September 30, 2012
(James 5, 13-20; Mark 9 38-50. Proper 21B)
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. (Jas 5.16)
What does that mean?
To some it means Christians should rely on prayer to heal them. Last month there was a debate in the media about the ethics of cases where parents of seriously ill children insisted on the continuation of invasive medical treatments, which medical professionals considered pointless, because of their belief that the child would be cured by divine intervention prompted by their prayers.
And until relatively recently, members of the Christian Science sect refused normal medical care because of their belief that prayer alone would heal them. These cases are very problematic for those concerned with medical ethics, especially when they concern children who are too young to have consciously adopted religious beliefs for themselves.
However, the passage can be a problem even for those who don’t refuse modern medical treatment. All churches pray for the healing of their sick members. What do we expect to happen? How do we react to those who say: “I prayed for my loved one who is ill, but they didn’t get better. What went wrong? Was I not righteous enough for my prayers to be powerful?” There are no simple answers to these questions.
This passage can also be used to support teaching that I believe is a distortion of Christian teaching. When I was a secondary school teacher, a speaker came to our lunchtime Christian Union to talk about prayer. One of the teenagers asked why her aunt was continuing to suffer from her illness, even though she had prayed for her. The speaker answered that this was because the prayer was not ‘in the Holy Spirit’; the Holy Spirit obviously wanted something different to happen to the child’s aunt, and because those who prayed for her weren’t praying for the same thing, God was making her aunt continue to suffer. I think that answer probably destroyed the child’s faith in a loving God; I believe the visiting speaker was profoundly wrong in his analysis and was himself not speaking ‘in the Holy Spirit’. I don’t believe in a God who heals or sends illness on people according to whether they or their family prays in the right way, or prays at all. That is not the God who was revealed through the life & teaching of Jesus.
So how do we decide on the relationship between belief, prayer and scientific medical treatment? Is prayer for healing a waste of time, as many prominent atheists would have us believe?
Most of the evidence about the relationship between prayer, faith and healing is anecdotal. Some people believe that prayer has healed them – I have a friend who sincerely believes that the prayers of her church caused a cancer to disappear in between its discovery and the beginning of treatment. Others, and I am among them, feel that the prayers of others, while not curing their illness in the medical sense, helped them to cope better with the diagnosis and treatment and life-changes which that illness involved.
There is some limited scientific evidence to support the beneficial effects of faith and prayer. Studies show that religious faith, on average, increases length of life, reduces physical and mental ill-health and that sometimes people who are prayed for recover better than those who are not. But against that, you have to put the fact that the most prayed for people are probably our Royal Family, and they are not noticeably healthier or happier than the general population, although some of them, the women in particular, seem to live a long time!
If we look at the passage from the letter of James, we can see that it is not giving us a systematic guide to prayer for healing. Our passage needs to be taken in the context of the whole letter, which is actually about Christian speech and its connection to Christian action; and the section on prayer is found among other sections which talk about expressions of faith, the evils that the uncontrolled tongue can cause, swearing, prejudice and confession.
It is not saying that the only way to deal with human suffering is to pray. Earlier sections of the letter say just the opposite to that – that words without actions are not the Christian way. James gives guidance on the way that believers should express themselves in different circumstances: to sing when they are happy and to give praise to God even in bad times. The advice to pray when you are sick forms part of a section addressed to the whole church, which advises that when someone is sick, the elders should go to visit them, not only to pray but also to anoint them with oil. Oil was a medicine in New Testament times, so the elders’ prayer involve practical medical help as well. It is typical of James to link words with actions.
The passage also reflects a belief in the connection between a person’s mental and spiritual state and their physical health, which has been endorsed by modern psychology. A person who is anxious or wracked with guilt is less able to recover than one who is calm and optimistic. The prayers of the elders, their visit which gives the sick person human contact, the power of human touch in anointing, the easing of conscience through the confession of sins, and assistance from fellow church members in reconciling broken community relationships are all things that may contribute to the healing of the sick.
It is important also to recognise that this passage is not just talking about physical illness. In New Testament Greek the same words are used for ‘healing’ and for ‘saving’, and for both ‘saviour’ and ‘physician’. Healing for the first Christians was about much more than physical health; it encompassed the whole person, body, mind and spirit, being brought into balance and communion with God. That, I believe, is what Christian healing and Christian prayer should be concerned with.
Our two readings should also prompt us to question the belief held by some in the church that the only healing that can be ascribed to God is ‘miraculous ‘ healing which goes against the expectations of the medical profession, and that comes as an answer to the prayers of the faithful.
This belief reflects the attitude of the disciples in our Gospel passage, who complain to Jesus when someone who is not a disciple cures someone in his name. (Perhaps, as one commentator suggested, they are especially cross about this as earlier in the same chapter Mark shows them as failing to perform a similar exorcism). Jesus, however is very relaxed about it, and tells them that whoever is not specifically speaking against the work of the Kingdom is for it. This reflects the teaching in Matthew 25, that it is good deeds that address human need which are the criteria for approval by God, not signing up to a church or to specific beliefs about God.
Mark links this incident to several disconnected sayings about what encourages and what can provide barriers to those who are on the fringe or new to the faith. Jesus uses the typical exaggerated Jewish speech of his time to make it very plain just how serious this problem is for the growth of the Kingdom. We are not really expected to cut off our feet or hands, or tear out our eyes if they lead us or others astray, but we are supposed to be self-critical, and very aware of how our words and actions affect the way the Christian faith is seen by others. What we may need to amputate in order to improve the church’s image is not part of our physical body, but our exclusiveness, our sense of being ‘the chosen ones’, our criticism of others, and our hypocrisy.
Often (and even in the New Testament) Jesus’s words have been turned round to say that anyone who is not for Christ is against him. But that was very clearly not Jesus’s attitude. Other writers in the New Testament, like Luke and Paul, recognise the power to heal as a gift of the Spirit; but we don’t need to assume that it is a gift which is linked only to healing through prayer, or even only to practising Christians.
Christians in the medical professions, or who work as counsellors or therapists or in projects that build and heal communities, are assisting in God’s work of healing; but so are non-Christians who do this work. All of them, whether they acknowledge it or not, are helping to build the Kingdom. People who try to limit God’s work to Christians, or even worse, to one sort of Christians, are, in my judgement, working against the Kingdom, because that sort of attitude actively deters others from hearing the Gospel message. There is so much good being done in the world, by all sorts of different people; it is tragic when Christians refuse to co-operate in that work with others because of denominational, theological or religious differences. It is equally tragic when Christians are prevented from taking the opportunities that come their way to bring healing because of rules and regulations, hierarchies or church structures.
It is tragic when Christians become known as people who are always speaking against other people, because they are of a different faith or a specific gender, or sexuality, or because they choose to live in certain ways, rather than being known as people who are for things, like whatever is pure, just, honourable and worthy of praise, as Paul recommends to the Philippians.(4.8) If Christians followed this advice, we would be known as a very different sort of religion.
Brian McClaren wrote about his dream that Christians would be part of that sort of religion in his book “A Generous Orthodoxy”. He wrote: ‘I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn’t come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace with other religions. If anything I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul calls ‘the law’) by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up a new something beyond religion – a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone, but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children. It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion, but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God”.
I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers in which we try to align our wills with the will of the God who loves every human being, and with divine grace, forgives all sins. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are prayers which mirror Jesus in rejoicing in what is good, what reconciles, what builds community, what brings peace, no matter whoever is doing it. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which ask the help of the Holy Spirit to bring healing and salvation to people in need, whether that means physical recovery, or calm acceptance of continuing illness and coming death, or reconciliation, lifting of guilt and peace of mind. I believe that the prayers of the righteous which are powerful and effective are those which are not just words, but are followed by action, by those who known themselves to be the Body of Christ on earth.
May we pray and work to become a community of powerful and effective prayer of that kind. In the name of Christ
September 16, 2012
(Isaiah 50, 4-9a; James 3, 1-12; Mark 8 27-38) (Yr B proper 19)
“Sticks and stones can break my bone, but words will never hurt me”.
It’s a rhyme we teach our children in an attempt to help them to stand up to verbal bullying and name calling in the playground. But they know it’s rubbish and so do we; words can and do often hurt deeply. Just think of the furore this week over the words published in the newspapers and repeated by politicians about the football fans involved in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The hurt from those words has lasted for 23 years.
Words can cripple. We know now that if you tell someone often enough that they are stupid, they will stop trying to learn. If you are blamed for abuse committed against you, eventually you feel guilty.
And words can sometimes kill. We all know about bullying of children at school, and especially now cyberbullying, which can lead to the suicide of vulnerable young people. And in some parts of the world, like Pakistan, North Africa or Uganda, an accusation of insulting the Koran or the Prophet Muhammed, or of being homosexual, can lead to imprisonment, execution or lynching.
Words are powerful. Words can and do cause enormous hurt.
All three of our readings today have something to tell us about words. Second Isaiah the author of the Old Testament reading has been given the vocation of a teacher. He tries to speak God’s word of comfort and warning to the exiles in Babylon. His words don’t hurt others, but they bring him opposition, persecution and disgrace. We know from history, and especially the history of our church, that is often the fate of prophets and teachers who say what the powerful don’t want people to hear. It was the fate of Jesus, and it is the fate of radical teachers still.
The writer of the Letter of James also comments on the role of the teacher (and the preacher!) He warns them that they will be judged by their words. As you will see if you read the Letter of James in full, he is very sceptical about a faith that is just words. He instructs all servants of God to demonstrate their faith in action; and since teachers of the faith are the most visible followers of the Lord, he is especially insistent that they do. Since Christians are so often accused by their opponents of being hypocrites, it is a warning we should all take to heart!
He realises how very important preaching is, and how much influence it has over those on the fringes of faith, and outside. As a lay preacher, I wish that some churches realised this too. Some make a great deal of fuss about who may preside at communion, but allow untrained and unauthorised people to preach and teach, which in my view can be much more damaging to the faith of people who hear them.
James uses typical Jewish exaggeration to make his point about the dangers of the tongue. This is a passage which repeats warnings found in the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, in Proverbs and Eccelsiasticus, about the dangers of speaking without proper thought. Although at the end of the passage he says that the same small organ can be used for praise and cursing, in the rest of the passage he paints the tongue as all evil, like a tree that bears a mixture of fruit, a spring that gives both good and tainted water, and an uncontrollable animal. In verse 6 especially, ( a verse which translators have great difficulty with) he says the tongue is the root of all evil.
He speaks of the tongue as like a spark which starts a forest fire. How true we can see that is, in a week where enormous damage has been done, and lives lost, because of the words broadcast on You Tube in a film about Islam. James reminds us about the difficulty of controlling our tongues. It is a lesson we all would do well to learn, and to revisit frequently.
Although James says here that there is no controlling the tongue, in the following verses he does suggest what can control the tongue and rash speech – and that is Wisdom. Wisdom in the Old Testament was an attribute of God, and the early Christians linked Wisdom with the Word of God, embodied in Jesus. So, following Jesus is the way to gain control over the tongue.
But what exactly does that mean? The gospel passage is the famous conversation on the way to Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asks his disciples who they and other people think he is, and Peter replies “The Messiah”. This may be an actual conversation which took place, but is more likely to be a reflection by the gospel writer of the theology that the disciples arrived at following the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We follow Jesus as God’s Messiah or Christ. But that is not as simple as it sounds.‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ can mean different things to different people. As the story illustrates, Peter understood something different about the mission of God’s Messiah from the vocation that Jesus had. Peter seems to have seen it in terms of a victory over the Romans and the other forces of oppression, perhaps through military might, crowd violence or even divine intervention. Jesus’s life and death taught quite clearly that the way God’s Christ would triumph over evil and oppression was through suffering and death, through the cross; and the message for us is that that is the way we too must oppose evil.
We learn our faith partly through the spoken word, and through our own experience of the church and the world; but one primary source for our faith is the Bible, the written word. That has been a source of increasing problems for faith in our time, because of the different ways in which the words of the Bible can be understood.
During the summer, I have been reading a book called ‘The Bible made Impossible’ by Christian Smith. This is a critique, by an evangelical, of the way which the Bible is read by some Christians, who he calls ‘biblicists’. Among the tenets of biblicists which he criticises are that the best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, literal sense, and that the meaning of the words can be understood by anyone without any knowledge of creeds, or tradition, the culture in which they were written or the literary genre, that all words in the Bible say the same thing about any given subject, and that all you need to do to discover Biblical truths (which cover everything you need to know about anything) is to sit down and read the Bible.
Smith’s book shows how this approach falls down, in particular because there is no agreement about what the Bible says on key beliefs among biblicists, even without taking into account the conclusions of the dreaded theological liberals.
Particularly relevant for the lectionary readings today is Smith’s illustration of the fallacy of treating words and simple and straightforward. He describes first of all the ‘locutionary act’ the action of writing or uttering a word. Behind the locutionary act is the ‘illocutionary act’ what you intend to do when you speak or write. You may intend to command, promise, warn, offer, challenge, speak poetry, tell a story, dream or question. Anyone who hears may decide what you intend from your tone of voice and your body language; anyone who reads had to decide via punctuation, context, and literary genre – but this is difficult, and even more so when the words were originally written in another culture, a foreign language or a different alphabet.
Finally there is the ‘perlocutionary act’ the effect the words have on the hearer or reader. It is obvious this may or may not be what the original speaker or writer intended, and depends as much on the recipient of the words as their author.
Let me give you an example which Smith uses: if someone says ‘Let him have it’ it could mean very different things, according to the tone of voice and the situation. Just consider the difference between a parent saying this to squabbling children, a spouse discussing the allocation of the marital home after a divorce, or an criminal speaking to an armed accomplice when face by the police.
When we read the Bible we don’t have a simple way of deciding what ‘illocutionary act’ the original speaker or writer intended. Even if we believe, as many biblicists do, that the Bible is the direct speech of God, transferred without error into the pen of the writer, we do not have sufficient knowledge of the mind of God to know for
certain what was the divine intention in any particular passage.
In interpreting the Gospel passage today, we need to reflect on the very different understanding that the early church, especially the Jewish part of it, had of the title Messiah. We need to recognise that the Christian faith, and especially its understanding of who Jesus was, developed over time, through the experience of the resurrection and of the Holy Spirit working through the earliest followers of Jesus, and was changed by its contact with the Greek and Roman world. By the time the Gospel of Mark came to be written in 60 or 70 CE, 30 to 40 years after the crucifixion, Messiah/Christ had quite a different meaning to the followers of Jesus from the one it had during his lifetime.
What’s more, by the time that the definitive canon of the New Testament was agreed, at the beginning of the 5th century of the Christian era, the development of the church as an institution, closely allied to the Roman Empire; and the decisions of the Councils which resolved heresies and persecuted those who disagreed, there was a very different understanding again of what those words meant.
We seek to follow Jesus the Christ. We believe that he is the living Word and Wisdom of God, as someone once said ‘the window through which we see God’. We seek to know him better through the written word in the Scriptures, as well as through openness to his inspiration through the Holy Spirit.
But our knowledge can only ever be partial and tentative. Jesus didn’t write anything himself, and there were no video cameras or tape recorders in 1st century Palestine to capture his exact words for us. Therefore we need to exercise humility when we teach or preach about him, and when we describe others as correct or misguided in their understanding of what it means to speak of him as God’s Messiah.
We must never forget just how much pain and misery, how many crosses, literal and metaphorical, have been placed on innocent people, by disputes over words about him.
May today’s readings remind us, as we live our lives, that our words as well as our actions must be under the authority of the God whom Jesus showed us, and of the need always to watch our tongues, so that they reflect clearly his authority over us.