Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 26, 2021
James 5:13-20 Commentary
Were “community” in the deepest sense of the word a commodity that’s traded on some kind of stock exchange, it would be soaring in value. That’s partly because of the law of supply and demand. Genuine community the word is in such short supply that the demand sometimes exceeds the supply.
So many things isolated people long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The pandemic has only served to heighten many people’s sense of isolation and loneliness. I sometimes sense that it has turned some of us inward, seeking the blessings that flow from community from within ourselves.
However, the pandemic has also, in some ways, driven at least some pursuers of community into the sometimes slimy world of social media. We’ve replaced the sometimes-tough but utterly necessary work of face-to-face conversations with things like tweets and Facebook posts. And, while some of us have found a kind of community there, it’s often neither healthy nor, arguably, community in the truest sense of the word.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers guidelines for both the pursuit and cultivation of genuine community. After all, as the New Testament theologian James Boyce suggests, it imagines and describes what James thinks of as the practices of a caring community. As such it can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, provide an antidote to the loneliness that so many of our contemporaries feel, as well as the connectedness for which so many so deeply long. “All of [James 5’s] actions,” writes Boyce, “assume a community that surrounds and sustains its members in their individual and corporate needs.”
In that light, however, it’s ironic that the apostle begins this Sunday’s appointed lesson with the use of singular pronouns. “Is any one of you in trouble?” That person, answers the apostle in verse 13, “should pray.” “Is anyone happy?” That person should “sing songs of praise” (13).
Proclaimers who choose to let the Spirit organize their presentations around the theme of community will want to wrestle with how those calls fit in the context of community. Yet we might also note that while verse 13’s exhortations may sound “individualistic,” they also sound like calls to practices embodied in communal worship.
James’ calls to prayer in some ways bookends his letter. Almost immediately, for example, he insists that most appropriate route to wisdom runs along the road of prayer (1:5). The apostle also largely closes his letter with a reference to Elijah’s prayer in the face of both adversity and God’s apparent “no” to his prayers (5:18).
Of course, perhaps especially North American Christians think of prayer not as a communal, but individual exercise. Some studies, in fact, suggest that some people who claim to be spiritual but not religious claim to pray regularly – but on their own. At least some Christians do things like individually pray at mealtimes, as well as part of their devotional practices.
Some of those prayers are almost certainly offered up for the sake of neighbors, communities and the world God loves. But if they’re anything like mine, Christians’ prayers naturally stay pretty “close to home.” My own prayers naturally reach not much farther than what I can figuratively reach. Those who proclaim James 5 might choose to share some of their own struggles to pray for more than just ourselves and those we love and like.
Much of to what James calls the Christian community in 5:13-20 revolves around some kind of pain. He speaks of some of his readers being “in trouble” (13) and “sick” (14), as well as others’ wandering “from the truth” (19). The apostle also addresses the pain of unconfessed sin (15-16). He even lumps in what we think of as more joyful circumstance (being “happy” – 13) with those trying ones.
It’s instructive that at least three of our text’s responses to that pain involve prayer. In fact, the apostle doesn’t just bookend this letter with calls to prayer. He also expresses a great deal of confidence in the power that God graciously gives to prayer. Prayer is, after all, as James says in one way or another five times in just seven short verses, “powerful and effective” (16b).
“The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” the apostle insists in verse 15a. He even adds, “Pray for each other so that you may be healed” (16a). The apostle then goes on to remind his readers of the effectiveness of Elijah’s prayers, first for God to stop the rains, then for God to resume them.
Of course, no proclamation of prayer’s power and effectiveness takes place in a vacuum. Even the godliest people have heard God answer “no!” to their prayers. While we might argue that even those “no’s” are often effective in shaping us into greater Christ-likeness, loving proclaimers will admit that’s not the kind of power and effectiveness to which we long to link prayer. God’s “no’s” are sometimes one of the difficult circumstances to which the community of God’s people must respond.
After all, prayer for James isn’t just an exercise in talking to oneself or, as some suggest, changing those who pray. The apostle is confident that prayers also at least seem to somehow affect God.
Since such effective prayers are offered not just by individuals but also worshiping communities, those who plan and lead worship may want to examine our prayers during our worship services. We might want to ask questions like, “Do they ‘pray over’ those who are sick? Do our prayers include prayers of confession? Do they express God’s people’s thanks for all of God’s tender mercies?”
It’s regrettable, I think, that some churches, in their efforts to reach spiritual seekers and wanderers, diminish or even neglect times of prayer in their worship services. I find that somewhat ironic in light of the fact that at least some people whom we try to reach actually admit that they at least periodically pray.
James at least suggests that those who would deepen a sense of community make prayer a priority not only in their individual and church’s lives, but also in their worship services. They spend time praying for the world, including the creation God both loves and is redeeming. Christians deepen our sense of community as we pray for Christ’s church, locally and worldwide, as well as our own communities and the worldwide family of people.
James may realize that his hearers’ suffering sometimes drives people away from God and God’s Church. The apostle, after all, invites those who are in trouble to turn and pray not away from, but toward the Lord about it. The apostle also summons those who are happy to respond with praise to God.
That suggests that suffering gives the church community the opportunity to respond to it as a caring community. It offers members chances to respond in Christ-like ways to the kinds of misery that so often plagues both their neighbors and themselves. James invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to rather than turning away from their siblings’ suffering, turning to squarely face it with things like mutual confession, prayer, and the laying on of hands.
However, James also at least suggests that members’ happiness (13) gives the Church an opportunity to respond in Christ-like ways as well. When one rejoices, the apostle at least implies that fellow Christians, instead of enviously grumbling about it, should join in songs of praise.
James’ perhaps rather unusual ending has long fascinated biblical scholars. The apostle doesn’t end his letter, after all, as Paul often ended his letters, with some kind of doxology or even farewell. He ends it, instead, with a command and an invitation.
Yet while there’s no grace-filled benediction at James’ end, the apostle does end his letter with a lovely statement of grace. “Remember this,” he says in verse 20. “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
The apostle has spent much of his letter calling his readers to a more faithfully obedient response to God’s amazing grace. He has condemned things like speaking more than listening, showing favoritism to rich people, misusing our tongues and sowing dissension. His letter may leave some of its readers walking away discouraged. So it seems appropriate that James ends this teaching with a reminder that at the end of a life of faithful obedience is the true Life to which God graciously summons all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This promise offers its readers encouragement to keep going in the potentially life-saving work of helping people to faithfully turn away from sin and death and back toward God. It reminds God’s beloved children that because God loves spiritual wanderers, God’s people should too. The work of helping to restore them may seem long and discouraging. Yet the stakes, James insists, are high enough to keep us working for restoration.
In his sermon, “A Labor Not in Vain,” Fred Craddock, tells about what happened when he pastored a small Christian church in east Tennessee. As he was visiting hospitalized church members, he passed the room of a patient.
From it a woman called to Craddock, ‘Uh, sir, are you a minister?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ ‘Would you come in here by the bed and pray over me?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am, I’ll be happy to. What would you like me to pray for?’ Craddock asked as he entered her room.
She looked at him as if he’d lost his way and said rather abruptly, ‘That I’ll be healed of course!’ And so Craddock went over by the bed, took her hand, and began to pray that God heal her.
When he had finished praying, the woman began to stretch a little in her bed. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I feel kind of strange. In fact, I feel pretty good!’ she said, throwing off the covers. She got out of bed, jumped up and down a little, and started shouting. ‘I’m healed! I’m healed! Thank you, pastor, thank you!’
Craddock reports that when he got back to his car, he bowed his head and prayed, “Dear God, don’t ever do that to me again.”
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