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Evening Prayer sermon

James 5:15a,b

Rev. Andrew Eckert

Wed. after Eighteenth Sun. after Trinity
Our Savior Lutheran Church  
Stevensville, MT

Wed, Oct 14, 2020 

Here is some of the context for the little verse read earlier: “Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing psalms.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” Now here is the text: “And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up.” And here is just a little more after our text: “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

Now, we could easily get sidetracked by some of the aspects of the context.  Like, why did they anoint oil on the person?  Saint James does not fully explain this curious detail, and I am going to ignore it.  Not my text. 

We should, however, be aware of who was doing the praying, namely, the elders of the church.  The word “elders” indicates pastors.  In the New Testament, the word “elders” always indicates men in the ministry, not the men we now call elders, who are lay men.  Even the Lutheran Church did not have lay elders until the nineteenth century, when we absorbed that practice from Reformed churches.  Not a good idea at the time, although that does not mean that our elders are evil men.

In spite of the clarity we have for that word, and in spite of excluding some of the puzzling aspects of the passage, we are still left with questions in our text.  What does it mean that the prayer will save the sick person?  Does that mean eternal salvation, or being saved from their sickness?  Does this mean that the prayer will always be 100% effective?  Does that mean that prayer is a means of grace?  Also what does it mean that the Lord will raise the man up?  Is that the resurrection on the Last Day, or is it being raised out of the sickbed when he is healthy again?

And of course the question that is always behind the text: What does this have to do with you and me?

First of all, the word “save”.  It is true that the word can mean different things.  It can indicate forgiveness and eternal life.  It can also mean rescue from particular dangers, including illness.  In the near context, James speaks about forgiveness of sins, but also the context clearly talks about danger in a person’s health.  So this could go either way.

As for the word “raising”, it can also go either way.  We have even less context to indicate what James means.

So we need to go with the broader context of Scripture as a whole.  This will not completely satisfy us, but it will still tell us what James could possibly mean.  We reject, of course, the idea that James made a mistake or taught false doctrine while writing through inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

What could James mean?  Possibly he is speaking about physical healing.  The ministry of pastors to their sheep includes visiting the sick and serving them by applying the sweet Gospel promises to their situation, as well as praying with them.

Now this does not mean that the prayer will automatically restore the health of a sick person.  When we pray for such things, we must always pray that God’s will be done.  Even if those words are not explicitly spoken, they must be understood and assumed.  Our prayers for health and healing are not automatically answered by God in the affirmative.  We allow that the Lord, in His love and wisdom, may say “No.” Perhaps James was emphasizing that God can heal in answer to prayer so that we more firmly believe that it is worthwhile to pray, even though prayer is not a guarantee of healing. 

We should strongly hold on to this truth, especially in light of our extremely skeptical society.  We realize that prayer in itself is not powerful.  But the Lord to whom we pray is.  In prayer we call upon the One who can do anything, who loves us and wants good things for us.  If we stifle the idea that God answers prayer and helps us, then we may start to harbor bitter thoughts that picture God as a cold, distant, uncaring deity.  The path to despair and unbelief is paved with such thoughts.  Let us flee them by the Spirit’s help.

If the word “save” means “heal” in this verse, then probably the word “raise” means “get out of his sickbed”.  As we view prayer as an appeal to a gracious Father, then we know that recovery from any disease is from Him.  This will help increase our joy and thankfulness, as well as trust and acceptance when He says no.  We also feel less fear when we know that a Father watches over us and listens to us.

But what if the word “save” means forgive or save eternally?  A practice of pastors who visit the sick is to give them confession and absolution.  This is not because a particular sin may have caused their sickness.  Instead, we forgive the sick so that their conscience can be soothed and reassured that God is on their side.  Since He is the God who has forgiven them, He is not afflicting them because He has rejected them.  When fear and weakness naturally come during a sickness, the reassuring medicine of the Gospel calms a troubled spirit.

A problem with understanding the word “save” to mean forgive is that it appears to make prayer a means of grace.  It is not the prayer in itself that saves the person.

Many people pray for forgiveness, and they do not receive it.  Many pray to false gods, none of which give salvation.  Some of them pray to the right God, but their faith in Him is lacking.  For example, they may see God the Father as a divine accountant who tallies up good works to see if you deserve for Him to help you.  Then true faith is not there, since they are really trusting in their good works, not in Christ’s death and resurrection.

This is indicated by the words of James: “The prayer OF FAITH will save the sick man.” Only a prayer that flows from faith is heard by the Father.  In the same way, only faith is able to receive the forgiveness God gives through Christ our Lord.

Prayer is not a means of grace.  It does not give you forgiveness by itself.  But God does give forgiveness in answer to prayer.  We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and He is happy to forgive us.  The forgiveness comes to us through Word and Sacrament.  The Gospel is the answer to our prayer.

In the same way, the phrase in James, “The Lord will raise him up,” likely refers to the resurrection.  All those who are forgiven in Christ will be raised to eternal life.  This is both reassurance to the person who lies in their sick bed, and it is also cause and effect.  Because of the Gospel, you will be raised.  The power of God for salvation is the Gospel of Christ.  So the holy absolution spoken to a sinner causes resurrection to life.  As our Catechism teaches, wherever there is forgiveness, there is life and salvation.

Of course, as the word “wherever” indicates, all forms of the Gospel do this.  Your Baptism gives resurrection and eternal life.  The Holy Supper as well, and the preaching of the Good News.  You are receiving the power of God right now that will also raise you on the Last Day.

So which is it?  Was James speaking about the forgiveness of a sinner, or the healing of a sick man?  I suggest that it is both.

We tend to separate a bit too much between the spiritual and the physical.  The body and soul both are important to God.  James is speaking deliberately about both, in my opinion.  In the same way that we should not minister only to the body or only to the soul, so also we should not only speak the Gospel but also pray for healing of the sick.

You are one person.  Body, mind, spirit are not separate persons, but one.  Likewise, Christ the one Man lived, suffered, and died for the whole man that you are, and rose in body and soul alike.

So we minister to body and soul as God gives us ability.  We preach salvation to body and soul alike.  For God the Father so wills it, who loves and watches over every aspect of every one of us.

In His Name alone, with the Son and the Spirit, one God forever.  Amen.

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