If you’ve been following the news reports about the bridge collapse in Italy, you may have heard that the designer of the bridge gave some warnings about its care nearly forty years ago. Riccardo Morandi pointed out that the salty sea air and pollution from a nearby steel plant were eating away at the bridge. He said that if the bridge was to remain strong, it would need repair of all the places where the concrete was eroding and rust was setting in. It would also need preventive maintenance to avoid future damage.
In a way, James’ letter is a lot like Morandi’s report. His readers were facing harsh conditions from the societies they lived in. James knew they needed to be alert to the erosion that could cause. Through the past few weeks, we’ve heard his words about the evidence of decay in the churches: the lack of works that reflected true faith, neglect of the poor and the powerless, words that tore down rather than built up, and a greater for the things the world offers than the peace and wisdom God offers. James had found cracks and rusty places in the Church, and he makes recommendations for how to repair them.
The first part of Chapter 5 continues in the same vein. James chastises the rich whose wealth has come through defrauding their workers. But in verse 7, James moves in a different direction. He moves from identifying damage and recommending repairs, to giving advice about preventive maintenance. The structural integrity of the church depended on a strong sense of community, where all the members could work together and count on each other, and that sense of community needs constant attention.
James knew that his churches were dealing with stresses of all kinds. They were being drawn toward what the world around them offered and expected. They had to bear the consequences of being different from others around them. And, they had to face all the stresses any group deals with—differences of opinion, different stages of life, differences in wealth and influence. All these sources of stress have the potential to drive a community apart.
Too often, a community under stress turns its anxiety inward, onto its own members. Now, as in James’ time, the world may seem too big and uncaring to take on so, instead, we turn our frustrations on the ones nearest us. We don’t have to look far to find examples. Families faced with illness or unemployment or addiction fall apart. Cities facing racism and poverty descend into violence among its citizens. Even churches feel the effects when its members are struggling. When the evidence of stress begins to appear, immediate repairs are needed if the community is to remain strong.
But repair of the broken places isn’t enough. Preventive maintenance is necessary, too. So, James turns his attention from correction to edification. I love that word, “edification.” I remember when I first encountered it in a Bible study, when we were studying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I always thought “edification” meant something like “education.” But the Greek word it comes from is actually related to construction—to an “edifice,” like a big building or a giant bridge. When we “edify” something we build it up. In his closing words, James gives his churches the tools they need to maintain and build up their communities and keep them strong.
There’s an interesting aspect of James’ letter that we haven’t touched on yet. It’s another one of the reasons some people didn’t want to include it in the Bible. This is the reason: that James only mentions Jesus twice in his whole letter. Probably, James didn’t need to specifically name Jesus. After all, many of his readers and listeners could have heard of or seen Jesus personally, or their parents had. And, if you read the letter with Jesus in mind, you can find him all over the place: his focus on caring for the poor, quotations of his words, and especially his emphasis on connection and community between believers of from all walks of life.
Jesus valued community. He didn’t undertake his ministry alone; he gathered the twelve disciples around him. He didn’t send his disciples out into the world alone to heal and preach; he sent them in groups. Jesus was clear that his followers were part of his family. When he prayed for them on the night when he was betrayed, he prayed that they would all be one as he and the Father were one—that they would continue their life together. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, the Spirit came to the whole gathered community, not just to individuals. Jesus knew that there is strength in numbers, as long as their bond remains strong. James provides practical advice for how the community that Jesus created could remain strong in their life together.
We can benefit from James’ words as we seek to keep our families, communities, and the Church healthy and strong. We need to know how to maintain our structural integrity as we wait for Jesus’ return, and James gives us a maintenance checklist to help us do that.
First of all, he says, we need to speak honestly with each other. He quotes his brother Jesus. “Don’t bolster your words by swearing to their truth. Just speak honestly. Say what you mean. If you mean yes, say yes. If you mean no, say no.” Honest conversation is an essential building block for a healthy community, whether that is a family or a village or a nation or a church. Trust is impossible if we can’t be sure that others are being honest with us. And others can’t trust us, if they’re not sure we’re being honest with them.
When differences arise, a healthy community can discuss those differences honestly and respectfully. We keep in mind the words we heard from James a few weeks ago, about how our speech reflects what we believe and who we are. As we speak the truth in love to each other, we are always to remember that we are speaking to people made in God’s image.
Next, James turns to how we should respond to the conditions of our lives. And there, too, we should respond honestly. If we’re happy, we are to invite the community into our joy. Has an addiction been conquered or a bad habit broken? Sing songs of praise. Has a new relationship begun or broken relationship restored? Sing songs of praise. Has a dream been realized? Sing songs of praise. A healthy community will sing with us.
On the other hand, is there a problem in your life that’s weighing you down? Is something keeping you awake at night, causing your stomach to knot up and your throat to tighten? Are you grieving the loss of a loved one, through death or estrangement? Are you beset by illness—physical, emotional, or psychological, your own or that of a loved one? James tells us to pray, and we can expect that a strong community will be with us in that, too.
James and his readers knew that prayer does more than simply communicate our needs to God (who already knows them anyway). They were acutely aware that everything that happens, happens in and to the community, not just an individual. Praying for and with each other acknowledges that connection and binds us together.
This is most clearly spelled out in James’ advice to sick. He says that they should call for the elders of church—the leadership—to pray over them and anoint them with oil in name of Lord. James makes it clear that the sick have a legitimate claim on the attention of all the leaders in the church. And, if they have a claim on the attention of the leadership, it follows that they have claim on the attention and support of the whole church community.
How often do we suffer in silence, thinking our problems aren’t big enough to trouble anyone with? We know there are bigger problems in the world, maybe even in our own congregation. We don’t want to put anyone out. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves. We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. Maybe we don’t want anyone to know are suffering.
But, James doesn’t put any qualifiers on how sick you need to be to claim the attention of the church. He doesn’t even make it an option. No; James says, if you’re sick, call on the leaders of the church. Because sharing our joy and our suffering are not intended to simply help the individual. It is essential preventive maintenance for the entire community. Our Book of Worship says that through baptism, we all become part of Christ’s body, and what affects one part will affect the whole body. It says that in baptism we are connected in such a way that “what happens to any member of the body of Christ will make a difference to every other member.”
What happens to you happens to me. What happens to me happens to you. When we are cheerful, the entire body experiences our joy. When we are suffering, our suffering affects every member in community, and the community—Christ’s Body—has the privilege and responsibility to help heal itself through prayer over the one who is sick. Both joy and suffering are the concerns of the entire community.
When the church is called upon in the midst of suffering, James prescribes two things: praying over the person who is sick, and anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The only way to “pray over” and anoint someone is to be present with them. Prayer chains are important, and individual intercessory prayer is a time-honored spiritual discipline. But, the prayer James speaks of is prayer “up close and personal.”
When we are physically present with the one who needs prayer, we can touch them and hold their hands, as Jesus so often touched the people he healed. When we lovingly and gently touch someone in need of prayer, our touch is a tangible expression of Jesus’ healing presence, working in and through us. We can’t do that from a distance.
Sickness isn’t limited to the body or the mind, of course. Sometimes the sickness is spiritual. Our sickness may be visible in our sinful actions. Or its symptoms may show when we begin to draw away from the truth of the Gospel. This sickness, too, is the concern of the entire body. And, James has advice for this, too. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed,” and “Bring back the one who wanders from the truth.” Sin does cause brokenness, and James knew that confession really is good for the soul. Confession and repentance, within a community bound together by trust and love, can lead to the forgiveness that heals brokenness of many kinds, of the individual and the entire community.
John Wesley understood this. As he traveled the countryside, he gathered people into communities called Methodist “societies,” which were made up of smaller groups called “bands.” These bands met to learn and grow in their faith, and to hold each other accountable for how they were living out their faith. Inspired by James’ words, they confessed their sins to one another and prayed over each other, so that together they could experience God’s healing power in a way that is impossible to experience alone. There is strength in numbers.
Speak honestly, sing joyfully, pray together, anoint, confess, and bring back: this is James’ checklist for keeping the community strong. And this is where we leave James. He has pointed out the weaknesses and failures of the Church. He has specified needed repairs, and he has laid out a plan for preventive maintenance. But through all of it, he wrote from a tender love for the churches his brother Jesus created through his death and resurrection, by the power of his Holy Spirit. As we complete our journey through James, may we now continue our faith journey with James, following his advice as we live together in Christian community. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young