Psalm 124 – Had the Lord not been on our side, when our enemies attacked us, we would have been swallowed up.
Psalm 19:7-14 – The law is perfect, pure, better than gold. The commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)
James 5:13-20 – Healing text. Are any of you sick? Elders should pray and lay hands on you.
Mark 9:38-50 – Whoever is not against us is for us.
We are in the final week four of a five-week series on James.
- Listening: James 1:17-27
- Works: James 2:1-17
- Tame the tongue: James 3:1-12
- Conflict: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
- Healing: James 5:13-20
Here is this week’s text (James 5:13-20) in its entirety:
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.
Are any among you suffering? Well, yes. In any gathering of people, there are always quite a few. Pastors know this. We look out over the congregation each Sunday knowing the things they have told us. One family is suffering from alcoholism. Another family from abuse. One family is grieving the loss of a loved one. Another is battling cancer. We must keep in mind that people are often suffering with a host of unspoken maladies. Some are physical, some are mental, some are social, some are spiritual, and some are a combination of any of the above.
Is your church a place of healing? Do people get better here, or is the atmosphere such that things get worse? What is your strategy for being a community of healing? Jesus’ preached the good news of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and carried out a healing ministry in the community. What is your plan for a healing ministry in the community?
They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13)
Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Lutheran Service Book (LSB) are the first Lutheran hymnals/ service books to have a service for healing in the pew edition (ELW p. 276).
Why? What is going on here? Is the Spirit doing something in the church?
Many congregations over the last ten years have been adding healing services either as a part of Sunday morning worship every once in a while or as a separate service after worship or at a separate time. More and more congregations mention healing services in bulletins and newsletters. It seems the crafters of the hymnals are responding to something that the Spirit is already doing in the congregations. As Mark Strobel says, “Rites not only reflect what’s going on in the culture, they also shape the culture.”
Healing rites became almost embarrassing in post-Enlightenment. Western Christianity saw these rites as vestiges of animism and magical religion, reminiscent of incantations and superstitious witch doctor rites. They all but disappeared. So why are they resurfacing?
Perhaps the rising cost of medical care and health insurance have caused us to look at other means of finding health and wholeness. Perhaps the increasingly impersonal way we deal with the end of life has caused us to yearn for a new definition of healing. Whatever it is, we seem to be returning to a more holistic understanding of salvation and reaching out for a high- touch, tactile approach to faith and healing.
Laying on of Hands
In James we read about the way the early church lived out this healing ministry:
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.
James gives us no liturgy. Fortunately ELW does. It’s not complex. It involves prayer, scripture, oil, touch, and prayer.
There is growing evidence that there was widespread use of women as deacons for the anointing of the sick in the first centuries of Christianity, but by the 8th century, the blessing of the oil is only an episcopal function of a nearly all male clergy. Only bishops could bless oil, and only priests could anoint. Lutherans would reject this special “power” for a bishop.
In 1519 Luther wrote A Sermon on Preparing to Die, encouraging the dying to confess, be absolved, receive the sacrament of extreme unction, then die cheerfully. In 1519 Luther still held anointing with oil at the time of death in very high regard. He saw it as a “visible sign” and “promise” of the gospel.
Salvation is complex. It is not just physical; not just spiritual; not just emotional. It involves the whole person. Salvation is shalom: peace and wholeness. Healing is restoration of wholeness. The church offers care not just cure. Jesus offered healing to many of those he encountered. He even raised Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus.
Today, and probably always, illness is isolating. It seems people don’t have time for the sick. At one conference, Martin Marty asked the question, “What do I have to do today that is more important than visiting with my friend who is dying of cancer?”
Liturgy makes us feel less alone. We are drawn into community, a fleeting commodity these days. We experience touch. Music and architecture elevate us. Again Martin Marty: “Elevation is the service of the service.”
Good liturgy induces an altered form of consciousness. Illness does too. Liturgy can disrupt the everydayness of life. Silence is a liturgy of disruption.
Let us not abandon the opportunity to bring healing into people’s lives through liturgy. Let us offer the comfort of Christian community to those who are isolated by illness or hopelessness, that they may know God’s healing grace.
It is interesting that in his manual on Christian living, James included these passages on prayer, anointing of the sick, and confession. Clearly, he sees these as indispensable parts of the Christian way of life.
What is the Good News?
In these passages, James makes a case for prayer, anointing and confession. These are liturgical actions that can bestow comfort and grace. These are actions by which we invite the healing grace of God to be present through one another. Something always happens when we do. It doesn’t mean that a person’s disease is going to magically go away. But it may bring comfort in the midst of sorrow. It may drive away the darkness and loneliness brought on by illness.
I would encourage you to have a service of healing on this final Sunday. Honor the text. Make time for it. Perhaps you trim other parts of the service so that this can have the time it needs to not feel rushed. Carefully train those who will be laying on hands. Either give them a blessing to say, or, if you want to pray for specific needs, choose your “elders” carefully and instruct them on how to pray for the sick, so that they don’t say things that hurt or heighten the sense of isolation.
Expect things to happen. Prayer and anointing always moves people. Expect the Spirit to do something.
Be sure to incorporate a confession. There are some healings that need to take place that have nothing to do with physical maladies. You may never know all the things that take place.
Listen to people’s stories. Talk with them about the experience. Consider doing this on a monthly basis.
Know that modern medicine is blessing. Know also, that there is more to healing than pills and surgery. Without love, without belonging, without community, without hope, we lose the will to live, which is essential in any circumstance.
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.