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James 5:7-20

October 23, 2017

This final section of the Letter of James addresses the most important things the community of faith must do in order to be healthy and healing.

First, it must have persistent, enduring trust that God’s kingdom, ruled by the Lord Jesus, is on the way. The church can easily become discouraged in the face of continuing injustice and suffering. Just before this section, James had been condemning the rich who oppress the weak. This continuing dysfunction and unfairness in the world can sap the hope of the most dedicated community of faith. To keep its mission strong, the church must believe in the future; it must believe–along with Martin Luther King–that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. It must believe that the future is going somewhere, not simply stuck in unending cycles of revolution and new repressions.

The early church always proclaimed that Jesus was coming “soon.” Two thousand years later, it’s hard to take “soon” literally. James uses the word “near.” Near can mean near in time or near in space. In a sense, the coming of Jesus is always “near” because Jesus’ Spirit is near. What we are hoping for and striving for is nearer to us than we think. Evil is thinner than it appears. Love is always on the verge of breaking through and bringing healing. We just have to believe in it and practice it.

The fact is, the world right now is less violent (per person) than it has ever been before in history. There is overwhelming statistical evidence that people are less likely to suffer violence or die of violence now than ever before. We must believe in goodness. Don’t lose heart in the face of random shootings, terrorist plots, and sensationalized newscasts. Believe in God and believe in the future.

James then, once again, takes up the subject of speech. “Above all,” he says, don’t use oaths or elaborate explanations. Talk simply and honestly. James’s words here are almost identical to Jesus’ words about not swearing oaths. James is almost certainly quoting Jesus. But why is it so important not to swear oaths? I think what both Jesus and James were after was simple, honest speech. A healthy community relies on honesty and clarity. This is in strong contrast to most political speech in our nation today which is full of distortions, exaggerations, excuses, and avoidance. This is a cause and consequence of the sickness pervading our own society.

James then gives attention to four key practices of the church: prayer, praise, anointing, and mutual confession. These four are intertwined, creating a community of healing and forgiveness. Prayer builds up our faith. Confession builds up our mutual honesty and humility. Anointing embodies our mutual touching and caring and forgiveness and inclusion. Healing is physical, social and spiritual; they are interconnected. Healing and salvation are intertwined, indivisible. The church knows this and practices this.

Our faith is not that our prayers will always heal someone’s cancer. Our faith is that God desires to bring relief and forgiveness and mutual connection; our faith is that through prayer we may re-establish trust and once again experience the love of God and the love of the faith community. Prayer removes barriers between us and God and between one another and within ourselves. Prayer opens up possibilities. Prayer makes possible our wholeness.

James concludes by reminding the church that its mission, like that of Jesus, is to find the lost and invite them back into inclusion and forgiveness and wholeness.

Is there a better book in the New Testament for guiding the practices and mission of the church? Paul may give us a deeper theology, and the Gospels may give us more of Jesus’ teachings and example, but James is addressing the soul of the church like no other book in the Bible.

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