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Praying for and with Each Other: James 5:7-20
Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of James, in the New Testament, and we’re going to read the very end of it, chapter 5, starting in v.7.
This is going to be a bit shorter than my usual sermon. I really appreciate Meg and Adam sharing what they received from the CCDA conference this year. Hearing about some of these things is a good way to trouble us in ways we need to be troubled, lest we become complacent and tricked by the enemy that this world is the way God intends it to be. We are exiles here, and we must always remember: this world is not our home. Complacency is the opposite of repentance, and “when our Lord Jesus Christ said repent, he willed that the whole life of the believer be one of repentance.” So thank you.
This will be my last sermon in this series—Phil is going to finish the series for us next week. And after next week, Advent begins as the year draws to a close. At the end of this series, I hope you are walking away with a better understanding of prayer. Bonhoeffer writes, “Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ.” And so we ask alongside Jesus’ disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
I hope you’re walking away with a better understanding of what prayer is meant to do in our lives and in the world. Prayer is not magic, it is not our means of manipulating blessing, or controlling the world and the people around us. Rather, prayer shapes us. And prayer is a means of God working in the world, in his hiddenness, be it miraculous, providential, or natural—our God created nature.
I hope you borrow other people’s prayers, especially when you’re having trouble finding your own, or when you are doubting and losing faith. I hope you sing spiritual songs knowing that you are borrowing other people’s prayers in joining with the great cloud of witnesses praising God throughout time and space.
And lastly, today, for my part, I hope you walk away from this series understanding the role of prayer in the community of God. We’re going to talk today about praying for and with each other. Read with me, James 5, starting in v.7. [James 5:7-20] This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I’ve spent a lot of my time in prayer praying for other people. It’s a regular part of church life. At our church, we begin every meeting, whether it’s a church service or a small group gathering, praying for each other. Even if you don’t regularly go to small group, if you’re connected to the church, we probably pray for you regularly in small groups.
And if you’re on any kind of church group text, or social media group, you’ve seen prayer requests go out, and then one by one people respond to let that person know they are praying. I usually try to send an actual prayer, so the person can know what I’m praying for them, but my point is, in every church I’ve ever been a part of, we pray for and with each other. This is one of the base practices of our communion with each other and with God. We know, deep down, we ought to pray for each other. But do we know why we ought? What does praying for one another do in the body of Christ. What is God doing in our church through prayer?
In our passage, we read of several things God is able to do in and for us when we pray for each other. One, looking at v.13, praying with each other allows us to share our grief and our joy. Praying with each other allows us to share our grief and our joy.
What is it about our deepest griefs and joys which demands to be shared? It was my birthday this past week, and I told everyone—my family of course. Noah refused to believe it, kept insisting it was actually his birthday and demanded cake, so that was a bit of a let-down. But I also told my coworkers, the coffee barista (I was trying to get a free cup of coffee), but then I told the streetcar driver and the random old man who complemented me on my jacket. It was a joy for me. I just had to tell someone.
We tend to be effusive about things which bring us joy—at the base of it, we want others to feel our joy as well. We’ve all been around the new parents who share videos and pictures of their kids ad nausium, or the newly in love who suddenly find reminders of the new relationship in everything anyone says all evening. This is the way of joy—we can’t contain it, and we shouldn’t try, even if it means I have to look at pictures of your kid until I say some compliment.
Grief also demands to be shared. We want everyone and no one at all to know; we want to be able to pour out a little of our grief into someone else’s cup, because we are drowning, and we just need someone else to hold a cupful for a while, maybe give us a chance to come up for air. Or, to use a more biblical analogy, we feel weighed down by a burden, and we ask others around us to share it for a while. Over and over again, the Bible tells us to share our griefs and bear each others’ burdens.
Long before psychologists started talking about repression, we find multiple biblical authors, including James in our passage, telling us that we need to share our joys and our griefs, both. We cannot keep them in. And this is one of the roles of prayer, this kind of sharing. We need to share our joys so other people, in the midst of the brokenness of the world, can remember the goodness of the kingdom and get a glimpse of something being made right. And we need to share our griefs, so that we don’t break under the weight of them.
And beyond mental health, there is a deeper theological reason to share our grief and our joy with each other—we are part of each other. The apostle Paul uses the analogy of a body. He says, we’re all just parts of a single body, and if one part is sick or injured, the rest feel it. Same goes for joy—we don’t just feel joy in our minds, we jump, and shout, and run, and hug our greatest joys in life. Our whole body is involved, and should be.
If a single piece of the body ever stops communicating pain and sensation to other parts, it’s actually an enormous problem. Diabetes eventually will cut off sensation to people’s outer extremities—feet, fingers—and usually shortly after that happens, that limb will need to be amputated. You don’t notice a cut, and pretty soon that unfelt, un-communicated loss threatens to kill the whole body.
So share. Don’t overshare, pulling people under with you or getting upset when they aren’t as happy for you as you are. But share. The next time you’re sick, let someone bring you food; you’re a part of us. Make it impossible for you to tell yourself, “They don’t really know me.” Let people care for you, because you are worthy of care. Share your griefs, even if you expect nothing to change, because the Bible tells you so, and because God means good for you. Part of why we pray together is to share our joys and griefs.
Also, we pray for and with each other to share our faith. We pray for and with each other to share our faith. I’m looking at v.15-16. I preached a few weeks ago about the power of ritual and shared prayers when we are having doubts or crises of faith. Praying with another person in the midst of crisis and doubt can also be incredibly powerful. Just as we can borrow other people’s prayers, we can borrow other people’s faith as well.
A lot of fuss has been made about these two verses, people interpreting them to mean that if you have enough faith, or if you are righteous enough, you’ll be able to heal any disease. That’s not what these verses are about. These verses are about having faith that God is willing to forgive you for your sins and raise you up again to a world in which there is no disease. In interpreting these verses we’ve made the same mistake the pharisees made over and over again, when they focused more on the miraculous healing God is able to do than on the forgiveness of sins he desires for each of his children.
I’m thinking of Matthew 9, where Jesus forgives the sins of a paralyzed man, and the pharisees are in an uproar. Then Jesus heals the man so he can walk and asks them, which is easier? To heal a person miraculously or to forgive sins? Which is more important, to heal broken legs which will fail him again in twenty years or so or to forgive sins and raise a person up into eternity?
Read James 5 again. This passage is giving instructions to the elders on what to do if someone is dying. Go be with them, he says. Pray for them. Urge him to confess his sins and pray for forgiveness. Then, v.15, he will be saved and raised again.
God is able to heal people miraculously, yes—I’ve seen it—but this passage is more about how God is able to forgive their sins and raise them up in the last day, where there will be no sickness—and that’s more important to be reminded of. It’s not that sometimes God heals people and sometimes he doesn’t, it’s that sometimes God heals them on this side of eternity, and sometimes he waits to heal a person fully and entirely in the end.
This teaching is more about sharing our faith in prayer than anything else, which is why he closes the section talking about bringing back those who wander from the truth. James is saying, you can share faith, even with someone in their last moments, when they are facing crises, they can borrow your faith and your prayers. Go and pray for them, let them hear you, let them be reminded that this is not the end for them.
I was reading an account this week, in preparation to a devotion I gave to a group of doctors—an account of the first hospitals. They started in monasteries, which saw it as a core part of their mission to welcome in anyone who would come to stay at the monastery, and help anyone who was in need—even the sick who couldn’t otherwise afford care. The monk in charge of taking people into the monastery and caring for their needs, be they sick or hungry, was called the hospitaller, which is where we get our words both for hospitality and hospital.
When, in the monastery, a person would come near to dying, they would call all of the monks into the room to pray with him—yes for healing, but also they wrote that they wanted to give the dying person hope, and to let him know he wasn’t dying alone, that this would not be his ultimate end. In short, they shared their faith with him.
Friends, share your faith with the people around you by praying for and with them. Speak God’s promises over them to remind them that this is not the end—this hardship is brief, momentary. Share your joys, share their griefs, and share your faith. Which of us, from time to time, has not needed someone else’s faith to guide us through a time of difficulty? There have been times in my life when I have wept as people prayed for me because they were lending me their faith in a moment I desperately needed to remember the promises of God.
So we can share joy, we can share grief, we can share faith, and lastly this: in our prayers for and with each other we can share love. We can share love in our prayers for each other, and that love is able to cover a multitude of sins.
V.20, bringing a sinner back from wandering will cover a multitude of sins. Peter says it this way: “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” In our prayers together, we have the ability to love one another in Christ, and in Christ that love is able to cover a multitude of sins.
When we have conflict in strife in our lives, we need to pray for each other more. It’s hard to remain bitter and angry at someone if you are praying for and with them. If you share their joys and griefs, if you are sharing faith with them. The prayers of the saints have great power while they are working, power enough even to allow us to act like we are one Church, one communion, one family, one body. To the point that is any of us are hurt, we all feel it.
Love is able to cover the multitude of sins between us, and able to cover the multitude of sins between you and God, himself. And praying for and with each other is one way to share that love and repair our lives.
So my invitation to you this morning is to pray. You can pray with the person next to you if you’d like, or you can pray with me. You can share confessions, faith, joys, griefs, lives, love. And in doing so, we will together bring to mind the coming kingdom and resurrection. Pray with me now.