Over the last several weeks we have focused our attention on the letter of James, the brother of Jesus and the elder at the church in Jerusalem. Try to imagine what it must have been like to be one of Jesus younger brothers… One of several siblings who were not sure of who he was until after His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead. Envy and jealousy frequently run through the fabric of family dynamics. There was certainly extra opportunity for those feelings to grow toward Jesus as his siblings felt increasingly self-conscious around him. Their own selfish motives and behaviors would have been exposed in contrast to their brother’s own patience and His lack of self-serving interest.
James would carry a memory from his young adult years of challenging their older brother to leave Galilee where he had been teaching and healing and instead go up to Judea and “make something of yourself” if you really want to gather a following! John notes their words in his gospel account in chapter 7, verse 4 “… No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.”
Their older brother Jesus would have been without peer in intellect and wisdom. He was astounding temple rabbis by age 12 (Luke 2:43, 47). When swapping family stories it would have been hard to match a star appearing at your brother’s birth! Familiarity breeds contempt, especially where family pride is concerned. It was part of the cross that Jesus bore not only at Calvary, but throughout his life. In Matthew’s gospel we hear these words from the lips of our savior: “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”… (Matt 13:57)
But James, now speaking as the elder at the church at Jerusalem was changed by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his older brother! What a testament to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit as James refers to his brother as “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” in James 2:1.
And so today we pick up the story today in James chapter 5. Here he emphasizes the value of community, especially in response to suffering – our own as well as others’. James helps us understand the role of prayer in a world where Beautiful and Terrible things can and do happen, as well as the importance of leaving judgmental attitudes behind.
Stories about the mustard seed have woven their way into different faith backgrounds. You are probably familiar with the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30, where Jesus compared the kingdom of God and the way the gospel spreads to a tiny mustard seed that grows. Matthew also includes Jesus’ reference to a mustard seed in referencing the power of a tiny faith that moves large obstacles… even a mountain! There’s a story in the Buddhist tradition about a mustard seed as well, and it goes like this:
A young mother has a son who is her only child. This toddler was the light of her life. The boy became ill and died, and the young mother was so distraught that she clasped the child’s body to her chest and refused to bury him. Many tried to console her, she insisted that there had to be a cure for death, and that requiring a mother to give up her only child was too much to ask. Someone suggested she speak with the philosopher Buddha who might know of a special herb that could restore life, so the grieving mother went to see him.
“Please tell me, dear teacher, how I might cure my grief and raise my boy to life,” she begged. “I can make a tea for that,” he told her, “but it requires a very special ingredient.” “Tell me, dear sir, and I will get it for you,” she pleaded. “I must have a few mustard seeds,” he said, “but they have to come from a home that has never known loss or suffering.”
“I’ll find them!” she said, and she began to visit each home in all the nearby villages to find one that had never known loss or suffering and obtain a few mustard seeds to make the special tea. At each home she visited, she asked about their difficulties and sorrows. One home had lost a beloved spouse, another a parent. The next homes had lost grandparents, favorite aunts and uncles, even pets. They had suffered crippling disease, loss of crops, and hunger. The grieving young mother sat with each one and listened to their stories, sometimes sharing her own story of losing her son. After she had visited each home, she found that there was no one who was unaffected by suffering. The mother buried her son in the forest and went back to see the philosopher. “Do you have the mustard seeds?” he asked her.
“I visited every home to see if there were any mustard seeds in those homes untouched by suffering,” she said. “I found plenty of mustard seeds, but there were no homes that were without suffering and loss. What I found in the midst of their suffering was comfort for my own grief as well as comfort I could offer them because I had suffered, too.”
Through the ploy of the mustard seed search the grieving mother identified with the pain of others and understood that suffering and loss are a part of living in this world. In each of our own lives, we have been privileged to witness the power of faith. And we have also been privileged to recognize the power that comes from our surrendering to what is – accepting God’s no… or perhaps His, “Not Yet”.
As American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says in his definition of what God’s grace looks like in the world, “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
As Christians, we wonder about our role in being “with” people as God’s hands and feet. Our scripture reading from James 5:13-20 helps us understand our role as participants in extending God’s grace and comfort to ourselves and to others. Let’s read it together:
James 5:13 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.
What can we notice about this passage? First we gather its context. Our passage falls near the end of a book written to encourage God’s people to live together in peace, supporting each other and refraining from the usual worldly attempts at domination, including favoritism and lying. This last section offers practical ideas for how we can live together and support each other in a world that is often filled with difficulties.
In verses 13-14: We see that suffering is a part of life. “Are any among you suffering?” The emotional intent of the word translated suffering (kakos) refers not just to the persecution the early church endured, but also negative life events in general. The question does not label those who are suffering as “bad” or “deserving” of their difficulty. The verse simply goes on to suggest that prayer, as a communal exercise, can be an encouragement during tough times. The wording translated “cheerful” refers to an inner self that is doing well and is at ease. When things are “cheerful” or going well, we offer praise by telling someone about God’s love for them, acknowledging God’s grace in the beauty and blessings that are often ours without any intervention from us.
Verse 14 recommends asking for prayer if one is sick, including being anointed with oil. Once again, prayer and especially prayer for healing is not a one-person, solitary activity. Olive oil to anoint with was not always available to the poorest of Christians, and so James may be emphasizing the need for wealthier Christians to make oil (known for its health building properties), more available to those who could not afford it.
When we come to the first part of verse 15, it might be tempting to believe that it is our faith through prayer that saves the sick. However, we all can think of at least one time when we prayed for someone to be healed, and they weren’t. Our experience in this world of “beautiful and terrible things” is that sometimes healing happens and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no “formula” that offers a guarantee. And this is part of the mystery of the way God moves in our world. It’s as if James and other biblical writers wanted to emphasize that the process was more important than the outcome. Praying for one another, comforting one another, and offering support are what we can do. They are how we participate in God’s grace as it is expressed here on earth. Rather than thinking “what’s the use?” when praying for healing or deliverance from difficulty, we see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus as we minister to those who are hurting. Whether or not healing comes, the person who is prayed for feels loved and supported. The mystery of healing is not ours to control, but building loving relationships falls within our domain and responsibilities. We learn to comfort each other with the same comfort we have received. The Apostle Paul writes:
1 Cor 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
The last part of v. 15 can also be confusing, “and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” It almost sounds as if sin and a particular illness are connected. But if we stop to think about it, we can all think of instances where illness just happens. And what about the bystander who catches your cold (or virus) by standing next to your sneeze in the grocery line? Assigning blame is never productive or helpful, especially to the person who is suffering. The second part of v. 15 is closely tied to v. 16 in that James encourages us to “confess [our] sins to one another.” The idea of prayer and confession being closely linked is not a new one. How can you pray for someone if they are not being honest and authentic about their struggles? However, one must use discretion and approach the practice of confession with caution, as not every Christian is able to shoulder another person’s struggles. We all at times have more to bear than we have capacity for, and it is not fair to ask someone who is already weighed down to support our struggle, too. Consulting with a church pastor, a licensed counselor, or therapist are all appropriate steps to take, depending on the issue.
At the end of v. 16, James is acknowledging the power of communal prayer while emphasizing that our own personal relationship with God must not be neglected. Unless we are centered and clear about who we are in Christ, we lack the depth of connection we need to effectively intercede on behalf of others.
In verses 17-18 James reminds us of Elijah’s prayer as an example of asked and answered prayer. While it seems straightforward, it could also make us feel hopeless and discouraged when our own prayers are not answered in the way that we had hoped. Elijah’s calling as a prophet to all of Israel is not the same as yours and mine today. God doesn’t change, but the roles that individual men and women play in the grand scheme of a coming Kingdom among us in the person of Christ does change things! When we remember that our perspective is very limited, it helps us to see that the “no” answers or the seemingly unanswered prayers often end up holding a greater meaning than we knew at the time.
Sheri Salata has written a book called The Beautiful No: And Other Tales of Trial, Transcendence, and Transformation, and in it, she writes about her life in hindsight, noting how closed doors often led her to another path, ultimately leading her to become the producer of the Oprah TV show. If we think about it, we’ve all had our own “beautiful no’s” when a closed door seemed life-shattering but eventually turned out. Even Country singers like Garth Brooks have captured this wisdom in his song lyrics, “I thank God for unanswered prayer!” Sometimes “beautiful no’s” won’t make sense during our lifetime, and it’s there that we trust in God’s goodness and love, knowing we are treasured and held in his everlasting arms.
In verses 19-20: James now offers encouragement to “bring back a sinner from wandering.” Now “Wandering” is a term that can be quite subjective, so caution and discernment should be exercised, with a nonjudgmental approach always present. Remember Jesus words about going after the speck in our brother’s eye while missing the beam sticking out of our own! Due to human nature’s temptation to compare oneself with others, we have a proclivity to minimize our own flaws when considering others’ choices and struggles.
James is reminding us to love and support each other. Listening to a sinner is often the love quotient that helps them find their way back. We can stand by and support the person without supporting the behavior or attitude. We can offer advice when it is asked. The best advice is that which is asked for (not simply offered) and spoken with a humble and caring attitude. Our nature drives us toward a Savior complex. Let Jesus be their savior and don’t usurp His name or power. We all wander more than we are willing to admit. Sometimes sharing our own wandering helps. Even as the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, so sometimes our faith journeys take a more circuitous than direct path. Being transparent with each other helps everyone grow together. Our own journey allows us to share that God is faithful as our faith evolves and grows.
In applying James instruction we can, FIRST:
- See prayer as a way to build community, not just a solitary activity. James encourages us to pray for one another and be available to offer support as we are able. Building relationships is the goal, and prayer is one avenue Christians can use to meet one another in the midst of suffering to offer support. SECOND:
- See prayers for healing as an important part of the process of expressing God’s grace on earth, regardless of outcome. We don’t understand why some are healed and some aren’t. What we do understand is that a) every person is precious and loved by God, b) there is nothing we go through that the Father, Son, and Spirit do not endure with us, c) prayer allows us to express love and care for one another. By valuing the process more than the outcome, we can support one another through difficulties. THIRD:
- Maintain a humble, vulnerable, and authentic attitude to ensure effective prayers on behalf of others. Recognizing how far short we fall while still knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are loved helps us keep an open and aware perspective. It makes us open and honest about our struggles so that we may engage and support one another.
Even as the grieving mother in the Buddhist mustard seed story learned that suffering and loss are best handled in community, so our scripture passage in James emphasizes the importance of prayer as a means of building strong relationships and expressing God’s grace in this world where “beautiful and terrible things” happen. While we can’t always explain why terrible losses and suffering occur, we recognize our limited human perspective and trust in God’s continuous presence and goodness, knowing we’re supported by our community of faith.