We have come to the end of ten weeks of exploration of a letter from the brother of Jesus, a man named James. The teachings of James at times contained harsh, rigid, and blunt warnings to the first followers of Jesus. At other times, James’ teaching offered encouragement to those who were trying to live faithfully. Overall, James was addressing real problems being experienced by real people as they came together in the collective of the institution, we call church. We need James’ teachings today because James was calling on the Christians to recognize that a key element of life was to live with a new sense of community founded in God’s victory over sin and death evidenced by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus. In living out that life, James made clear Christianity is not a “go it alone” life. Christianity is a community lifestyle. Honoring God is not done in secret. Honoring God occurs in living our lives in a new family setting of brothers and sisters in Christ. And one of things we come to realize, and James focused very much on this point, is that siblings, brothers and sisters, do not always naturally get along. Afterall, we see that the very first sibling relationship of Cain and Abel ended in Abel’s murder. The idea of a Christian community does not come naturally to us. It comes to us supernaturally through Jesus.
So as James concluded his letter, it appears James wanted his readers to take on the best sense of community as possible, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that Jesus came to establish, gave his life for, and arose from the dead to give hope to. Now, James was not trying to paint a picture that following Jesus meant everything would be easy and joyful all the time. That is not real. James was saying that life even for the follower of Jesus will have its difficulties. There will be times of suffering and times of joy. And the boundary that separates joy and suffering can be terrifyingly thin. Last week, Becky and I sat with some parents who have lost children to death. One mother shared that she had been with her adult son on a Thursday. It was a good day. At the end of the day, she and her son went to their respective homes. They had made plans for Friday and Saturday. Sadly, Friday did not come for her son. He died peacefully seated on the couch watching television. This is reality of life. It is a mixture of suffering and joy often with a very thin boundary between them.
James began to confront the reality of life in the Christian community and the thin boundaries we face. James wrote, “13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” James’ understanding of following Jesus in this life was simple. His formula was: in trouble, pray; in joy, praise. Prayer and praise were and are the appropriate response to trouble and joy. Prayer and praise are two forms of communication with God. Prayer is our way of setting out our dependence upon God for compassion and mercy to be extended in our times of trouble. Praise is our expression of joy in knowing our God will listen and has been and will be present in our life.
Prayer and praise say a lot about our relationship with God. If either prayer or praise or both are missing in our life, it would suggest our relationship with God needs repair. James said earlier in his letter, “You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:2b-3a). James was expressing that his readers’ relationship with God was in need of repair because genuine prayer and praise were absent.
Now there can be a temptation by some to make prayer too complicated or too formal and mechanical. I read an article the other day stating that there are nine different types of prayer. There is prayer of intercession, supplication, faith, corporate, in the spirit, thanksgiving, confession, dedication, and imprecation or curing someone. The article said each prayer had its own format. I would find it exhausting to remember the details of each form of prayer and a source of concern as to whether I had used the “proper” format for the purpose. Jesus said pray. James said pray. The Gospel message is simple; just talk to God and if you ask for anything, do so with right motives regardless of the specific reason you are praying. Do not make it complicated. Just pray. In case you were wondering, I read another article on the seven forms of praise. Each again reason for praise carried with it a specific purpose and format. Jesus said praise. James said praise. The Gospel message again is simple; just praise God for his compassion, mercy, and provision. Do not make it complicated. Just offer praise.
Now James suggested that when we pray to God, we need not go it alone. Prayer can and should be a corporate exercise as well. James wrote, “14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” James encouraged his readers, now you and me, to make use of the community of brothers and sisters and invite them into our prayers for our troubles. James said we should bring the elders in when someone is not well. The term “elders” here means the leaders of the church. Inviting the leadership of the church is intended to bring the full weight of the church to support those who are sick. Involving the elders means people who have the strength to pray can do so. Involving the elders also means the answer to the prayer may have already been provided through the community of brothers and sisters called church.
Allow me to offer an illustration. Tony Campolo is a well-known American preacher. Some years ago, Tony was invited by a Christian group to speak at their annual conference. On the day of the conference, the master of ceremony gave Tony a glowing introduction and then asked Tony to lead the group in a prayer that God would provide the funds for the orphanage this group financially supported. Tony made his way to the pulpit and considered how best to pray. Tony looked around and realized the people in this group were financially stable, with a few appearing to be wealthy. When Tony arrived at the microphone, he paused for a moment, and then said, “I will not lead this group in prayer.” Tony continued, “I will not pray that God would make the funds available for this orphanage because God has already answered that prayer. In this very room is enough money for the orphanage and before I begin speaking we are going to take a collection.” A few people chuckled at this amusing thought. Tony said, “I am not kidding.” Taking a breadbasket from the table, Tony said, “I am taking all the money out of my wallet and donating it to the orphanage. I am now going table by table and asking each of you to do the same; empty your wallets of all cash into the basket.” Tony went table to table and took up an offering. When it was counted, there was more money than the orphanage needed for the year. Tony then gave his prepared remarks to the group. That group never invited Tony to return.
Bringing the elders into our prayers brings the weight and power of the living body of Christ to bear down upon our sickness, whatever form that may be expressed. God can use the living body of Christ to lift the sick but only if the body is willing and engaged in moving.
James then went on to say that in community, we need to be honest with one another and seek accountability from one another. James said, “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:15b-16). Sin causes wounds within families, churches, and nations. Sin is a wound that at best will leave scar tissue and at the worst will allow infection into the spiritual body. Confession, disclosure of sin, frees us, cleans out the wound, and opens the possibility of reconciliation with others. When we confess our sins, we open ourselves up to God and to restoration with others so that we can have a new future. Confession is to be about building the future.
Confession is hard because we must trust in the person to whom we are confessing, and we must confess with proper motives. Often our motives for sinning get in the way of our confessing. A learned pastor wrote, “We sinners are so backwards that we try to justify ourselves by some condition which preceded the sin. Motives console us.” What does this pastor mean by that? Ever hear the words come out of your mouth or have someone say to you, “I am sorry that I yelled at you, but you made me angry when you said…” We have confessed with improper motives by justifying our actions as a natural response to the actions of the person to whom we are confessing. The confession then becomes an instrument to accuse. That learned pastor completed his though this way, “It isn’t some preliminary cause, some motive before sin that justifies me, but rather the forgiveness of Christ which meets my repentance after the sin.” Forgiveness comes, reconciliation comes, healing comes after we repent.
James then concluded with this touching thought, “19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” If we wander from the truth we are at risk. The term wander means to aimlessly move from place to place or in this case, from one belief to another. James knew something about being aimless. James lived many years with Jesus and did not see who Jesus was. James listened to Jesus and thought he was insane. James tried to get Jesus to do things that we either not proper in time or place. James was aimless in his pursuit of God. Then something remarkable happened. Jesus was killed on the cross and buried. I do not doubt that James grieved his brother’s death. Sorrow had entered James’ life. Then just days later came the word, “Jesus had risen from the grave. Jesus was alive.” Sorrow gave way to joy. While the boundary between joy and sorrow is thin so too is the boundary between sorrow and joy. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of joy for all humanity and reshapes our understanding of sorrow and joy. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate act of creating new individuals for a new community.
You and I are part of that new community. We need to pray for one another. We need to bring the full weight of the church community down upon the problems we face and to be used by God to lift one another up. This is the will of God. Jesus said, ““Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Let us live in a community peace as brothers and sister. Amen and Amen.
 Wagerin, Walter, Reliving the Passion, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1992), 46.