our past can release us from tension and guilt which may have been with us for a considerable time. God, in mercy and grace, gives us such opportunities to lay down the burdens of the past.This can be a healing step into the future.
It is very encouraging to be reminded in this letter that “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. So, how do we pray in a righteous way? I think we all know this pretty well, we just have times when it’s hard for us to carry out. No spite, no recriminations, no pride, no greed nor jealousy. No hypocrisy or hatred. We all understand that those things have no place in our prayer life, and we strive to come to God with good motives and kind intentions.
God understands that we are only human beings, and that we are on our way to being made more like Christ. We are being “changed from glory into glory” and God uses our prayers, even when they aren’t perfect, to bring about greater good in us and in the world around us. When we pray to grow in love, mercy and compassion, when we ask God for wisdom and understanding for the day, when we hold others in prayer to God for blessing, then we are praying in a righteous way.
The letter of James greatly encourages us to pray with confidence, both in private and in community. We are reminded of the strength we gain from trusting each other with our concerns, and the greater joy experienced when we share our happiness with one another. In the context of relationships in our Christian community, we find not only the reality of human love and kindness, but the love, mercy and grace of God. Thanks be to God, Amen.