After 5 chapters full of good advice and exhortation about the life of the community of Christ and the desired behaviour of individual Christians, James has come to the final verses of his letter. He finishes with an exhortation to pray, something not uncommon to other New Testament epistle writers. Again the focus is on the community and the behaviour of individuals within that community.
Are any of you suffering? Pray, says James. The suffering referred to the suffering of persecution. Not to be responded to with impassive acceptance of the inevitable, but with prayer. Actively bringing before God the distress people find themselves in. Actively sharing it with Him to find support and inspiration to persevere in times of trouble.
Are any of you cheerful? They should praise. As in the bad times, in the good times Gods nearness should be sought as well. Because sharing joy will double it, as shared grief will alleviate the pain.
That is the first advice. Prayer is for sharing with God whatever takes place in your life. Be it good or bad. Whether youre on top of the world or feeling very low, to seek Gods closeness in every state of mind .
Next James moves on to another occasion where prayer is recommended, but it is not quite in the same way as before:
Any of you sick? They should call for the elders ..
Not first of all to God, but to the community!
Sickness a condition that, in contrast to hardship as a consequence of persecution is regarded as something that can be elevated by and within the community of Christ.
Now this little bit goes back to chapter 2 and there is a catch as well. In Chapter 2 James has written about elders that think they are too good to mix with the ordinary people in the congregation. Elders that keep themselves aloof from those who they imagine are in lower segments of congregational life. Using the congregational network for their own advancement in society only.
It is those same elders that are to be summoned when somebody is ill, pray over them and anoint them with oil. In other words: do some hands on work with the sick of the congregation.
This would not have gone down well with these elders. Sick people were treated with suspicion in those days. Some thought that who fell ill must have committed some dreadful sin and was therefore best to be avoided. Also people tended to be afraid of the sick, afraid to catch some of what the other person had come down with. In a world where little was known about the mechanics of illness, sick people not an attractive place to find oneself. So people tended to stay away from illness and sick people as much as they could.
This connection of sickness and sin is not as strange as it may seem at first sight. We do a very similar thing when we connect falling ill with lifestyle, with the environment, or with psychological problems.
And about people withdrawing from those who are ill because they feel it might touch them too: Every person that has ever suffered from a serious illness will be able to tell you that people will start to avoid you once the bad diagnosis gets out, that people stay away. First of all because they do not know what to do or say. But also because they dont like to be close to a person that is ill or suffering. The irrational fear that somehow sickness and death might transfer itself still very much alive.
So, even though we, with modern medicine have learned to look at illness in a completely different way to the people that lived in the time of James, and even though we understand a lot more about how illness really works, even in our society people will often become ostracised after theyve fallen ill.
In James view that should not happen in a Christian Community. Those who are ill should receive extra attention, be surrounded by prayer and care. And those who are leaders in the community should be the first to show their faces and be of help.
Again: Those elders who have been so severely told off in Chapter 2 for keeping their distance to the "lowly" in the congregation did probably not like this message at all. This particular exhortation again not only a summons to individual people to look after one another, but also an encouragement for the Christian community to hold together. To bring together rich and poor, high and low, ill and healthy because they are all in equal measure part of the body of Christ. The rich, high and healthy summoned to look after the poor, low and sick. With their hands very literally on, administering oil, holding those who are ill and in pain.
That is more difficult than it may sound to you who are, after all, part of a fairly homogenous congregation where everybody is fairly well washed and cleanly dressed. For James elders it probably meant they had to touch people they would in normal society not have come anywhere near to, pray for people they would normally not even have talked to because the social distance between them was just too large.
I still very vividly remember the time I was asked to lay hands on a woman who lived well out of the boundaries of polite society, her house a smelly mess of unwashed laundry and dishes, her body covered in sores. And how difficult it was not to recoil. It is that kind of distance we are talking about here. Although, even when it concerns somebody we know and care about it might be difficult to pray with them, lay hands on them, anoint them even, because we are so used to keeping our distance and not coming near.
Prayer, touching one another is intimate, an intimacy that is open to abuse and that some people only for that reason draw back from. James tells us though that it is important, important because it brings healing. Important because through our closeness we can bring some of Gods closeness near to each other.
The confessing of sins is something that is very closely attached to that. James, by speaking about illness and sin in one breath indicates that they have everything to do with each other. Sin is illness, in the sense that it is something that prevents us from being whole and healthy. Guilt something that can deeply disturb and spoil our lives, to the point of being sick with it. It is another thing we should not shrink away in each other when we face God.
As for illness there is healing available in sharing the load and bringing it before the Lord. A raising up of body and spirit.
Healing not only a physical healing, but even more importantly a healing of the soul. The word used for healing here suggesting a meaning where the healing of the soul is more important and goes before the healing of the body.
With the story of Elijah James calls his readers not to underestimate the power of prayer. Elijah, human just like us, managed to close the very heavens for 3 ½ years by prayer!
Prayer is a very powerful instrument given to the community of Christ to healing, bringing together, supporting and sharing. It will help purify the community from sin and division, alleviate the pain of suffering and feelings of guilt. It will pull down boundaries and involve and include when it is practised by all for all. Last but not least it will heal, sometimes with a miraculous and mind boggling strength, sometimes more slowly and unobtrusively.
Practising prayer is calling God close in whatever befalls us, bringing before him suffering and joy, illness and health, sin and forgiveness. Some of that we can bring before him directly, some of it, says James, should be brought to him by the community.
Sharing helps, be it with God or with one another. Prayer helps, be it the support of the almighty or the closeness of another human being interested and involved in what befalls us. It is most powerful when both of these are brought together.