Solidarity in Sickness and Suffering
A sermon on James 5: 13-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 28 September 2003

Christ is sacramentally present to heal and forgive when his people are open, honest and vulnerable with one another in seeking healing for their sickness and suffering.


One of the things that this congregation has begun to talk about more and more in recent months is the ministry of healing. This conversation has developed for two related reasons. Firstly it has arisen as one aspect of our quest to think about our mission in the world, about what we have to offer to those outside our own group. And secondly, it has arisen because of a growing realisation that it is taking place among us, even if it hasn’t been recognised and named as such. One of the reasons that many of you have continued coming to worship here is that you have found regular participation in this worship service to be something that contributes to the healing of your own pain and brokenness.

This should not come as any great surprise. Those who research such things say that worship styles which have a very regular structure and are highly participatory have a great deal to offer to those who are struggling against chaos and alienation in their own lives. What we do is a shared, ritual ordering of our experience that can help us to envision the world differently and heal the chaos and alienation that afflict us. The liturgy itself clearly leads us through some of this. Early in the service we explicitly acknowledge that our worship and prayer is offered in solidarity with all who are sick and suffering and oppressed, and indeed with the brokenness of the creation itself. Then we confess our own sin and failure, and assure one another of God’s merciful forgiveness. We open ourselves to being addressed by the word of God in scripture and preaching, and in response we pray for the world in all its pain. Then we come to the Table where Christ offers himself to us as food and drink to strengthen and nurture us, as what our early Christian forebears called “the medicine of life”. And as broken people who have begun to taste healing and new life, we are sent out to share the good news with all who suffer and are in need. In all this we are retelling or rehearsing, or even writing onto our own bodies and hearts, the story of our healing and salvation.

The experts say that churches whose worship combines such a structure with a strongly participatory style of celebration will usually attract a disproportionate number of people who are fragile and hurting. This is clearly the case with us. If we all sat around and told our life stories one night, we would hear a litany of chronic illness and disability, poverty, sexual abuse, domestic violence, marriage and family breakdown, mental illness, spiritual abuse, addictions, and discriminations based on race, age, gender or sexual orientation. In fact there are very very few of you here who didn’t hear at least one label in that list that you could relate to your own life. And that includes all three pastors.

One of the reasons we have begun to talk about this more in relation to our discussions of mission is that it is good to start by looking at how we might further develop any forms of ministry that are already taking place among us. And tonight I am picking up this in particular because our reading from the letter of James addressed it directly. Indeed there are several things that James says which we might take as pointers to further develop this ministry of healing which is already emerging among us.

Perhaps the most immediately apparent is his reference to an explicit ritual expression of the healing ministry, the act of gathering around a sick or hurting person to pray for them with laying on of hands and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. This is something we do make provision for in the time immediately after the final blessing in our service, but there are at least two ways in which it could be further developed. The first is simply by more people making more use of it. it is interesting to note that James encourages those who are sick to seek it, rather than telling others to do it. He says, “Are any among you sick? You should call the elders of the church and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord.”

You are authorised and encouraged to request and expect this ministry. There is no gain in keeping it to yourself, or suffering in silence and thinking that others need it more so you won’t kneel at the table and ask. Your asking doesn’t deny anything to anyone else. If more people come, it just takes longer. There is no quota or time limit. The Apostle says you should ask. You have the right to, and what you are asking for is beneficial, both to yourself and to the congregation as a whole, but I’ll come back to why in a minute.

Before I do I want to say something about the oil, and something about another way we could develop this rite. Firstly, the oil. There is nothing magical about the oil. In fact, at the time when James wrote, oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes throughout the Greco-Roman world, and so in one sense, all he is saying is “get the elders to pray over you and take your medication.” But in the Christian traditions, oil has come to be used as a physical sign of the anointing work of the Holy Spirit, and so it is used in a number of rites that call on the Holy Spirit to touch people in particular ways. We use it at baptism, just after the candidate comes out of the water, as a sign of the Holy Spirit filling them and marking them out as belonging to Christ. And we use it when praying over the the sick or needy, as a sign of the Holy Spirit touching them with healing and saving power. It is not magic, but the God who became flesh among us uses physical actions and things such as laying on hands and anointing with oil in order to make his love and healing grace real and tangible in our lives. If nothing else, the actual act of asking and allowing others to touch you and pray for you in this way will help you to more fully open yourself to what God wants to do within you.

The other thing I wanted to say about ways we could further develop this practice, is that it doesn’t have to be only the pastors who come and lay hands on people and pray for them. It is true that James says “call the elders”, and that the word “elders” there refers to the same people who we call pastors, but the pastors are not required to act alone. We act as representatives of the whole congregation, and can fruitfully be assisted in this ministry by others in the congregation. It is we collectively who are the body of Christ, charged with continuing his ministry of healing in the world. And so I would not only encourage more of you to come and kneel at the Table to seek prayer at the end of the service, but I would encourage more of you to come and join in praying for others. You don’t need to say anything. Just your prayerful presence and your ‘Amen’ to the prayers that are offered is enough, although it may sometimes be right to offer more. Perhaps as a rough guide as to when to do so, come when you see someone kneeling for prayer who has shared with you in recent times so that you know something of what they are struggling with, and you know that they are okay about you knowing. That’s not a law, just a rough guide!

Back to the other thing, the question of how people speaking up about their need for healing is good for the whole congregation. There are a number of angles to try to explain this from, so I am going to pick one, and hope it sheds some light for you.

In our society, as in the society in which Jesus ministered, it is the usual practice to define those who are broken and suffering as the abnormal and shift them to the margins of our communities. Sometimes this is even done physically by quarantining them, to protect the “normal” community from being contaminated by their brokenness and pain. When we get caught up in society’s prescription of “normal” and “abnormal” we try to mask our own brokenness in order to fit in as “normal”. Jesus did the exact opposite of this. Jesus not only saw that all of us were in need of healing and salvation, and that being broken and hurting was in fact what was normal, but he clearly and deliberately identified himself with those who were “in need of a physician”. The most frequent accusation against him was that he associated with those whose lives failed to measure up. It was among them that Jesus was to be found, and into their experience of suffering that Jesus plunged at the crucifixion.

Now hold that thought for a minute, while we come back to James. In the passage we heard, James brings together the ideas of praying for the sick, confessing our sins to one another, and seeking to reconcile those who have strayed from the truth. There is nobody in his picture who has got it all together and is without need. The elders who come to pray over the sick person are to confess their own brokenness and need, and in the same spirit they are to seek to restore those who have lost the faith. Everyone is recognising and acknowledging to one another their own frailty and pain. All stand in solidarity with one another in their neediness. And why? Well firstly because we are to be a community of truth, and our universal brokenness is simply the truth.

But beyond that, it is right there in the solidarity of those who know their need of healing and salvation that Christ is to be found. When people are open and honest about their lives with one another, when they make themselves vulnerable and seek one another’s prayer and support in their quest for healing, Christ is right there in the midst of them. In such mutual vulnerability we are more fully the body of Christ, suffering as Christ the brokenness of the world in our own body, in our own shared life. Christ is sacramentally present in such a community of suffering, not only standing in solidarity with us, but suffering redemptively for us and through us to bring healing and salvation to us and through us.

Even if there was no God, being more open about our hurts would have some healing effect just by making sure they didn’t make us feel so alone and on the outer. But in the community whose life is formed by God and lived in and for God, this opening of ourselves to one another, even though it may hurt like hell, is actually the way in which the healing power of heaven can take flesh among us and lead us all on into the wholeness and fullness of life which God desires for us and suffers to bring us.