We’ve reached the end of James’ letter to the church and the end of the Summer Sermon Series. Unlike many other letters written at about the same time in history, James doesn’t use the end of his letter for personal greetings, or a long benediction. Although today’s reading is the last part of the letter, it is certainly far from the least important part. There’s nothing here that can or should be skipped over. The last paragraphs in this letter make some critically important points for living a Christian life.
First, he says Above all do not swear. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. In this James simplifies the words of Jesus reported in the Gospel of Matthew 5:33-37 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Our Quaker brothers and sisters take this statement very seriously indeed, so seriously that for a long time they were unable to hold any public office in England and other European countries because they refused to swear on a Bible. They still don’t – when testifying in court or being sworn in to public office, they affirm they will tell the truth, but will not place their hand on a Bible and swear to it. In part there is the problem of false swearing. If, for example, I believe a certain thing to be true and swear to it, then it turns out that what I believed to be true isn’t, I will have sworn falsely. Think about it – have you ever looked all over for something, maybe even accused someone of moving it, and then, upon finding it in an unexpected place said “What’s it doing in the garage? I could have sworn I left it in the kitchen!” Had we sworn we would have sworn falsely, even though we believed our words to be true. James, however, doesn’t just echo the commandment against swearing falsely, but simply says “do not swear” at all, ever.
James said don’t swear because speech between brothers and sisters should be truthful, and each one should be trusted to be truthful.. Speaking plainly and truthfully with each other is the basis for community. This simplicity and trustworthiness in speech carries over into the language of prayer. James has already addressed this a bit elsewhere in his letter. In the first chapter he says that one who is suffering should not say “I am being tempted by God” And earlier in this chapter he cautions us against seeking revenge against the source of our distress. Rather, we should simply lift our pain up to God who is the source of healing and grace. Likewise, anyone who is happy should sing praises to God, giving all honor to the one from whom all blessings come.
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..
In the world James lived in, there was no separation perceived between the health of the body and the health of the soul. Body and soul were inseparable in life and were treated together. Our medical science today separates not just body and soul, but even all the parts of the body. If you go to your general practitioner with an upset stomach, you may end up seeing half a dozen specialists before someone is able to figure out exactly what is the matter. This is not necessarily a good thing – because the whole body is connected. We know that emotional or spiritual upset affects the way our physical body feels. There is a growing trend in the medical community toward holistic medicine – toward treatment of the whole body. In James’ world, this was a given. So medical treatment included treatment of the soul - anointing with fragrant oils, laying hands on the sick person. The oil and the physical contact return the one who has been alienated by illness into the community. The act of visiting and anointing and praying also brings the one who prays back into contact with that alienated one. That simple human touch reaches across pain and loneliness and brings us together.
The seminary I attended was a Disciples ecumenical seminary. My classmates came from many different Christian denominations and traditions. We had different beliefs about theology and practice and prayer. Most of us would respond to “will you pray for me?” with “Yes of course” and then add that person to our prayer list. But Millie treated these requests differently. Millie was a Baptist woman in her 70s who had been called to the ordained ministry somewhat later in life than most. And she was on fire! When the Gospel Choir would sing in chapel, she would get so excited that she’d be jumping up and down praising Jesus as we went back to our seats. The first time I asked Millie for prayer I expected her to say “yes, I’ll pray for you” But what happened was that Millie wrapped her arms around me and began to pray – out loud, right there in the middle of the hallway near the library. She praised God and called upon God to shower me with love, to forgive my sins, to heal my soul even as the surgeon would work to heal my body. I felt so much better when she me go. The touch, the caring, the immediate response, brought me back into the community from which I felt isolated by my illness. And it left Millie jumping up and down, praising Jesus.
Prayer is good for the one praying and the one being prayed for. When we are suffering in any way, it is our responsibility to ask for prayers – not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those who do the praying. If we do not ask for prayer, we are alienating ourselves, and rejecting our community. When we pray, especially when we are praying for someone else, we draw closer to God. Prayer is powerful. The act of praying, especially when we are praying with another person, brings blessing upon both the one praying and the one being prayed for. When we pray, as James directs, for the forgiveness of sin in the one who is ill, we are following the example of Jesus, who often told those who sought healing “Go, your sins are forgiven.” The purpose of prayer is the healing of the soul – the removal of fear, an ending of isolation and alienation, the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness.
Can our prayers make it stop raining for three years and six months, then bring the rain back as Elijah did? Probably not. Can our prayers help another heal from the pain of isolation and loneliness that illness brings? Absolutely. Can our prayers bring back one who has strayed, one who has wandered from the truth, one who has isolated herself from the body of Christ? Certainly. It happens all the time. It happened to me.
Throughout the summer we’ve been hearing James instructions on how to live as a Christian. We’ve been given direction on how to Love God and our Neighbor. How to be faithful to the example of Jesus the Christ.
Endure difficulties with faith and to turn our backs on temptation, praying for God’s guidance.
Really listen to the Word and to each other, with our hearts, not just our ears and our minds.
Act in response to what is really being said, not what we think is being said.
Be faithful, for faith will draw us to do good for others.
Welcome everyone equally into the body of Christ
Show love to everyone equally, without prejudice of any kind.
Do not judge one another.
Seek always to find common ground for agreement, avoiding conflict.
Be very careful how we use words, for words create the realities in which we live.
Be humble, and know that we forgiven.
Be patient. Know we can’t force others to change, but we can pray and wait for willingness.
Live as one community, speaking simply and truthfully, praying together, confessing our own sins and forgiving each other, as God forgives us.
And in every circumstance, Pray, for prayer brings us closer to God and to each other.
The words we have heard in this letter are words with which we can change our lives and by changing our lives, through our example, we can change the lives of others. These are truly words to live by – these are wonderful words of life.