PRAYER. PRAYER IS ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL RESOURCES GOD HAS GIVEN US. It can change lives, bringing healing and health, comfort, hope and peace.
It was a sense of being in the center of God’s will that gave Luther his great boldness in prayer. In 1540 Luther’s great friend and assistant, Frederick Myconius, became sick and was expected to die within a short time. On his bed he wrote a loving farewell note to Luther with a trembling hand. Luther received the letter and instantly sent back a reply: “I command thee in the name of God to live because I still have need of thee to survive me. For this I am praying, this is my will, and may my will be done, because I seek only to glorify the name of God.” The words are almost shocking to us, as we live in a more sensitive and cautious day, but they are certainly from God. For although Myconius had already lost the ability to speak when Luther’s letter came, in short time he revived. He recovered completely, and he lived six more years to survive Luther himself by two months.
Recently I worked with a person who was told they had a cyst on their Kidney. The doctor wished to investigate this further, so he ordered a CT scan. The results of the CT scan revealed that there was nothing there. The doctor concluded that the ultrasound result was a mistake, a human error. I choose to believe that the cyst was there, but God has intervened on my friend’s behalf to heal him of it in response to prayers. I am most grateful to God for such healing. Moreover, through the years, I have had the privilege of witnessing the healings of others too due to the power of prayer.
In the lesson from James, the apostle also attests to the healing power of prayer. Note how James instructs the community of faith to pray and then advises that the prayers of the faithful be combined with anointing of the sick with oil in the name of the Lord, as well as confession and forgiveness of sins.
In the Episcopal church, more and more we are discovering the power of prayer in connection with anointing with oil for healing. That’s why a growing number of congregations are offering healing services. Some people may still be somewhat reticent to participate in such anointing and healing services because they tend to associate such things with the televangelists, and the fanatics. But, our passage from James comes as a reassurance that it is an integral part of the mainstream Christian community dating back to the first century. Some may wonder under what circumstances is it appropriate to seek prayer and anointing with oil.
Anointing may be of real help to you in times of:
Physical illness. You may have received a disturbing diagnosis from your physician, or you have been battling a chronic or life-threatening illness.
Accident or sudden trauma. You may be coping with the consequences of severe injuries or a loss of body function in a permanent handicap.
Impending surgery. You may be facing the fear and anxiety of an operation with an uncertain prognosis.
Critical decisions. You may be faced with choices affecting your job, your marriage, or your future that seem overwhelming.
Risk and vulnerability. You may be undertaking a new assignment in strange territory, involving considerable risk to you and those whom you love.
Reconciliation. You have just experienced a breakthrough in restoring a relationship that when broken, caused you much anguish and suffering.
Emotional pain. You recall memories that arouse fear and guilt upon the loss of someone especially close to you.
Spiritual renewal. You have experienced the closeness of God in a new way and found joy in renewing relationships with Christian brothers and sisters from whom you were estranged.
In any one of these experiences the service of anointing can bring healing, forgiveness, peace, and a profound sense of God’s enabling presence.
As an act of worship, anointing does not substitute for medicine or therapeutic procedures. It is intended to work in cooperation with the applied skills of persons in medical and mental health professions.
It is not always the case that the amount of faith determines the outcome of healing. The ways of God abound in mystery and we never presume to use anointing as a manipulation of God’s power.
The service of anointing is rooted in the practice and teachings of Jesus himself in his public ministry, as well as his apostles, in particular, James chapter five. It is a worship service of: confession and forgiveness, scripture readings, prayers with laying on of hands, and anointing by the pastor dipping their thumb in olive oil and making the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. The participants often receive a deepened sense of Christ’s love and peace; a renewed strength to cope with their situation; a more hopeful attitude; and reconciliation with others through confession and forgiveness.
What an odd juxtaposition this idea of “if you are ill, send for the elders and they will anoint you with oil and pray for you; confess your sins, and you may become well.” Yet, doctors deal with people every day who say things like, “This job is such a pain in the neck,” and rub their necks, proving that what they say is literally true. “This situation with my wife is really getting me down” can be followed rapidly by a bad case of the flu. “My teacher makes me sick!” keeps many a child in bed with stomach cramps and fever. As many as the people who cannot get along with their bosses, getting a headache that will keep them home for the day.
Doctors today are beginning to point to unresolved tensions and conflicts as being the root cause of many of the illnesses that beset us day by day. Find the spiritual, psychological or interpersonal problems facing an individual, and you will have cured the ulcer, tension headache, spastic colon and rheumatoid arthritis. Give the cancer patient a new slant on life, a new sense of power, and many will go into remission, and some will even overcome the cancer entirely.
Modern medicine is only beginning to understand the power of confession and forgiveness, prayer, laying on of hands and anointing in the healing process.
Turning back to James, it is rather instructive, I believe, that he concludes his letter not with greetings or blessings to his audience—but rather, addressing the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps his heart is deeply burdened by a faith community that has need of forgiveness and reconciliation, so he feels the need to make this final appeal, hoping that those estranged from each other will resolve their differences. Or, perhaps James wished to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation by repeating this theme again because he believed it was the most central component of the church’s ministry. Whatever James’ reasons, it is clear that James is confident those who are able to win back the ones who wandered away open the door to new life and new opportunities when he says: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
A king once had a beautiful diamond. It was large and rare and he was very proud of it. One day, the diamond was scratched and became so disfigured that none of the court jewelers would risk trying to remove the mark. The king became very unhappy.
Not long afterwards, a new young jeweler came to court. He examined the diamond carefully and promised that he could make it even better than before. The king was very skeptical, but he decided to give the man a chance, so he handed over the diamond. When it was returned to him, the king was amazed, for the craftsman had engraved a beautiful rosebud around the flaw, and the ugly scratch had become the stem. It was, indeed, more beautiful than it was.
Sometimes we are all apt to think that something—a plan or a relationship—has been ruined. Instead of giving it up as a bad job, it’s always worth taking another look. So often there is a way, not only of saving the situation, but of making it even better than before.
James is leaving us with a note of hope for wandering, wayward sinners; he encourages us not to write them off; but to seek them out offering forgiveness and reconciliation. This too is at the heart of who Jesus was and what his ministry was all about. He came to seek and to save not the righteous, but the lost, the sinners, the outcasts. May we, with James and Jesus go out in hope and love to do likewise. Amen.