1. The Heights of Spiritual Community
What we see here, I believe, are the (rare) heights of spiritual community: expressions of passionate prayer, joyful worship, open sharing, healing and forgiveness, and an outgoing ministry. The way this is expressed, gatherings of the faithful lead to prayer and honesty, which in turn leads to healing and experiences of salvation. What potential there is here for good! This is something worth striving for!!
When we enquire about how the church should look and operate, we can turn to 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about the church being like a body, with all its interconnected and interdependent parts, with Jesus as the head. Each and every body part, in an ideal sense, functions in perfect cooperation with all others, each spiritual gift coming together in harmony for the common good. Every body part is needed, and each one has a unique contribution to make to the whole. So, we, in the church are not religious consumers, but rather spirited contributors.
We can also turn to the early chapters of Acts, and sense the unity, and the commitment to mission, in the early Christian movement. Great diversity came together on the Day of Pentecost around the Lordship of Jesus, bringing thousands to faith. People starting gathering in homes, to worship, eat together, share the bread and the cup, to pray, to look after the sick and struggling; pooling their resources for mutual benefit. We should never say ‘that was then’ and ‘this is now’, and thereby miss the beauty and truth of what is conveyed there.
Then (in terms of how the church should look and function) we can turn to these verses in James, which to me convey the depth to which Jesus-following communities can go in their mutual care. But this can also be scary (especially in places like verse 16). Yet we can come to understand this as a process, not something that happens overnight, but something that can develop over time (given the right environment, and the right nurture).
The church united should present to the world a picture of what God looks like and the way God functions. If we are all born in the image of God, what does God look like? The best of all of us combined - the redeemed and sanctified people of God together. Or, the best in each one of us combined - the redeemed and sanctified people of God together.
2. Growing in God Together
Last week we talked about each of us growing in our relationship with God, and what might be signs of ‘anti-growth’ that we have to be aware of (James chapter 4). This week, the text of James 5 helps us to consider ways in which we grow in God together. Growing in God is not just a personal pursuit with a vertical focus, not when we have been purpose designed as social and relational beings. Spiritual growth also has the horizontal component, where we come together as God’s people to minister with and to encourage each other.
This is about relationship building, not just for its own sake, but with real redemptive purpose. This is about becoming mutual sharers and helpers … bearing one another’s burdens. In so doing we experience more of God, and learn more of God’s character. There is a great depth to God who operates in the community of Father, Son and Spirit that we call the Trinity. [Building horizontal relationships with each other helps us delve into the depths of this community of God.] Through our interaction with each other we can become more clear about how God is being active in our life.
Now there are some realities that we have to acknowledge. This is not easy ground for everybody; perhaps it’s not easy ground for anybody! People have been hurt in the past. People have expectantly put themselves out there only to be disappointed or hurt. Many people have very negative experiences of human vulnerability. It’s natural for people to be a bit defensive, or afraid of what others might think, in a world that is so often judgemental and critical. We seem to even celebrate such negativity in producing and watching something like “Gogglebox”. Then there are little personality clashes that seem to divide if they’re not handled well. Sometimes high expectations aren’t met.
We can’t just wave the Bible, or say a one-off simple prayer, and expect things to immediately be different. But at the same time, any student of the Bible cannot ignore the ideal presented before us. Why? Because it is the well-functioning church, albeit warts and all, that will shine the light of Jesus and offer hope to the community. Why would we spend such time and energy on organising public events like FUSE and a community concert featuring Carter & Carter. It is because our job description as a church is to share the light and hope of the Gospel … the good news of Jesus. And we know that a church without a Gospel mission is no church at all, it is only another social club. So, of course, the Bible challenges us!
So, how can we be the church that Jesus heads? How can we grow in God together?? How can we reach the (rare) heights of spiritual community???
There’s something here about being real, and allowing others to be real. When there is a struggle, we don’t ignore it, but rather we pray. When there is a resolution, we celebrate. What could have been a private struggle becomes a corporate prayer; what could have been individual rejoicing becomes a community celebration. In all things, especially when caught in unknown territory, we trust wholly in God. I have seen this pan out magnificently in my days in Point Cook. There were two days at that church where we did reach the rare heights of spiritual community.
Also, in the church, we should not be afraid of weaknesses being exposed. For it is in our capacity to embrace, support (and transform) weakness that our real strength can be shown. What could be seen as potential liabilities or deficits through ‘worldly’ eyes can actually be our greatest blessings – for they reveal the mighty works of God. Take for instance the formerly lame man who went walking and leaping and praising God in the 3rd chapter of Acts, or the corrupt tax collector Zacchaeus who became the great benefactor of the poor (Luke 19), or the broken-hearted Peter (following his denials) being restored and ordained to significant ministry.
3. The Environment of Faith
Creating an environment of faith, prayer and worship will ultimately bring about healing, forgiveness and restoration. When we gather together we should gather in this mindset – that today’s collection of faith, prayer and worship will lead to healing, forgiveness and restoration … in others and in ourselves. This is a far cry to coming to fulfil a religious obligation, and a far cry from coming to critically assess what’s going on. This is coming with an openness to the Spirit of God that rises way above the many distractions and imperfections.
The passage before us refers to where faith and prayer can lead:
(a) Healing – i.e. the Lord raising up the sick (v.15-16) – we know that, in the case of serious illness or injury, this does not always mean an ultimate cure, although sometimes it does work out that way (and we should never discount this possibility). Generally speaking this is about God having the space to work, and the opportunity for God to draw close to someone and offer his intimate presence to them. This often takes away some of most serious anxieties and replaces them with God’s peace. Healing really means … whatever God wants to release or bring about in a person. We often sense how God is working away bringing us back to full health, and also reassuring us in times of despair.
It is suggested that the sick seek out the “elders” for prayer (v.14), and this is a very wise thing to do. It is likely that the pastors and elders have the availability and discernment to carefully and wisely deal with even the most complex situations. Like the laying on of hands represents the presence of the Holy Spirit, the “anointing with oil”, mentioned here, symbolises God’s power to restore and heal. Such prayer, though, is offered on behalf of the whole church (with the “elders” as the functionaries or facilitators).
With such prayer we commit a person to God’s best for them. We would of course hope and pray for the best case scenario as we see it, but it is God who has all the information from the whole landscape picture of a person’s life. We don’t limit our expectations, nor do we limit God’s power. Prayer connects a person with God’s will for them. We pray on their behalf, “Thy will be done”. This places people into the hands of infinite love and wisdom.
(b) Confession and forgiveness (v.15-16) – there is also that side of ‘healing’ which is really all about spiritual healing and renewal … beginning the process of salvation … being released from the oppression of sin and entrenched negativity. What is often required here is speaking it out … confessing what has being going wrong, being prepared to talk honestly about our struggles. It is confession that takes one properly down the road of repentance (i.e. new direction) bringing God’s mercy into play. There might be inner struggles, offences against the common good, or the sins of neglect. And there is nothing more isolating and debilitating than guilty secrets. Sometimes it is only when we give voice to our struggle that we can find release … “I’m struggling with this – please pray with me”. There is an element here too of taking responsibility – like the sportsperson who puts up their hand when they made a mistake badly affecting their attempt to score … thus apologising to their teammates. When the people of God admit their mistakes, we can all rejoice in the forgiveness of God.
I have often said that James 5:16 is the most challenging verse in the New Testament i.e. the ‘confessing your sins to one another’ bit. What was in mind here? This could be a confession and apology to one offended person as a step of reconciliation; but I think there is certainly more in view here (in the broader context of our human struggles). Is this confession before a congregation? Confession within a trusted small group? Confession to one other person? Probably, ‘horses for courses’. It probably depends on what, case by case, is the most appropriate, and will bring the most helpful and conclusive results. There are some things that would not be appropriate to share with the masses; while sometimes sharing something with a larger number of people brings with it more far-reaching support. King David went pretty public with his confession in Psalm 51 – we are still reading that one today (and benefitting by it).
I have seen great burdens lifted when confessions are made within small groups who have gained trust in one another. One-on-one accountability relationships have also proven very effective. The point is: being prepared to open ourselves to the wider resources of God that exist in other people. And this, as relationships blossom, would likely become more mutual (rather than just one-way traffic), and generally build the effectiveness of the church. The church, or some sections of it, has become notorious for hiding their sins. To turn this around, we may have to practice what Tim Gustafson (ODB 3.9.15) calls “a risky yet healthy honesty with each other and with the watching world”.
(c) Restoration (v.20) – there are many people who wander away from God and the church over time, and that is really sad. No one cares more about this than God. Jesus tells the story about leaving 99 sheep behind (even in some danger) while taking up a priority search for one lost sheep. When that sheep is found there is much rejoicing and a huge party. The lost ones need supporters. Sometimes people can be sitting right next to us, but are really a long way away and disengaged from what is happening. They may also need a supporter. We might need to be on the front foot here, acting gently; as long as we are truly tapped in to God’s leading. So crucial is this, that we read success will “cover a multitude of sins”.
What an interesting way to end a letter! What a piece of motivational writing! Verse 20: “… whoever brings back a sinner from wandering … will cover a multitude of sins”. Whose sins are covered?? The person being returned to God’s sheepfold … certainly. The people who have gone out on a search – showing their commitment and sincerity, and backing up their words with actions … I reckon yes! They are clearly in harmony with God. To have neglected such a lost one would have been a sin itself, but that is not the case.
But there is a “multitude of sins” being ‘covered’! Perhaps this is where our actions of today mean that future sins that might have been committed will no longer be committed!! Mine, Yours, Everybody’s! This is the output of faithful spiritual community!?! Extraordinary … do you get excited about teasing out little things like this in the Bible? Did James finish here because he got tired of writing, or was there a deeper reason. Proverbs 10:12 starts challengingly and then finishes stirringly: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offences”. This reference to a “multitude of sins” is not so much there to stress prevalent wickedness, but rather to highlight the extravagance of God’s grace!
4. The Prayer of Faith
When James talks about the “prayer of faith” (v.15), whose faith is he talking about?? OURS!! The faith of the sufferer is still important, but it is more their willingness to seek prayer that counts, and then the faith of the rest of us that makes the difference. This is just like the faith of the four stretcher-bearers who exhibited great faith in breaking through a roof to make sure their friend could get to meet Jesus (Mark 2).
Verse 16b refers to the “prayer of the righteous” being powerful and effective – and we might think that this could exclude us … this notion of “righteous”. But actually a “righteous” person is simply a person who is right with God i.e. had their sins forgiven and can therefore be a clear channel of blessing to others. The example is given of the great prophet Elijah, and the power of his prayers; however James is quick to remark that Elijah was actually just human like the rest of us. Elijah had times of fear and depression, yet his prayers were powerful and effective, as he fully committed himself to God.
I would like to say that my prayers were powerful and effective, and I would like to say that the prayers of our Wednesday morning prayer group were powerful and effective, and I would like to say that the prayers of our elders and board were powerful and effective, but I would MOST like to say that the prayers of the community called Bright Church of Christ as a whole were powerful and effective! And what if we could say that for all the Jesus-following people and congregations of our area … what a difference that would make!!
As prayers are answered, as comfort comes, the Lord has blessed both the recipient and the supporters, for together they have experienced the love of God and the Holy Spirit’s power. That is how God builds the church (from: ET Welch in Side by Side, p.117).
A bold question would be: “Is our church a place where struggles can easily be shared”?
Another question: “What is my role in complementing this??
Sharing openly, or being a listener & supporter, or both!!
All of what James has said in previous chapters forms the preparation for the heights of this sort of spiritual functioning; especially the bits about how we view each other and how we speak to each other. We build trust in each other as we practice encouragement and use words that build up rather than tear down. We don’t judge or grumble or criticise, but rather show patience, and seek to get to know and understand each other, and then welcome each other’s unique contribution to the ‘body’. We pitch in and help! We especially show our credibility as Jesus-followers when we support those in particular need, and without reservation practice the ‘royal law’ – “love your neighbour as yourself”.
We also see the priority of putting our faith into action; in this context, into a ministry of compassion and prayer. First and foremost we humble ourselves before God, receive Jesus into our lives, accept his work of grace for us, trust God (in an undivided way) through thick and thin, reading his word and seeking his wisdom all along the journey of life. As Richard Rohr comments, “The ‘unbound’ ones are best prepared to unbind the rest of the world” (Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, p.49).
Loving God, this is a difficult area of Your teaching for us to consider.
It is challenging to think about sharing our faults and struggles with each other;
Not to mention those who need to listen.
But you do call us to wholeness, and to truly be Your people;
Empower us by Your Spirit to live courageously in honesty and love.
Thank You that as we serve others we engage with Jesus;
Help those around us to recognise the presence of a loving and redeeming God,
And to also see how a caring community can be formed around the person of Jesus.