Sunday, September 30, 2012

Faith and Prayer (James 5:13-20)

Heinz Chapel
James 5:13-20
“Faith and Prayer”

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 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. 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. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

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.”

“Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to
hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire
or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy
to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus
Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

I don’t pray enough.  I’ll admit it.  Passages like the one we read from the Epistle to James make me realize this all the more.  As I was preparing for the sermon this week, I began to wonder if I even believe in the power of prayer.  I began to wonder if the reason why I don’t make prayer a priority in my life is because I’m scared of being disappointed.  Afraid of getting my hopes up, only to have them dashed.

Maybe this is true for some of you as well.  Maybe someone that you loved was terribly sick and you prayed—day and night—that God would heal her, but she never got better.  She was never healed.  Or maybe—like me—you really wanted something, and it was even something good—unlike the unrealistic, self-centered prayers we throw up on occasion—but it was denied you.  At moments like these some doubt the existence of God, others—like me—begin to doubt the efficacy of prayer, and so we don’t put that much into it because we don’t want to get our hopes up.  We simply don’t trust that it works.

Well, this passage from James—the very end of his letter—has something to say to people like me.  To those of us who’ve lost our faith in the power of prayer.  To those of us who wonder if God really hears us and desires good for his people.

The passage opens with a call for us to pray.  Are you suffering this morning?  Are you cheerful?  James says pray.  These two generalized states are meant to encapsulate any state that we may be in.  Therefore, much like St. Paul, James thinks that we should “pray without ceasing.”
For me I find it very comforting that James includes the suffering in his exhortation.  So much of my experience in church is that there is little room for such people.  I’ve often-times gotten the impression that we’re supposed to be on the up-and-up at all times, and that if you’re not, something must be wrong with you and your relationship with God.  You probably don’t have enough faith.

But James is a realist.  He’s writing to a church that’s undergoing economic oppression.  He knows that they are suffering and he knows that those who are suffering can’t just lift themselves out of the pit by their own will power.  Recognizing that pain and suffering are inevitable this side of glory, he calls those experiencing it to pray.  To share their pains with their Lord who was himself intimately acquainted with human pain. (The same Lord who can take that pain away if he wills it).

Not only does James say that we should pray when we are suffering or cheerful, but also when we are sick—when we are not well.  He goes so far as to say that those who have illnesses should call upon the elders, the leaders of the church, and have them pray over the sick.  As they pray they are to anoint the sick with oil and this is significant because anointing with oil is very common in the Old Testament.  It symbolized the setting apart of a person or thing for God’s special attention.  Following this logic, James is saying that by being anointed with oil the sick person is being set apart through the elder’s prayers for God’s special attention.
Up to this point all of this is fine and good with me.  It's the next verse that often causes me to question my faith in prayer—let alone James’ sanity.  For what does James say is the outcome of the prayer of anointing?  Verse 15 reads: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.”  This sounds like James is promising an unconditional positive response to the prayer for the sick.  And yet I’ve seen people prayed for in just this way and not get better.
Some Christians say that the reason these people do not recover is because of a lack of faith, either on the part of the sick person or the elder.  And they point to this passage to prove it.  They say, “James writes what he means.”

But this type of attitude just makes it worse.  We begin to blame our suffering friend, or our pastors or priests, or ourselves for the tragedy.  We begin to wonder, “How much faith is enough faith?”  And after trying to conjure up whatever amount that may be, or trying to coerce it in others, we begin to realize that faith is not created out of thin air.  No matter how hard we might try, we simply can’t conjure it up on our own.

I don’t know about you, but if anything, this type of attitude ends up hurting what faith I do have.  When I was younger I used to recite a mantra as I prayed.  I would say to myself, “I believe she will be healed, I believe she will be healed, I believe she will be healed,” thinking it would produce the faith necessary for God to smile upon me and answer my prayer.  Unfortunately, after about fifteen seconds of this a nagging feeling of doubt would creep in and take hold and my faith would reduce to all time lows.  I soon realized that I was powerless to produce faith.  The advice to “just have more faith” only made things worse.

But not only is this type of attitude unhealthy for what faith we already have, in addition to that—and thankfully for you and me—this type of approach also ignores some key biblical evidence.  First, several texts make it clear that it is not always God’s will to heal his people of their diseases.  In II Corinthians, Paul writes about “a thorn in the flesh,” “a messenger from Satan” given to torment him, and while we don’t know what this thorn was, we do know that Paul appealed time and time again to have it removed, but it was not.  I do not think it was denied Paul because of a lack of faith on his part.

Many of you are familiar with the Old Testament character, Job.  In the book that bears his name we find a protagonist who is above reproach, who calls out to God to rid him of his deep suffering.  Only God does not take it away right away for his own reasons that even we—the readers—do not completely understand.  But while we may not know why God would allow Job to continue in his suffering, we do know one thing—it was not because Job lacked faith.
Second, this type of attitude—“just have more faith, man”—also ignores the biblical insistence that human faith is ultimately in the hands of God.  The Scriptures testify to the fact that faith is a gift.  It is not something earned or conjured up.  It is something that God must inspire in us.  This means that “we must ultimately recognize that our prayers will not be accompanied by the faith that will bring immediate healing unless God inspires that faith in us.”[1]  And so all you and I can really do is pray that he give us more faith.  All you and I can do is pray that he give us faith in the power of prayer.
And with that I’m tempted to end the sermon.  I’ve successfully (or at least I think I’ve successfully) pointed out the flawed beliefs of others.  I should probably leave it at that.  But to do that would be dishonest.  To do that would only prove that I’m very good at showing how someone else’s reading of a text is wrong.  It does not mean I’ve taken the text seriously.  It does not mean I’ve allowed the text to have its way with me.
So while it is true, the biblical witness is clear that God does not always heal in the case of an elder’s prayer accompanied by the anointing of oil, it is at the same time clear that we must hold out this power to heal that God has invested in the prayers of the elders.  While I’m usually quick to point out inadequate readings of this text, that is, that faith equals healing, giving up our faith in the power of prayer—whether explicitly or functionally—is not an adequate response either.

For those of you—like me—who don’t put much stock in this prayer business, this text is meant as an exhortation.  We are encouraged to participate in such prayer and to hope fervently that through it God will accomplish healing.  Sure we must also acknowledge the limitations inherent in any prayer this side of glory, emphasizing that the result is ultimately in God’s hands and that we cannot, by emotional exercises, generate the faith for healing apart from God’s sovereign work to that end.[2]  But we are also to know that there is a great power to prayer; a power that I don’t know if I will ever truly understand.
And we are not to be afraid by that climactic verse, which reads, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”  When James writes “righteous” here he is not talking about supersaints.  He is not saying that the power of prayer is limited to St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and Tim Tebow.  No, James’ “righteous person” is an ordinary member of God’s people—one who is made righteous not by his or her own deeds, but by the deed of Christ.  By referring to Elijah as the example in the next two verses, not as the great prophet of God, but as “a human being like us,” James makes this point especially clear.

So if James is writing about ordinary Christians and not supersaints, he is essentially saying that the prayers of all believers are powerful and effective.  He is saying that your prayers are powerful and effective.
So for those of you in this room who—like me—are implicit doubters of the power of prayer, or for those of you who simply don’t pray very much, it is my prayer that God will let this text have its way with you.  That your unbelief would be shattered.  That you would be reminded that we serve a good God who is for us, especially when we suffer pain and illness.  But most especially I pray that your faith in the power of prayer would increase, so that you will come before the Lord regularly and with boldness.
So to echo the collect I read at the beginning of the service, may the God “who is always more ready to hear than we to pray” inspire faith in us, especially in the power of prayer.

[1] Douglas Moo in The Common Lectionary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts. 541.
[2] Ibid.

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