"THE ACHILLES HEEL OF THE CHURCH"

JAMES 5:13-18

OCTOBER 7, 2012

 

PLAY AUDIO

 

A couple of Sunday's ago I told you of one of Trudy and my favorite things to do:  balance our bank account.  We so look forward to the first week of the month when the bank statement becomes available online and we make a date night of it, reconciling the bank statement.

            Now let me tell you something more about exciting times in the Meyer household.  Three of my favorite days of the week are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday because those are the days I do the laundry.  On Tuesday I do the darks.  On Thursday I do the towels and the lights.  On Saturday I do the sheets.  It's not a job Trudy particularly likes to do so I do it, and I love it. 

            And over the years I have developed a theology based on the disappearance of socks in the laundry.  I call it "sockology."  I have boiled down the disappearance of socks to two possible theories.  The first theory is the "alternate universe" theory.  That is to say, there is an alternate universe that coexists with our own universe and somewhere in the washing machine or the dryer, I'm not sure which yet, a sock disappears from our universe and reappears in the alternate universe.  That's why we sometimes are short one sock after doing the laundry.  My other theory is the "chemical theory."  By that I mean, socks form a curious semi-crystalline complex, and when socks are in the wash they are temporarily liquified, and every now and again one of the socks fails to crystallize into a solid again, and will go down the drain, and thus, we will be missing a sock. 

            Hopefully, in the upcoming months I will be able to prove which theory - the alternate universe theory or the chemical therapy - is the correct theory.  But that's not the only thing that puzzles me.  The other thing that puzzles me has to do with our passage for today, specifically prayers for healing.   Trudy and I were walking together on Monday morning, and she said, "This was the month last year the doctors told Brenda there was no use in undergoing further treatment for her ovarian cancer."  Some of you remember Brenda.  She and her husband Randy worshipped here a handful of times.  She died last Thanksgiving morning, and did we ever pray for her.  We prayed for her during worship.  Her church prayed for her during worship.  They even had the elders of her church gather at her house and lay hands on her and pray.  Yet she died.  It didn't seem like the prayers of  faith - ours and our church's and her church's and her family's prayers of faith - saved her.

            Prayers of faith, however, seem to have worked in other instances.  Trudy and I have season tickets to the Omaha Symphony Pops Series, and we went to see Olivia Newton-John perform with the Omaha Symphony last weekend.  Olivia Newton-John told of her battle with breast cancer and how she has been a cancer survivor now for twenty years.  Why was she spared?  Why did the prayers of faith work for Olivia and not Brenda? 

            Healing prayer is so puzzling.  Sometimes we pray and people are healed and sometimes we pray and they are not.  With these contradictory results we wonder if our prayers for healing have any affect at all.  We wonder, usually to ourselves, if these people would have been healed without our prayers.  Are we justified as followers of Jesus Christ to raise people's expectations, especially knowing that many people are not healed no matter how hard we pray?  Most of us have many questions, and maybe even some reservations, when it comes to praying for someone's healing.

            So what do we do in response to what James encourages us to do this morning?   Let me remind you of his words,

 

            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 ...

 

            The  Roman Catholic basis for the Sacrament of the Last Rites comes from these verses.  It started out as simply praying for the sick, for their physical healing, and over time, morphed into the Sacrament of the Last Rites - a prayer for the sick that would save their soul and resurrect their bodies.  Protestants never morphed into the Last Rites.  Protestants continue to see these verses as a call to pray for physical, mental, spiritual, healing of the sick. So, in response to James' words here I want to offer four statements. 

            Statement One:  We cannot overlook the centrality of healing in the New Testament.  Healing itself was at the very heart of Jesus' ministry.  The Gospel writers devote roughly one-fifth of the Gospels to Jesus' healing ministry.  Furthermore, after Jesus' ascension into heaven, the early church continued this ministry of healing.  The Book of Acts, which is a brief history of the early church has stories of healing in seven of its twenty-eight chapters.  The Apostle Paul even listed healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit.  Then we have James' instructions here.  And remember, James was a spiritual heavyweight in the early church.  Not only was he Jesus' half-brother, but also he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem.  He rivaled Peter in terms of respect of Jewish Christians. 

            As a quick aside, you might remember that there were two major brands of Christianity in the first and second centuries.  The Gentile brand fostered by Paul and Barnabas and Silas, and the Jewish brand fostered by Peter and James.  Now, Jewish Christians brought with them many of their Jewish customs, practices and rituals.  One had to do with healing.  When a Jew was ill, it was customary to go to the Rabbi first rather than the doctor, and the Rabbi would anoint the person with oil and pray over him or her.  Then, the person would go to the doctor.  So when James instructs the sick to call for the elders, he is invoking a Jewish practice that would have been familiar to the congregation in Jerusalem. 

            Of course, if James were here today I would ask him one question:  Did it always work?  One of the problems we have when reading the New Testament, except for one or two instances, healing always took place.  People who hadn't walked for year suddenly do jumping jacks.  What a sharp contrast from today!  Some have attempted to explain the difference by saying the first century church lived in what they call "The Age of Miracles."  They contend that special powers like healing, miracles, prophecies were given to the early church to jump start it, to better compete with the other religions of the day, but when the church was firmly established they were no longer required to build the church.  They say, "That's why we don't see cripples doing jumping jacks today."  Miraculous gifts of healing were only given to the first century church.

            This brings me to statement two:  I believe genuine miracles of healing continue to take place today.  Some happen in concert with the skills and methods of medical science and some take place quite independently of the field of medicine.  I, for one, am convinced that a physician, nurse, medical technician, research scientist, psychiatrist and psychologist are often partners with Christ in modern day miracles.  I praise the efforts of Christians in the medical field who view their work as an extension of Christ's healing ministry.

            In addition, what we might call a pure or undiluted miracle, when someone is healed after science has given up and the doctor has said, "There is nothing more we can do," continues to happen today.  My initial experience with this took place while in seminary.  Trudy, not me, but Trudy went with a group of friends, to one of Katherine Kuhlman's healing services.  At the time, in the early 70's, Kuhlman had a weekly television program where she interviewed people who had been healed during on of her healing services.  Of course, I was skeptical, very skeptical.  Yet, Trudy decided to go, I didn't want to waste my time, and while Trudy was at the service one of the people with whom Trudy had gone to the service regained her hearing.  This young girl had a severe hearing loss which doctors could not heal, and suddenly her hearing improved dramatically.  The girl hadn't even gone forward like the others seeking healing.  God just healed her in her seat. 

            So even though there may be reports to the contrary, God has not gone out of the miraculous healing business.  Statement three, God determines the outcome.  Of course, some deny that.  Some falsely contend that it has to do with the quality of our prayer.  For them healing is quite simple.  You can usually catch these people on TV.  For them all one needs to do is have enough faith and healing will come.  Of course, that flies in the face of the example of the Apostle Paul, who prayed for healing of the thorn in his flesh, which was probably his failing eyesight, but it did not come.  Even though we may have the faith of an Apostle Paul, God may still say, "No."  Healing, why it sometimes happens and sometimes does not, depends on God, and trying to determine why God heals sometimes and doesn't at other times reminds me of the little boy who asked his father, "Dad, what makes an elephant so big?"

            "I don't know," the father responded.

            "What, then, makes an ant so little?" the boy wanted to know.

            "I'm not sure, Son."

            "Dad," the boy asked, "am I bothering you with my questions?"

            "Not at all," the father replied.  "After all, asking questions is the only way for you to learn anything."

            Even though we do not have the answer to why God sometimes says, "Yes," and sometimes, "No," to our prayers for healing, what we do know for sure is faith alone does not insure healing.  Faith is a much needed condition of healing.  James reminds us of that, however, God ultimately calls the shots.  We don't.

            The last statement I want to make this morning is this:  the instruction for elders to pray for the sick did not stop with the first century church.  Some are reluctant to follow James' instructions here because they fear the embarrassing consequences of what might happen if we do what James suggests and we fail.  That is, if we pray for healing and nothing happens they believe that puts the Scriptures and God in a bad light.  So in order to protect God's reputation, or to guard against getting someone's hopes up, they refrain from praying for healing. 

            James counsel, however, is pretty clear.  He says, "Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them ..."  He did not say, "Pray only if the odds are good."  He said, "Are any among you sick?  Then pray."

            In light of this, here's the deal.  If you are sick, and want me to gather some elders together to anoint you with oil and pray for you, I will do just that.  If God chooses not to heal you physically, that's God's problem.  I figure God knows what God is doing. 

            In closing, let me quote someone.  Magdalene Crocker.  She wrote a song while her husband was in Burma riding elephants into remote villages to preach the gospel.  The song is "I don't need to understand."  The lyric is "I don't need to understand.  I just need to hold His hand." 

            Amen.