Friday, 28 September 2018

Good works, faith and prayer

James 5.13-19



People say that James is all about doing good works and not about faith.

Well certainly, James is immensely practical

He challenges us

To control the tongue, what we say :
· not to speak evil of each other (4.11)
· not to grumble against each other (5.9)
· not to boast (claiming that I am going to do this or that and forgetting God) (4.13f)
· not to swear or take oaths, as if our word needs enforcing (ch 5.12). 

Because of that verse Tolstoy refused to swear on the bible. He asked how could he swear on a book which itself forbade him from swearing?
I’m not sure that I completely agree with him. When I made my oath of allegiance to my bishop and to the crown, I placed my hand on the bible. But I wasn’t swearing on the bible. I wasn’t saying, ‘If I don’t do this, may all the curses that are written here fall on me!’ Instead I was placing my hand on the bible, which I believe is the ultimate source of truth, and I am saying that my yes will be yes and my no, no.

To treat all people with respect, not giving preferential treatment to the rich, especially in our Christian communities (2.1ff)

To show social justice: to care for widows and orphans (1.27); to show mercy (2.12), to clothe the naked and feeding the hungry (2.15f).
And he condemns those of us who are wealthy for our exploitation of the poor. He uses words that could have been written by Marx, ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you .. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’ (James 5.1ff)

It is powerful stuff

But we must not get James wrong.

This short letter is immensely practical; it is about works.

But it is also about faith.

· It is about the Word of God which gives life (James 1.21).
If we have not received that implanted word, if we have not been born again of the word, then we cannot really begin to understand the letter of James

· It is about the power of the Word of God: this is the mirror (1.23-25) that we look in and see ourselves - both as we are, in our sinfulness, in what we are with Christ living in us, and in who we can become. He describes the Word as ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (1.25;2.12)

· It is about submission before God (4.7-8)

· It is about the sovereignty of God (4.15)

· It is about waiting in patience for the coming of the Lord (5.7-11)

And as James brings his letter to a close, he writes about prayer, about healing and forgiveness and he finishes it, very dramatically, by speaking about bringing back someone who has wandered away from the faith.

Prayer.

He begins his letter with prayer and he ends with prayer.

He begins with the prayer for wisdom: ‘If any of you is lacking in wisdom ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’. (1.5)

I used to think that that was about asking God to help me make the right decisions. I need wisdom to know what I should do, who I should marry, where I should live.

But I think that James instead is speaking of wisdom as a grace, a virtue. Other New Testament writers might say that this is a prayer asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit, or with his love. So in 3.17, he writes, ‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy’.

So when we pray for wisdom, we are asking that God will change us – that he will give us a new heart. That we will become like Jesus

And now in chapter 5, he speaks again of prayer

He calls on those who are suffering, not to despair, not to give up, not to think that they are on their own – but to pray, to call out to God

He calls on those who are cheerful, for whom life is going well, not to become complacent, not to forget God – but to sing praise.

That bit is great advice. Sing in your prayers. Yes, we sing in church, but sing also on your own. When nobody is there – when you are in the loo or the shower – because otherwise they will think you are mad, but sing. Use an app Youtube or isingworship (probably not when you are in the shower!). And don’t say you can’t sing. One person I knew who had a dreadful singing voice, spoke of how he would sing a hymn in his daily prayer time.
Because there is something about singing, and singing the truth, which helps us lift ourselves up out of ourselves and to focus on him.

He calls on those who are sick to get in touch with the church elders, who will pray over them and anoint them with oil.

Why the church elders?

Of course, we can each pray for each other, as individuals, and it would be great to see that happening.
But we are to call the church elders because, I guess we hope that they have more experience of walking the Christian life, but more importantly because they represent the whole community, even the wider church.
I say this with some hesitancy, because it means more work for me, but it needs to be said because it is here.

Do this.
If you are sick – and I guess I am not talking about bugs or coughs or colds - if you are seriously sick, get in touch, and ask us to pray for you. If you can get to us, come and we’ll pray for you here. If you can’t get to us, we’ll try to get to you.

One lady, a senior leader in a significant Christian organisation, was diagnosed with something pretty major, and she took these words seriously. She asked several of us to go round and pray for her, and so a group of us went, I took some oil and we prayed and anointed her.
It was very special. She was a private person, but she opened up and it was a privilege to pray for her. There was no miraculous recovery, but that was 2 years ago and she has been able to continue to live an active life.

And I know that asking others to pray for us can be difficult because it means humbling ourselves before the other, admitting our need, and being really open with each other. This is not just putting a name on a list or saying, ‘Oh pray for me because I’m not feeling well’. It is deep stuff. It is about being prepared to confess our sins, and also put right what is wrong.

And James was not a fool.

He knew that prayers can be answered very dramatically. That is why he speaks of the prayer of Elijah.
He could also have spoken of the prayers that the early church community saw answered: Peter miraculously released from prison, people healed, wonderful conversions.
And I could also speak of several people who I have known to be dramatically healed, or of prayers answered in amazing ways. There is the Russian word ‘chuda’, wonder, and there are times when we see ‘chuda’. Alison was telling the ladies bible study group of how God answered two very simple prayers in a very clear way when she was seeking guidance about coming here. They were chuda

But James was no fool. He also knew that prayers are not always answered as we wish. Peter was saved, for the time being, but James, his namesake, was put to death. He had possibly heard of Paul’s prayer – probably for healing – and God had said No to that.

And far from everyone is physically healed.

But if you notice, James does not say that sick people will be healed. He says that sick people will be saved and raised up (5.15)

That is ambiguous language.
It could speak of physical rising up. We think of Peter’s mother in law who was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them.
But it could also speak of the final salvation, the final rising up, the resurrection from the dead, our ultimate hope

Perhaps that is why many parts of the church use oil for anointing just before death. It is the recognition that our final healing comes at our physical death.

And when James does use the word ‘healing’ it is in the context of confessing our sins to each other and prayer for each other. ‘Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed’ (5.16). And so maybe this is speaking more of community healing.

And as I was thinking this through, I wondered whether that is why this letter ends in the way that it does – which, at first reading, seems very strange.

‘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’ (5.19)

People say that James is all about works and not about faith.

But at the very end, and in quite an abrupt way, James focusses on what really matters.

Yes, God wants us to know physical well-being. And we are to pray for physical healing.

But he wants more than that for us.

He wants us to be a people at peace: at peace with each other and at peace with God.
He wants us to be filled with his wisdom – that wonderful wisdom he speaks about in James 3.17, so that we are people who are pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
He wants us to be peacemakers who produce an amazing harvest of righteousness that flows out of our peace (if you want to do a further study of James, look at how he uses the word harvest and crops. It is fascinating).
He wants us to do the good works which flow from our faith.
He wants us to be prayerful
He wants us to be honest with each other, merciful with each other, right with each other.

And what he really wants is that we might stick closely to the truth, ‘the law of liberty’, that we hold on to it and persevere even through suffering, that we hold onto the promises of God and our hope of eternal life, and that we love each other enough to pray for them, to challenge and to care, to welcome and draw people back into the community of faith – however costly it is for us.

And he wants that one day, we will be raised up.

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