What is the one thing that keeps us coming back to church and back to God? I think it is prayer. When I pray, and especially in a deliberate prayer time, I offload what is on my mind, and I know the burden will be lifted or at least supported. Prayer is our pressure release valve. We can tell God anything, and believe that he listens and accepts what he hears.
We have been spending several weeks with readings from the letter of James. He has been writing to us about practical aspects of the Christian life, how to live, how to be wise. He has told us of our responsibilities as followers of Jesus. He has told us that we should listen to the word of God and do what it says; that we should treat everyone the same, no matter whether they are rich or poor; that we should show our faith by what we do, and control what we say; that we should obey God and seek humility. All of these things are wisdom for the good life that we should want to follow as God’s people.
And now, just about at the end of his letter, James turns to the topic of prayer. Because prayer is an essential part of the good life that is seeking wisdom.
James says that people generally fall into one of three situations. There are those who are in trouble, there are those who are happy, and there are those who are sick. I think there are probably more types than these, but I’m trying to follow James’ thinking. He has something for each of the three types to do.
Those who are in trouble should pray. There is nothing surprising about that - I guess most of us are sending up arrow prayers every day. One of my most desperate arrow prayers had to do with my very first interview with my bishop just after I was ordained. I was driving to the interview at his house, and I was very nervous. I didn’t want to be late and make a poor impression. But I set off with only a paper map that covered the whole city on one page. And I didn’t know his address, only his suburb. How dumb was that? I reckoned his house, called Bishopscourt, had to be one of the biggest in his suburb. I remember I was praying in pure panic mode once I reached his suburb. In spite of my carelessness, I made it on time. When we are in trouble, as James says, we should pray.
James says the second type of people are those who are happy - they should sing songs of praise. Now I know not all of us like to sing. But just listening to Christian music, whether it's old or new, ancient or modern, can lift our spirits. The words and music remind us of God. In our human weakness we need lots of such reminders. Someone else has said, the person who sings prays twice. Meaning that a song comes from deep inside, where the Holy Spirit makes her home in us, and the song goes out to God just as well as a prayer.
Then James comes to his third type, those who are sick. For them, for us, he has very specific advice. They should send for the elders of the church to pray over them. This is maybe the most unnatural thing for most of us to do. I know that when I am sick, I usually don’t want to see anybody. Please stay away, I cannot make the effort. I think in my sickness there is also usually an element of self-pity and fear, especially if my problem is quite serious.
James says the elders, meaning the church leaders, are to come and pray and anoint the sick person with olive oil. There are two things going on there. The second is the use of olive oil: in the ancient world it was widely used for healing. The first is that sickness is an opportunity to show the compassion of Christ to our Christian sisters and brothers, or anyone for that matter. James takes sickness out of the private and into the love that is present in the Christian community. To touch the sick person with the laying on of hands is to be a channel of God’s love directly and personally.
Then James makes his most extraordinary statement:
The prayer offered by those who have faith will make the sick person well. The Lord will heal them. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
This is the most difficult thing for us in the 21st century. Because all of us know someone whose prayer of faith to be healed was never apparently answered with a recovery. My first experience of this was when I was 20. My first ever hospital visit to anyone was to my aunt who had cancer. I remember her suffering greatly distressed me. Because of my age, everything still revolved around me, and I did poorly at reaching out in love to my aunt.
James is calling for a more mature faith, one that reaches out in love to the suffering of others. It fits with the gospel call that we deny ourselves and take up our cross. The touching and anointing with oil become more than just symbols - they become a channel for the love of Christ for the sick person.
For the longest time in church history, the church seems to have coped with miracles not happening by only using the prayer of anointing when someone was about to die. It was called extreme unction. But this practice completely ignored what James was saying. James and his church believed that the healing ministry of Jesus was continuing through them. Healing prayer for each other is naturally a part of life and living in community. So now the church offers prayer and anointing at any time in a person’s life, just as Jesus offered his touch and prayer to all sorts and conditions of people.
I believe here at St Mary Mag that in the past you have had such prayer opportunities. I believe you already know about prayer and laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. We keep holy oil locked up there in the aumbry box in the wall. But it ought to be brought out and used.
Prayer and laying on of hands with anointing can be for whatever challenge we may be facing, any kind of challenge, but especially with sickness. God will answer the prayer according to his perfect will. God answers prayer, but often we don’t see or accept the answer. The cross we bear in our humanity is to be able to pray as Jesus prayed in the garden on the night of his betrayal: let this cup pass from me; but not my will, but yours be done. We leave it to God to answer as he wills. The prayer itself is an assurance of hope that God is at work, according to his will. And that we stand together under the cross of Christ in the presence of suffering.