September 25, 2005

Why We Need Each Other: Healing
James 5: 13-20

The human body is a truly amazing creation. Among its various remarkable characteristics is the body’s tendency to gather its collective resources whenever it detects harmful developments in one of its parts. If your fall and cut your leg, for example, your blood quickly begins to flush out any possible infection, blood vessels go into spasm to slow the bleeding rate, and clotting factors work to stop the bleeding altogether.

Or consider for a moment how your body reacts when you contract gastroenteritis—stomach flu. Acid in your stomach begins attacking the infection the moment it detects it. If this acid is incapable of controlling the infection, a chain of events begins to unfold as the body takes ever greater steps to promote healing. The body induces vomiting. If that proves inadequate, diarrhea soon follows. Then, because of increased water loss due to vomiting and diarrhea, the kidneys react to conserve fluid and electrolytes, and the peripheral blood vessels constrict to ensure that the now-reduced amount of blood in the body goes to the vital organs—brain, heart and bowels—where it is needed the most. And while all of this is going on, the immune system sends out white blood cells and antibodies through the blood to fight off infection, the brain initiates fever to combat the infection, and the heart beats faster to compensate for the shortage of blood! When sickness invades an area of our bodies, that area cries out and the remaining parts quickly respond to promote healing. James, the brother of our Lord Jesus, believed that the church should function in much the same way.

In this epistle, James addresses various first-century, Jewish Christian congregations in the Mediterranean world. He spends considerable time imploring his readers to live courageous and upright lives—59 of the 108 verses in James are imperatives: “Rejoice in trials, guard your tongues, reject discrimination, be wary of riches.” Now, just prior to closing the letter, James compassionately expresses certain pastoral concerns (5:13-20). The first two focus on experiential extremes or opposites: (1) If any members of the community are suffering—experiencing great hardship—let them pray, and (2) If any are celebrating particularly good news, let them sing songs of praise together. The final of James’ concerns deals with a wayward brother or sister: … if any member of the body has fallen away, let the community gather together to restore him. In between are these words concerning wellness: (1) If any are sick, let them call together spiritually mature members of the body to pray and to anoint them with oil, and (2) If any have committed sins, let them confess them in appropriate ways and be healed. Throughout these concerns, James assures his readers that, as the church lives out its ministry in this way—as the various parts of the body pool their resources to help the hurting member—the Lord will bring about such healing. In James’ mind, we who make up the church need each other, just like the endangered part of the human body needs the other parts. We need each other, not only to feel accepted, but to increasingly experience the healing and wholeness that God longs for us to enjoy.
If you reflect carefully on these two pastoral concerns dealing with wellness (vv. 14-16), you will notice both actions and responses—there is a role to play for both the hurting member as well as the community as a whole. The hurting person, first of all, must call for prayer support from the community as well as confess his sins if and when necessary. The sick and hurting party is instructed, in other words, to make his needs known. We all know how easy it is, don’t we, to conceal our needs, hide our pain, and gloss over our illnesses. I’ve spoken with any number of you who struggle with this or with that, but you try with all of your might to keep everything a secret. I even know of several of you in small groups who have somehow kept your pain and sins from the other members of your group! “If you are sick,” James writes, “call out for help.” “If you have sinned, then ask for forgiveness.”

It is important at this point to consider more carefully the conditions that James has in mind. He speaks in v. 14, of course, of people who are experiencing serious physical illness. In the first-century Mediterranean world, people suffering with physical illness had limited options open to them. They could consult a physician, though such doctors were typically found only in urban areas and were relatively expensive. As Helmut Koester rightly points out, only members of the wealthy upper class could afford dependable medical attention. They could also spend time at a local religious shrine—there were no public hospitals—and seek the care of pagan religious doctors. Or, as a last resort, they could resort to magic. These options, needless to say, left the newly-converted Christians in quite a predicament. Their meager economic resources prevented them from securing regular medical care, and their faith prohibited them from participating in pagan religious and magical rituals. What were they to do?

In reality, the situation faced by these early Christians was not so unlike that faced by many Christians in the world today. This remains an issue, for example, in much of Africa and Asia. Many Christians simply cannot afford medical care, and the common alternative is to seek out the services of the local witch doctor. What are the people to do? Or think of the millions of people in our own country today – including many of our brothers and sisters – who cannot afford health insurance. What are they to do? James offers his readers another alternative—not in place of good medical care if such care is unavailable, but in combination with it. If you have physical illnesses, you can pray. Gather other members of the church around you and ask them to anoint you with oil and pray.

James, however, seems not to limit his frame of reference to physical illness alone. In v. 16, he broadens the categories and alludes to a wider range of “sicknesses”. If we recall that we have been created in the image of God and are not only physical but emotional and spiritual beings, then we must realize that being healthy involves far more than the simple condition of our physical bodies. We can be strong in body but sick in spirit. At the same time, we can be broken in body but genuinely well. When the Bible speaks of our healing, it typically has in mind far more than the “curing” of our our physical ailments. God may or may not “cure” our illnesses, but he always longs to “heal” our souls.

Because of that, we can begin to understand that, although the Bible rejects a simple correspondence between our sins and our physical sicknesses—our bodies typically break down because we live in a fallen world—a direct connection does exist between our sins and our overall condition. It might help us to grasp this if we think of our “sicknesses” on three levels. On one level, we experience physical illness—we contract diseases and suffer injury. On a second level, we sometimes suffer emotional or “inner” illnesses at no fault of our own. As a result of being mistreated, rejected or abused, we carry with us any number of emotional and mental illnesses. On a third level, we also get “sick” from the sins that we commit—our sins tarnish our spirits, overwhelm us with guilt, and eventually deaden our souls. Don’t let anyone kid you into thinking otherwise—the sins that we commit take their toll on our spiritual health, and if left unattended, on our emotional and physical well-being as well. We will often rush to a physician for help, but pay little if any attention to the unconfessed sins that wreak havoc on us and those around us.

James, then, speaks here of our total well-being. He envisions the healing ministry of the church in broad categories. If you are physically ill, he counsels his readers, gather Christians to pray for you. If your mind and spirit have been crushed over the years by forces outside of your control, then invoke the assistance of those around you. And if your unconfessed sins are dragging you down and destroying you, then confess them to the people whom they affect. Call out, like the wounded area of the human body, and let the other parts of the community reach out and help.

The hurting party cries out for help. Now, the other parts of the body respond. And how can the community help bring about healing in the lives of its members? For one thing, we can pray together. It is important to notice that James instructs the hurting person to call for the others to gather. Couldn’t they just pray in their homes, as we often do when we receive notice of a person on our church’s prayer chain? Absolutely. The strength and encouragement of others, however, is transmitted far more effectively when we gather together. That is, I believe, one of the key factors for including oil. As Gerd Thiessen reminds us, illness is in part a social problem. “The sick,” he writes, “fear isolation, being abandoned by others, and becoming a burden.” Oil is not magical, but it engages the sense of touch, symbolizes healing, and draws the parties together. Laying on hands and anointing with oil announces to the hurting person that she is not a burden. In fact, she is not even untouchable! Praying together—hearing each other’s prayers—can have a profound effect on our well-being.

I remember when I was still in high school. My parents often hosted the guest speakers when they came to our church. One man in particular came through the area a number of times—it was actually under his ministry that I first became a Christian. When I knew that he was in the area, I longed for us to gather in the living room of our home and pray. He was such a godly man, and I sensed the very presence of God when he prayed. When I visited with him in Indiana just a few months ago—a weak, 80 year-old man—I was again struck by the sheer influence of his prayers.

But the church can play an instrumental role in the healing of its parts in other ways as well. When people are emotionally sick for one reason or another, often at no fault of their own, others can release the emotional stress and provide much needed perspective. When we demonstrate the courage and say to our brothers and sisters, whether one-on-one, around the table, in our small group, or wherever, that we are sick inside, that our confidence is shattered, or that our marriage is falling apart, they are freed to assist us and to offer support. They are empowered to minister to our spirits and to modify our perspectives. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to handle a burden and deal with an issue once we have shared it with other caring people?

And finally, James points out the profound healing that takes place when we confess our sins and experience the forgiveness of those around us. This ministry of forgiveness certainly occurs when we confess our sins to the party we have wronged and they in turn forgive us. Words can scarcely describe the feeling of relief and the flood of healing that takes place when such forgiveness is pronounced and received. But we can also practice the ministry of forgiveness vicariously in certain situations that have no less profound an affect on the confessing person.

Two examples come quickly to mind. Just last year, a couple who had attended our church for years left and went elsewhere. When Pauline visited with them, they shared with her a series of hurts—feelings of rejection—caused by the church 10-15 years ago. They had never said anything to anyone, but the pain remained with them. Wisely, Pauline apologized on behalf of the church and asked for forgiveness, even though she had not been a part of the congregation back then. With that, walls began to crumble and healing to occur.

I also think of a student who struggled under the weight of guilt following the death of a close relative. I had known this particular student for years, and I knew his family as well. He had been so distraught over this relative’s illness that he began to pull away from her and even to blame her for her condition. As tears poured down his cheeks, I forgave him on behalf of this deceased relative, in part because I knew that is exactly what she herself would have done had she been present. Soon, I sensed the relief—the healing—beginning to take place in this young man’s soul. Forgiveness and healing go hand in hand.

The human body is certainly an amazing creation. When one area of the body hurts, it sends out signals and the other parts respond. If that fails—if, for example, the sense of touch has been lost and the pain goes unattended—grave danger lies ahead. So it is, according to James, with the church. If you are sick—physically, emotionally, or spiritually—call for help. Ask people to gather around you and pray. Ask them to help carry the load. And if unconfessed sins infest your soul, confess them and be healed. God, once again, may not always “cure” your body, but he longs to bring greater and greater “healing” to the deepest areas of your soul.