The Prayer of Faith
(Cp 1 Kings 18:41–46)
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 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.
There are many things that can be said about the letter that James wrote to the church. But the most important thing is that James wrote this letter to encourage everyone to build their community. By building their community James insists that we have a responsibility to everyone around us. The community is vital. To James it is more important than anything else, and the community in which he speaks is the Kingdom of God.
We often get this idea that the kingdom of God is some abstract concept to dwells in the future beyond the veil of life, but in the ancient world the kingdom of God was something more tangible. Some believed that the kingdom would be a literal nation or empire, but that is not the kingdom of God in which Jesus spoke of. When Jesus was being questioned by the authorities, he said that his kingdom is not of this world. That is a very important statement, because it is loaded with meaning. Not of this world is alien, or foreign to our understanding. That does not necessarily mean that it is not in the world but that the concept is not to be understood in worldly terms. The gospel, the good news that Jesus spoke about is that the kingdom of God is here. It is all around and in us. Because the kingdom is lives influenced and guided by the very spirit of God. The kingdom, the community, lives lived together directed by the Spirit of God is the most important thing to James. But there is a very important aspect about community, kingdoms, and the church that we must not forget. Each of those concepts require people, none are individual.
James begins this last portion of his letter asking a question, “Are any among you suffering?” To rephrase this question we could say it as this, “Is an individual within the group struggling?” This idea of suffering is very broad, it covers financial struggles, marital struggles, being bullied, enduring persecution and pretty much any other type of problem. Are we aware of the suffering of those around us?
That is the key, are we aware of the struggles of those around us? Are we living life in such a way that we are building relationships with people intimate enough that we can see beyond the masks that so many try to hide behind? This awareness of others is extremely difficult to nurture, because it requires that everyone involved becomes vulnerable to those around them.
We do not want to admit that we struggle because often we see that as weakness. We ourselves do not want to be seen as week so we will hide. The problem with this is sometimes we need help. When I was in school and training for various sports, part of the training involved weight lifting. I know that it does not look like I lifted weights at all but looks can be deceiving. One of the most important things I learned from this is that it is important to lift with others, because if you are struggling you might need a hand to help get you out from under a burden. This idea of suffering or struggles that James is talking about is similar to a person unable to get the weight off of their chest in the weight room. Are we aware? The second most important thing I learned from lifting weights is that you do not just ask anyone to spot for you. You ask someone that you trust, someone that knows how to read your movements and can recognize when you cannot bear the weight alone. You want someone that will encourage you to press on, as you push through the pain. There is a level of trust and vulnerability required.
What happens if we remain unaware? People get stuck under the weight and they stop trying. This is why James says that they should pray. Prayer is like the weight room of spirituality. When we pray we lift the burdens off of our chest, and lay them onto the standard that is sure to hold them. But there is a plurality to James’ message, he does not say he or she, but they. We should pray in isolated places, but there is also a time where we should pray corporately. When people pray together it is like having a spotter who will help you bear the burden.
Next James asks, “Are any cheerful?” and he answers,” They should sing songs of praise.” We should share the burdens and celebrate the blessings and victories together. Those around us need to know that there is hope beyond their struggles. These songs of praise from the cheerful are like the encouraging words that inspire us to push harder through the pain of a situation. They are a light in the darkness.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Again there is a plurality of people. Call the elders. Have them pray, and anoint with oil. I want us to stop there for a moment. All too often we stop with prayer and we forget the second part of this statement, the anointing part. In the ancient world the anointing of people with oil in this sense is to administer medicine. We pray and we also act. We do not just stop with prayer but we take it a step beyond and we use what knowledge and means we have to help them heal. James then encourages us to confess our sins to one another, to pray for one another, so that you (again in the plural sense) may be healed.
There is a great deal of talk about prayer in this passage. Because prayer is where we must begin. Prayer is the foundation of the Christian life. It is the foundation of the sacred rhythm Jesus taught and showed to his disciples. I have encouraged many of us to pray. I have encouraged and taught classes to deepen our life of prayer. I have done this because prayer is where everything starts. Prayer is where we connect to the divine. Prayer is the vessel through which the life giving power of the Holy Spirit flow. Prayer is at the heart of a disciplined life. Without prayer we are not true disciples.
It is through prayer where we become aware of others, and our senses are heightened to the struggles of those around us. And it is in prayer that we are often called to step up and provide assistance. Prayer is conversation and prayer is action. Prayer is listening and waiting to hear how best to respond.
James then tells us of Elijah a man just as us. Elijah was a man of prayer. He prayed fervently that it would not rain. I want us to think about this. Elijah prayed for drought. Elijah prayed for ruin. Why? Because the people were confused. The people were living a life apart from God, they believed that it was through their religious activities to the gods and goddesses that was providing the rain and bounty from the earth. As long as the rains fell they would continue to attribute the grace of God to their sinful actions. So Elijah prayed for disaster. He was aware of the community, he was aware of how their minds worked and where their hearts were. Israel had to suffer so they would come to the point where they were open to hear God’s voice.
Friends we live in a world that is suffering. We live among people who are sick. We live in a community that is struggling. But are we aware of what is really going on around us? We all agree that we live in a world that has turned its back on God, but I ask is that issue only with the world? The church is struggling, it is suffering, and it is sick. There are sins within the church that we must confess and pray about before we will ever be able to recognize God’s blessing. We have chased after things of this world and neglected the kingdom of God. Have we stopped listening? Have we started acting out of our own ambitions? Have we forgotten who we are?
Jesus came to this world not to condemn it but to bring life. He spent his time encouraging people the rest of society wrote off as being not worth the effort. Simple fishermen, traitors, prostitutes, terrorists, the dishonest, the sick, the unclean. He spent his time encouraging them to follow him, and as they followed he taught and showed them how to live a godly life. I ask with a trembling heart, are we following Jesus? Are praying with the suffering? Are we celebrating with the victorious, are we healing the sick and repenting of sins? Scriptures assures us that if we confess, God is faithful and just to forgive sin and cleanse from all unrighteousness. Are we willing to listen to God through prayer and walk with him?
Two Kinds of Wisdom
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 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. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Friendship with the World
4 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 4 Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
“God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
The problem with biblical interpretation and understanding what scripture is saying is that often we do not understand the historical perspective. I say this because these words were written nearly 2000 years ago, and a few things have changed since then. To be a student of scripture we also need to be a student of history. This is even more important when we read the letters that the various apostle have written, because often the letters are referring to historical issues. If we do not read the scriptures though a historical context we can find ourselves misunderstanding what is written.
This historical context if often what causes the controversy surrounding the letter James wrote to the church. As we have contemplated the writings of James over the past few weeks I have highlighted some of the points that often are seen as being contradictory to writings of Paul, because of this James’ letter is not very popular among most in the western church, especially among the protestant variety. I also pointed out that James unlike Paul was primarily writing his letter to people of a more eastern mindset than that of Paul. The eastern cultures placed a higher value on the community over the individual, this community focus is seen in the writings of Paul but he was primarily writing to people who approached spirituality from an individualistic philosophy. The historical context is important because the church emerged from an oriental culture. Oriental because the Hebrew culture from which the first century Jewish community emerged from was remnant that returned to Israel from exile in Persia, and the Persian Empire was an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to India.
The next historical issue we must consider is that Israel or Palestine as the Romans referred to the area, was an area that was disputed, It was at the cross roads of empires, Though Persia was pushed back by the Greeks centuries prior, as the Greek influence waned after the death of Alexander the Great, the Persian influence pushed back to the west. The Magi that we celebrate around Christmas were most likely priest from the Zoroastrian religion which was the dominate faith of Persia. Since Israel was a disputed borderland between the empires war was constantly on their minds. War within and war from without. The Gospels constantly point this out if we look at the historical context. The very fact that Magi from the east came to celebrate the birth of a king, which caused Herod to send troops to Bethlehem to slaughter the innocents shows us this, sure it was that he wanted to protect his kingdom, but his kingdom was under the lordship of Rome and if there was a king under the lordship of Persia living within the borders of Israel it would cause Rome to take a more aggressive stance.
A third historical perspective we must consider is the Jewish nationalism. They desired to be independent from their overlords, they wanted to live again under the theocracy of the priestly kingship of David. This was the source of much of their religious fervor, this nationalistic ideology dominated their spirituality to the point that it overshadowed the true message of the covenant religion that was established by Moses. Their politics controlled their theology, and their theology was based on their politics, leaving little room for the ideas that Jesus presented, and even less for what the apostles continued to preach after the ascension of Christ. This nationalistic theology of the first century Jewish people was not something that the empires of the world enjoyed, it was a threat to the power of the Emperors to the east and the west. And since Rome held control of the land it was a direct threat to them.
When James speaks of wisdom, he is speaking of religious zealotry. He is challenging the political based theology of the religious leaders that were popular around Jerusalem. He challenged them just as Jesus challenged them. As Jesus taught on the hillsides of Judea he would call out the teachings of the Pharisees, saying that they load the people down with laws that they do not hold themselves accountable to. These laws that they were trying to enforce would be laws that most religious leaders would support, because they were dedicated to making the nation a more righteous place. The problem with this sort of legislation is that if the law is not written on the hearts of the people it is an empty law one that does not produce spiritual health but only an illusion of piety.
James challenges these leaders, these leaders were inside and outside of the church. They had this idea that they were going to legislate a righteous nation, but the problem with this is that the people were not righteous. There were conflicting ideas of what was right and what was not causing great instability among the people which lead to the Jewish revolts that eventually lead to the total destruction of Jerusalem. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple of God being leveled just as Jesus predicted, all the work of the religious leaders that were working so hard to make a righteous nation was abruptly stopped. Who is wise?
James did not see the day that Jerusalem fell because the religious leaders that he challenged plotted for his destruction as they did Jesus’. This historical fact just highlights the very things that James taught. The religious leaders were not focused on the heart of their faith but were focused on something else entirely. They were focused on wealth, power, and influence over others. James wrote this letter before is demise saying to them, “who is wise among you?”
The wisdom of which James challenges us to seek is the wisdom of God. To be more specific it is the Spirit of God, or Holy Wisdom. The wise that James challenges us to bring forth are those people that live directed by the Spirit of God in all that they do. And James says that those that live by this wisdom will be revealed to us by their actions, just as the wisdom of the world is revealed.
James says, “If you have bitter envy or selfish ambition in your hearts…this is not wisdom from above but is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” I want us to stop right there for a bit, and remember who he is challenging. This bitter envy that he speaks if much deeper than we think. We can quickly move over this word and not really understand fully what he is talking about. The word that he uses is zeal. This is most often in reference to religious zeal, and this is why James makes so many well-meaning religious leaders mad. Bitter zeal…Selfish ambition…he is speaking about the intent of our religious activity, or more accurately the focus. Bitter zeal is imposing legalities upon others to manipulate control, and selfish ambition is to engage in religious activities for selfish gain. What can God do for me! This type of wisdom is not directed from God because the focus is on ourselves and our desires for control over others. God does not work that way.
James says, “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. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Jesus taught that He is the living water, and those that drink of from him will never thirst again. This is the same idea that James is teaching wisdom from above is first pure like a spring of water bubbling up from the depths of the earth. Fresh, pure, cool and refreshing living water. This concept of living water is one that speaks of grace and blessing. Living water or flowing water a good sign of pure water in ancient times. As long as the water is moving the impurities are washed away. This is why John the Baptist, baptized in the Jordan, because the living water, the flowing water was carrying away your sins washing you and carrying your sins downstream. When the water stops flowing and becomes stagnant problems arise. Moss begins to grow and a stench is released into the air, when we damn the grace of God the same happens to our lives. The water is no longer sweet but bitter, no longer refreshing but putrid.
When we live our lives based on the wisdom of the world instead of seeking the wisdom of God, we damn up the flow of grace. We become bitter and our religious zeal leave those we meet seeking for something else. When we allow the wisdom of the Spirit of God to flow through us something else happens. Our attention is turned away from ourselves and it begins to flow downstream. And as the grace again flows it saturates into the dryness around us filling it with the living water of Christ, and when that is saturated fully it continues to flow.
The letter James wrote so long ago can teach us so much today. We live in a time where there is so much bitterness and selfish ambition all around that it is hard to discern what is right. We look out at the world around us and we have a perception that all is lost, but it is not. People are thirsting for the grace that Jesus has to offer, they yearn for it. But the waters are often tainted so they turn away. James urges us to go back to the very core of the gospel, the kingdom of God is here. It is all around us, just ready to spring forth. But are we letting it flow? This is why Jesus came to live among mankind. To provide the way for redemption and reconciliation, and to show us how to keep the grace flowing. Jesus showed us how to live a life directed by holy wisdom by making it his custom to worship, withdrawing often to pray in the isolated places, and then ministering to the needs of those around him in the community. Worship, prayer and ministry is the prescription to heal the brokenness in our world. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the Love of Christ with other is the only way to allow the grace to flow again and to remove the bitterness so many see in religion. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
As we draw near to God in this time of open worship, let us consider with the assistance of God where our focus truly is. Are we a people that believe that the grace of God can overcome the world or are we being led by bitter zeal? Let us all cleanse our hands and purify our hearts so that the grace of God will flow from us and saturate the world around us.
James 3:1–12 (NRSV)
Taming the Tongue
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
What do people say about you? A simple question that depending on your age, or current circumstance may be something encouraging or devastating. It is ridiculous really how much weight many of place in the words that people speak to and about us. It is ridiculous but we cannot help ourselves. People talk, people listen, we are concerned that maybe what people are hearing might be untrue or even worse the truth we do not want others to see. The spoken word.
How we speak to others and how we speak of others can reveal a great deal about the character of an individual, and even the community in which individuals participate in. Yet do we really consider what the words we speak to those around us are doing?
James the brother of Jesus speaks a great deal about the words that we speak for a reason. The words that people spoke got someone very close to him killed. Have you ever considered that our words could be taken to that level? That concept struck me over the course of this past week. I spent a great deal of time contemplating speech, words, how words can be perceived and how they could be twisted. The spoken word.
All week I have scrolled though news feeds, viewing picture after picture, editorial after editorial of people urging us to remember a day fourteen years ago. It is a day most of us will never forget, a day where the foundations of a mighty nation of people were shaken, a day where we were faced with a very grim reality. How often have we considered what was spoken around that event?
I do not want us to brush this to the side but I want us to consider it fully. That day happened because people spoke words carefully strung together to drive emotional response that may or may not have been true, they spoke these words in such a manner that those who heard the words would not question the validity of what was being said but would believe. People were blamed for the situations that others found themselves in, guilt was professed, a solution was proposed, and promises were made. This was done over the course of a lifetime, and slowly through the use of carefully manipulated words people within a community were moved to such a degree that they felt it was not only permissible but a righteous requirement to kill.
Now on the flip side of the equation, words were also spoken, words that assessed blame, guilt was announced, sentences were carried out and promises were made. Carefully formulated words that were spoken in a tone, manner, and location to move people in such a way that they would feel that it was not only permissible but a righteous requirement to kill.
How many of us have considered how much power the spoken word has over people. The spoken word can encourage an individual to strive for greatness, or it can feed primal instincts of survival. Yet so often words are spoken with little regard. This is why James says that not many of you should become teachers. Last week I said that James was probably the most controversial book of the New Testament and this is just another example of why this controversy is there. For most Christians in the protestant branches of the faith we have an understanding that every person that is a disciple of Christ is a priest of a minister. That every man, woman, and child has the ability and directive to spread the Gospel of Jesus. Especially among the Friends traditions, of which for most of its history did not have an office for a position in the church meeting of Pastor. Because we have a strongly held belief that we are all called to be ministers.
Not all of you should become teachers. I have to admit that this statement does not set well with me, because I firmly believe that if God wants something to be said or done He will empower that person or group of people to act. Because the words did not set well with me, because they challenged my understanding of what I thought to be true, I studied what was going on. I must study because I might have missed something important and it is my responsibility to seek out answers. Does James just come right out and say that not everyone should preach the Gospel? Did James say that there is an ordained office of teacher that we must submit too? The short answer is yes, yes he really did say that, but that is not the total answer.
All too often we fail to fully hear when words are spoken. We catch a part and if the words do not fit well with our preconceived ideas we stop listening and often if we were just able to listen to the second half of a sentence we would have found an explanation for the perceived discrepancy. James says not all of you should be teachers. The word we translate as teacher in the ancient world does not only mean Pastor, even though it is often used in that sense. The word used is probably more clearly understood as skilled master.
In college I took a couple of semester of Taekwondo to fulfill a physical education requirement. I learned a great deal in these classes, I moved up in stature among the community of students, but I am not a skilled master. I should not be a teacher of Taekwondo, because if I were to claim to be a teacher of Taekwondo someone might get hurt because there is much more I would need to learn. I can however assist the master in teaching those that have not yet made it to the same level I am at. If you have ever hired skilled laborers, there are various levels of expertise: apprentice, journeyman, and master. A master plumber, is more skilled than the apprentice because they have spent many hours perfecting their trade and skills. The Master plumber is the one that trains those beneath them and the one that we feel the most confident with. The other levels we probably would not even call. With this in mind not everyone should be considered a skilled master. Does this mean that an apprentice plumber cannot fix a leak in your pipes? Does it mean that a yellow belted Taekwondo student is incapable to defend themselves in a fight? No it simply means that there is more that can be learned from others. Not all of us are master teachers, but we can assist people along their journey to the place where we are.
Why are most of us not able to be teachers? Discipline, or more accurately disciplined speech. I have just illustrated that the spoken word can be used to manipulate people, to move them to do things that they were incapable to do before, this can be either positive or negative depending on the will of those speaking. James says that the tongue can be like a small fire that consumes a forest, or a deadly poison that can become a curse to those that hear. Discipline is key. Fire is not always a threat to the environment, in many ways fire is a necessity for the health of an ecosystem. This is why ranchers and scientists have continued to utilize this primitive tool when managing range lands of the prairies. Fire is also a powerful tool that can be used as a method of controlling unwanted weeds within croplands as well. But we all know fire, when not controlled, is dangerous. At this moment there is currently 1.6 million acres of land being burned by 33 uncontrolled fires in the American west, communities are threatened, families are being displaced, and lives have been lost.
Now let us consider poisons. What is a poison? A poison is a compound that can cause illness or death. These poisons can be naturally occurring or they can be compounds manipulated by man to produce some sort of desired effect. Many things could be poisonous if they are used improperly but under disciplined care many poisons can actually be lifesaving elements. Something as simple as Visine which can be used to lubricate dry eyes if used improperly can cause severer illness, and something like rat poison if used properly can manage cardiovascular disease. So fires can promote or destroy the environment, and chemical compounds can promote or destroy life, how are you using your words?
Not all of us should be teachers, or more accurately not all of us should be considered speech masters. This does not mean that we cannot encourage those around us to follow Christ. It simply means that we should be very aware that we need to have discipline when we speak. One of the most recognizable traditions of Friends worship is that we utilize times of silence to encourage communion with God. During these periods of Silence we not only hope but expect that the Spirit of God will speak and move us as individuals and as communities. This can be a powerfully spiritual experience, but it can also be a place where people can cause great spiritual harm. During those periods of silence no one really knows what might happen, we just wait in spiritual limbo. It can be awkward at times, it can be enriching, it can be rest for your souls, or it can be convicting, and during this time anyone can speak. There is an old proverb that states, “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” I do not know where this comes from, or who originally said it, but it is profound. Just because words are not being spoken does not mean there is a void of concern or activity. But the idea that words should improve the silence points to the fact that what we say should be out of discipline. Or as James says earlier in his letter to the church, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Silence allows the words to settle before they are reacted to, it allows one to consider fully what has been said so that when we respond it is not out of anger but out of the desire to improve. When we are able to listen before we speak and to discipline our speech to improve those around us we can control the burns, instead of causing wild fires. When we are quick to listen and slow to speak we are better equip to administer healing balms instead of poison.
Just as a Taekwondo master spends a lifetime in practice, just as a musician spends years practicing an instrument, just as a doctor spends time in study, and plumbers fine-tuning their skills we must practice the discipline of speech. Jesus taught us this through his life and his ministry. Throughout the scripture we are told that He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues, that he would withdraw to the isolated places to pray, and that he would go out to the community to minister though teaching and healing. This I have often called the Holy Rhythm, but it is simply a life of discipline and devotion. It is no different than a doctor learning their trade, or any other skill humanity has mastered. This holy rhythm is a life devoted to the Kingdom of God. We have incorporated this in our mission as a church to be a people loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Christ with other. This is a call to a different life, a different life style, a lifestyle that does not look at personal gain but community improvement. It is a lifestyle where we listen first and speak only if we can improve those around us, by pointing them to the source of true hope.
As we enter into this time of Holy Expectancy consider the way you have used your words this week. Have they been used to improve those around you, or have they caused harm to the environment? You may also want to ask God how to help you in this area and just sit in the silence until you can improve it with your voice.