May 26, 2024 – Spirit-Filled People Healed

James 5:13-16

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 your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 

Spirit-Filled People: Healed

All right, friends: we’re back for another week of exploring what it means to be a congregation that is filled with the Holy Spirit!  We started this journey last week, on Pentecost Sunday, which is essentially the “birthday” of the Christian movement.  Last week we remembered how God sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples as they were gathered in Jerusalem 50 days after the resurrection, and how the Spirit appeared like wind and fire; how the disciples were given the ability to speak different languages so that they could go out and share the Good News of Jesus all around the world!  And today, we’re going to take a look at the next part of the story—what happened after the miracle of Pentecost.  Because the story doesn’t end there; it’s really just beginning! 

The Pentecost story is found in the Book of Acts, which is the fifth book of the New Testament.  It’s a sort of sequel to the previous four books, which are the Gospels that tell us all about the life and work of Jesus…so Acts is essentially follow-up where we hear about how the disciples continued to spread Jesus’ message throughout the Roman Empire after the resurrection.  Pentecost happens at the very beginning of chapter 2, and at the end of that chapter we hear about the aftermath of the Holy Spirit’s arrival—how the crowds listened to the disciple’s message, and how 3000 of them were baptized that very day.  It then goes on to say that these 3000 new believers went on to form the very first churches: they gathered together to pray and share meals.  They sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor.  They studied together, worshipped together, and walked the way of Jesus as a community. 

And last week, as we celebrated Pentecost, we spent a lot of time talking about baptism and remembering our baptisms—remembering that, just like those first 3000 believers in Jerusalem, we have been washed and cleansed and called to a new and holy way of living.  Today, we’re going to turn our attention to another practice that kept the early Christian connected to the Holy Spirit—the practice of praying together.  Specifically, we’re going to look at what it means to pray together as a community for healing, and what it means for God’s healing to be at work in our lives.  And we’re going to do this by taking a closer look at the Scripture reading we just heard from the Letter of James. 

The Letter of James can be found near the end of the New Testament.  It probably dates back to the end of the first century, and it was written as a letter of instruction and encouragement to some of the earliest Christian communities.  And in chapter 5, James has a lot to say about prayer and healing—so much, in fact, that I’m going to this sermon a little differently than usual.  Today, I’m going to go line-by-line through this passage and unpack it a little bit at a time, because there is a lot going on here, and there is also a lot that’s easy to misunderstand.  So buckle up—we’re diving deep today!

Our passage today begins in verse 13, with James asking:

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” 


Now what I love about this is that the prescription for both situations is essentially the same: no matter how things are going, no matter what your current circumstances are, the answer is always to go to God.  Suffering doesn’t mean that God is not with you, and good times don’t mean that God is extra-with you.  God is present in all things, and we’re called to be in communication with God no matter what. 

Which is such a great reminder, especially for us as 21st-century American Christians, because our religious landscape has been so infiltrated by something called the “prosperity gospel”…which is nothing at all like the real Gospel!  Prosperity gospel Christianity says that if life is going well and if things are easy, then it’s because you’ve done something right and you’ve earned God’s favor…and conversely, that if you’re experiencing illness or poverty or challenges, then it’s a punishment; a sign that you’ve done something wrong.  But that’s not how it works, and James makes that pretty clear in that verse we just looked at! Let’s go back to it for a minute: what’s he saying here?  Is he saying “If anyone is suffering, just tell them to think positive, try harder, and be a better person?” No! The answer is pray! Take it to God in prayer!  And he’s not saying “Hey, if you’re cheerful, then keep up the good work because you’re clearly God’s favorite!” No, he says “praise God and remember that God is good!” And there’s an implication here that categories aren’t permanent: someone might be suffering today and cheerful tomorrow, or vice-versa.  And the Good News for us is that God doesn’t cease to be good when we cease to feel cheerful!  God is good all the time!

Let’s go on to verse 14:

“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.” 

So what we have here is an endorsement of communal prayer—people praying for each other together, in community.  And the cool thing here is the transparency…if someone is ill, they’re not supposed to just grin and bear it and act like everything is okay for the sake of appearances.  They’re supposed to let their community know and ask others for prayer!  And here’s another interesting tidbit about this verse: back in ancient times, oil was used not just for religious rituals but also for medicinal reasons.  And a lot of oils were pricey, and not necessarily easy for poor Christians to come by, so in order for the whole congregation to have access to this medicine the wealthier members basically had to subsidize the less-wealthy.  It was the task of those who were well-off to ensure that the congregation had the resources they needed to minister to everyone in times of sickness and distress. 

Then we get to verse 15:

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” 

Now here’s where we have to be really careful about interpretation—especially the first eight words that I’ve underlined!  Because it’s easy to hear these words and go “Great! Prayer will cure everything! If someone I care about is sick, I’ll just pray and then they’ll get better!”  Which sometimes happens…sometimes people recover from illnesses.  But what happens when they don’t?  Does that mean that our prayers didn’t work?  Does that mean that we weren’t faithful enough?  Why doesn’t prayer cure everything?

Well, here’s something worth considering: does verse 15 say the prayer of the faith will cure the sick?  No…it says it will save the sick!  And this might be hard to remember sometimes, especially in a world of modern medicine, but the truth is that “saving the sick” doesn’t necessarily mean a physical, earthly cure! I remember back when I was in college and first exploring my call to ministry, I took a class on church leadership and one of our assignments was to shadow a pastor in the area and make hospital calls with them.  And I’ll never forget what the pastor I shadowed told me about praying for folks in the hospital: he said that whenever he prays at someone’s bedside, especially if they have a serious illness or condition, he never prays for the person to be “cured”…he prays for them to be “healed.” And the reason for this is that curing suggests a medical fix, and sometimes healing takes place that way, but healing can also be much broader than that. 

Sometimes healing is physical; other times, especially in cases of terminal illness, healing might be spiritual or relational. It might mean coming to a sense of peace with God, or reconciling with an estranged loved one before you pass.  That kind of healing is just as important as being healed in the body…and honestly, there are some cases where the Holy Spirit works God’s healing by gently ushering a person into eternity. 

You know, one of my favorite hospital calls that I ever did was about three years ago with Barb Eberle, who was a member who attended the first service.  I’d been told that she was going onto hospice care, so I went in ready for a very quiet and somber visit—sometimes when someone goes onto hospice they’re not responsive, and I wondered if that might be the case for her—but when I got there, she was sitting up in bed and smiling and chatting and she just seemed so happy.  And I asked how she was feeling, and she said “Well, there’s just so much going wrong with my body right now, and the doctors can’t fix it…but I know where I’m going, and I know that God’s gonna get me all fixed up when I get there!”  And then she made a quip about she had a flu shot scheduled for the next week, and how nice it was that she wasn’t going to be around for that appointment! 

And I left Barb’s hospital room filled with a sense of awe that day. I in awe of her faith, in awe of the way that the Spirit was clearly at work in her even as she approached the end of her life, and in awe of her trust in God’s healing power.  I was humbled by her wisdom in knowing that earthly healing isn’t the end-all-be-all; that sometimes healing happens in a way that we can’t quite comprehend on this side of things! 

And when we’re thinking about healing, I think it’s also worth remembering that sometimes, God doesn’t work on our timeframe…and sometimes the answer to prayer comes later than we were expecting.  In fact, James actually alludes to this earlier in chapter 5: right before the passage we’re studying today, James reminds the early Christians that sometimes faithfulness requires patience, and that no matter how faithful we are, there will be times of hardship and difficulty in our lives. That’s why James says a few verses earlier, “You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near…As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.  Indeed, we call blessed those who showed endurance.”  So in other words, hardships don’t mean that you’re not blessed…it just means that you’re human.

So what are we supposed to do?  We suffering-prone human beings?  Well, James addresses this in verse 16 when he says:

“Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” 

So once again, we see a reminder to pray for one another—and again, we see a promise of healing…not necessarily a promise of medical curing, but rather a promise of restoration and being made whole, whether that’s physically or otherwise.   And notice that line about the prayer of the righteous being “powerful” and “effective”…I looked up those words in the Greek, and the word for powerful literally means “something that prevails”, while “effective” means “something that is actively working.”  I absolutely love that description of prayer! When a congregation prays together, it is powerful—it prevails over the forces of human brokenness.  And when we pray together, it is effective—it is working something real in our lives.

And it’s so clear here that what James is talking about here is prayer that happens in the context of relationship.  He’s describing what happens when we pray for each other and care for each other, and he’s describing the power that we encounter when we choose to be part of God’s community, and when we choose to love each other as Jesus loved.   

I want to transition into our time of praying together today by sharing with you really briefly two memorable experiences that I’ve had with community prayer.  Both of them were in the context of a group that I was in several years ago; a group that was made up of young clergy who got together regularly for conversation and support.  We often prayed for each other by circling around each other and laying hands on the person we were praying for, and there were two memorable occasions where I found myself at the center of the prayer circle.  Once was when I was newly pregnant with Evie and needing to go in for weekly bloodwork to make sure the pregnancy was viable, and another was at a time when I was dealing with a lot of intense anxiety.  In both of these times, my friends and colleagues surrounded me and held me and prayed for me.  And it’s interesting to ponder the question of whether or not their prayers were “effective”…I mean, I had a healthy full-term pregnancy with Evie, so does that indicate that those set of prayers worked?  On the other hand, my anxiety didn’t miraculously dissipate immediately following the second prayer, so does that mean it was somehow less effective?

Looking back, I think both prayers were equally powerful and effective, and I believe that both prayers truly involved the work of God and the work of God’s people!  Because in both cases, it was healing and restorative for me to know that I had this group of friends who loved me and had my back and were joining me in bringing my needs and concerns to God.  God’s love was made known to me through their love, and being surrounded by that community reminded me that God’s healing power really was at work in my life no matter what happened next. 

And friends, the Good News is this: God’s healing power is at work in your life as well!  Even if you can’t see it or feel it right now, even if it doesn’t always take place in the ways you expect.  You are held in God’s love, and you are surrounded by the healing presence of the Holy Spirit in all the circumstances life brings your way.  Thanks be to God, and Amen! ~ Pastor Emily Cannon