A little background on the Letter of James
Over recent weeks, the epistle or second lesson has been taken from the Letter of James. Traditionally the letter was ascribed to James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and first Bishop of Jerusalem. This James is different from James the Great, one of the sons of Zebedee, mentioned in the gospels. Some modern scholars dispute James the Just as author, noting that the quality of the Greek is indicative of a higher level of education than might be expected from a brother of Jesus, preferring to see the letter’s authorship as anonymous. Written in Jerusalem, the letter addresses Christians in the diaspora. The date of the writing is uncertain.
What is distinctive about the letter is its very pastoral style and content. It focuses on behavior, calling believers to live according to a higher standard of behavior than normally expected in the world. To a modern reader, the judgments meted out to those who fall short seem rather exacting.
In chapters 3 and 4 James explores the themes of self-control and personal restraint, identifying the tongue for particular comment. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire. He notes that the greatest damage to relationships and communities is done by the unbridled tongue. Today, we often say of such a person, she or he has no filter, for whatever comes into the mind pours out of the mouth. James notes that real wisdom and understanding are expressed only through the gentleness of our actions. He strikes a somewhat modern psychological tone when he notes in chapter 4 that when envy, ambition, and selfish cravings are at war within us, then disorder in relationships and disharmony in community, will be the result.
The power of prayer
The letter of James contains one of the most eloquent passages on prayer to be found anywhere in the New Testament. In Chapter 5:13 we come upon this beautiful passage:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess you sins to one another and prayer for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
This passage is often read as an invitation at services for healing. Normally in our Episcopal context, healing services are led by a priest, who stands in the stead of those James refers to as the elders of the church. Yet, James also invites us to pray for one another. He notes that this prayer for each other’s healing provides another powerful conduit for God’s healing.
Clearing up one confusion
In our somewhat hierarchical structure, it is easy to see the prayers for healing from a priest in the sacrament of anointing and the laying on of hands as more efficacious than our prayers for one another’s healing. It’s true that while we can all lay hands on one another in prayer, only a priest has the authority to administer an anointing. This tension often translates into the expectation that the sacrament of healing is dependent on the presence of a priest.
This attitude is tantamount to what I call a belief in strong and weak medicine as in: he-im strong medicine – as Native Americans are given to say in Hollywood Westerns. It’s an understanding of prayer as somewhat magical. The miracle of healing is a conjuring up of a powerful magical medicine. Our hierarchical view of ministry leads us to view the priest as possessing strong healing, whereas baptized laypersons possess healing in a more diluted form.
But according to James the power for healing that resides in the elders of the church is not a product of their stronger magic. It is an expression of the prayer of the whole church –everyone’s prayers, concentrated and channeled through the conduit of the priest as a representative of the whole body. In this sense, the priest needs no special temperament for healing, for he or she is simply the conduit for the healing power of a community of prayer. In addition to the priest as the embodiment of the community of prayer, God also calls particular laywomen and men, who by virtue of their baptism are given a special temperament for healing. This is a personal charism or gift, to be used for the strengthening and healing of one another within the whole body of the faithful.
Clarification of a second confusion
Healing for those who still maintain a pre-modern mindset, is (mis)understood through the language of miracles. A miracle is defined as: an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (God or gods), a miracle worker, a saint or a religious leader. In contrast for those who hold a modern mindset, healing is often (mis)understood as curative. Used as a verb, cure means to: relieve the symptoms of a disease or condition. When used as a noun cure refers to: a substance or treatment that cures a disease or condition, i.e. a medicine.
Note the bracketed prefix – mis – above. For, from a spiritual or theological perspective healing is neither miracle, nor cure. Healing is an action of God, usually mediated through the prayerful orientation of the community, which brings about for the recipient a strengthening in confidence, an alteration of perception, and a shift in perspective. Healing restores us to both wholeness and holiness, and the process by which it occurs is complex and various.
In a sermon, I cannot wander into the complexities of the process of healing as it affects our physical, emotional and spiritual health. As we look forward to having more time for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, healing is an area I hope we can with some urgency, begin to explore in seminar and workshop format. A key area for further exploration is the complex nature of the psyche-soma connections and cross-overs. We are so conditioned by a rationalistic scientific point of view that understands soma – physical matter, to be foundational. This view relegates mind and soul to secondary positions as merely registers, places for the reverberation for the primacy of the physical.
A short example: heart issues are understood to be rooted in biological somatic causes, located in the malfunction of the heart muscle. This obscures the connection between stress and the heart’s response. Could not heart failure also be a registering of the emotional condition of unresolved stress, originating in the mind. It might equally be a somatic registering of the spiritual state often poetically referred to as a broken heart.
Yet, if we accept that human beings are psychosomatic creatures, then we have to accept that healing is a complex interplay of factors affecting all three domains. The sermon is a medium severely limited by time restriction and mode of presentation and is not conducive to the exploration of the interplay between psyche, here used in both the sense of mind and soul, and soma. It is enough to say here that healing operates as a dynamic process with divine origins, bringing soma, psyche, and soul into realignment.
Jesus in his ministry, as recorded in the Gospels performs what are usually referred to as miraculous, spontaneous healings. Why does he do this? Is he intent on wooing the crowds with feats of miracle working? Is he setting up a first-century version of medicins sans frontiers? The answer to these questions is a resounding no. Jesus is revealing the power and glory of God, and his healings are intended to bring about a realignment and reorientation in his hearers relationship to God.
The revival and strengthening of the church’s healing ministry is for me a central plank as our community at St Martin’s moves forward on a path of spiritual renewal. Although healing led by a lay person has been available on the third Sunday of the month, it is my hope that as we can gather a larger team of those who discover a call from God to participate in this ministry, we can offer healing prayer routinely on Sundays. The formal sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands is always available on request as is the sacrament of the reconciliation of the penitent.
To come for healing runs somewhat counter to the reserved New England temperament, which shuns public demonstrations of spirituality. Nevertheless, pray that through God’s blessing our renewal will begin to gather momentum. One fruit of this might be that many more of us within our community might feel emboldened to bring ourselves, our suffering, our anxiety, and our struggles for healing. Pray God to also raise up some amongst us who discern a calling to this ministry of prayer and human solidarity.