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?