Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Experiencing Shalom

James 5:13-20

Let’s start by noticing the context of our passage this morning. Verse 13 mentions suffering. And if we look back, we find that the preceding verses, 7 through 12, also speak of suffering. And in those verses, the message is, “Be patient in suffering.”

But patience doesn’t mean we do nothing. Patience in suffering means that we pray. And we keep on praying. Prayer is perhaps the most fundamental part of our personal relationship with God. Prayer is talking to God and listening for God. So we should never stop praying. To do so is to neglect our relationship with God, and neglected relationships don’t last long. So keep on praying.

And if you’re not suffering, then you have reason to be thankful. So keep on singing praises to God. Maybe that’s harder than it is to keep on praying when we’re suffering. It’s easier to keep God in mind when we know that we need him. But when things are going well, we might imagine we don’t need God.

If we are sick, then we should call for the elders of the church. And, of course, the elders of the church should come.

Our “natural” reaction to sickness is usually to protect ourselves, by distancing ourselves from those who are ill. And, of course, knowing what we do about viruses, and how they’re transmitted, and all that, it makes a certain amount of sense. But we do the same thing even when the illness is not something communicable. It’s just our reaction to sickness: Stay away!

And that compounds the situation because then the person is not only dealing with a physical ailment, but also with the isolation it brings. And isolation is not good for us. I’ve heard and read many things over the years about how feeling isolated is a major factor in depression and other forms of mental illness.

The world says, “Stay away from sick people.” But in the Church, the sick are empowered to summon the elders. Elders, at this point, are not necessarily persons of some “official” position in the church. They are more likely just those who are respected for their leadership, wisdom, and maturity in the faith.

And the elders will pray over that person and anoint them with oil. Oil, specifically olive oil, was used medicinally in the ancient Near East. And it was also used as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s anointing. So prayer and medicine both play a role in healing. We shouldn’t neglect either of them when we are ill.

The early Church was renowned, even among non-believers, for their care of those who were ill. Often, no one else would do it. In many cases, converts to the faith were gained because of the care they received at the hands of Christians. And it was Christians who established many of the first hospitals in the Roman Empire. They were carrying on the ethic of 1st century Judaism, where visiting and caring for the sick were lifted up as acts of great piety.

“The prayer offered in faith will make them well, and their sins will be forgiven.” Here we find again that frequent link in the Scriptures between sin and sickness. What should we think about that? Are they connected? Do we get sick because we have sinned?

We cannot and should not say that there is a 100% cause-and-effect relationship. If someone gets seriously ill, we should not say to them, “It’s because you’ve sinned against God!” We are not in the position of making that proclamation!

But there is certainly a relationship between them. Both affect us in similar ways. Both sin and sickness cause a loss of shalom in our lives. The Hebrew word shalom is often just translated as peace. But that’s too narrow a definition. It’s really more the sense of wholeness and wellness. We have shalom when we are well in our body, at peace in our relationships with God and neighbor, and whole in our spirits. A loss of shalom in one area of life will lead to a loss of shalom in other areas of life. We are integrated beings. Our bodies, minds, spirits, emotions, and relationships are all interconnected. A troubled spirit will lead to a troubled mind, troubled emotions, and a troubled body. If we are fighting with someone close, we often feel unease in our bodies, and more distant from God. When we are sick, we feel distant from other people and from God. Is it too strange to think that unconfessed sin will affect our whole being? Perhaps even leading to illness? I think not.

So James says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” Really, James? Confess your sins to each other? Isn’t that a little too “Catholic?” Can’t we just go to God and confess our sins to God and only God?

Yes and no. There are good reasons that we should confess our sins to each other. For starters, the obvious reason is that often our sin is not just against God, but also against another person. And for the sake of shalom in our relationships, we should confess to the person against whom we have sinned. But second, it’s also good for us to hear those words of grace. Just to hear another person say, “Your sins are forgiven” is good for us. Sometimes we really need that. And finally, confessing our sins to each other is also good for our accountability. If someone else knows our struggles, they can pray for us and encourage us to stay faithful. So confessing our sins to each other can be good. Unfortunately, it’s not

something we are in the habit of doing, which is a shame, because it was an important part of the religious life of John Wesley and the early Methodists.

“The earnest prayer of a righteous person is powerful.” That’s a wonderful promise, but we need to keep two words in mind. The first is earnest, as in, not casual. We have to be intense, devoted, and persistent in our prayers. We have to keep on praying. Sometimes the thing we start out praying for is not the thing we end up praying for. Maybe we were praying for the wrong thing at first, and only after God revealed the right thing to pray for could the prayer become effective.

The second word is righteous; meaning a person who hears God, knows God’s will, and obeys God. The example is the prophet Elijah. Elijah was someone who knew God, listened for his word, and did what God commanded. He prayed for the rain to stop, and it stopped. Three years later he prayed for it to rain, and it did. But in the midst, he also prayed to know God’s will!

“Finally, if anyone wanders away from the truth, bring them back.” Ezekiel 18 is a good place in Scripture to remember that we can wander away from the truth. Ezekiel 18:24-25 says, “If righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start acting like other sinners, should they be allowed to live? No, of course not. Their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.”

Truth is not just an abstract or intellectual concept. It’s also a moral concept, a matter of right and wrong. Biblically speaking, truth must be loved (2 Thess. 2:10), obeyed (Galatians 5:7), practiced (1 John 3:21), and lived (3 John 4). We can wander away from the truth. But as long as we are on this side of eternity, we can also return to the truth and live in it again.

Now these verses have a lot to say about prayer and the power of prayer. But I think the real point of these verses is to remind us how God wants his people to experience shalom. God wants us to have peace with him, wellness in our bodies, and wholeness in our communities and relationships. That’s why we pray for each other, confess our sins to each other, and ask others to pray for us.

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