Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Lent 4 Sunday 26 March 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I want to focus on four verses from the Letter of James chapter 5, our second lesson:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be foirgiven.
Therfore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
According to the Council of Trent the sacrament of anointing is here commendatum ac promulgatum. And in fact these verses give us important early information about three of the classic seven sacraments. From James, deeply embedded in the life of the nascent Jerusalem Church, we hear about the sacraments of Unction, Confession and Holy Order. You may take this ancient pedigree of our sacramental life for granted, but it is in fact remarkable.
The letter of James purports to be written by the man known as the ‘brother of the Lord’ who became leader of the Jerusalem church, perhaps its first bishop, after the resurrection. It is directed to Christians outside Jerusalem, and in its final form probably dates from soon after James’ martyrdom in 62 AD. The writer clearly knows Paul and takes issue with some of his theology.
In this evening’s chapter, we heard about the ‘elders’. The presbyters, or elders, that James refers to were formal office-holders in the church. Jewish synagogues were orgaised under a council of elders (presbyteroi), one of whom was elected as the ‘synagogue ruler’ (archon), sometimes with a council of other ‘rulers’; we hear about these in the gospels (Jairus, whose daughter Jesus healed, was one such synagogue ‘ruler’). This institution of eldership or presbyterate was ascribed to Moses, who chose seventy elders and imparted to them some of the Spirit he had received from God (Numbers 11) [.16ff]); the method of commissioning was a laying on of hands, deduced from Joshua’s commissioning in Deuteronomy 34 (.9ff.). Presbyters and rabbis were ordained to their office by the laying on of hands by others who had themselves been ordained; however, in Jerusalem, at least after the Council of Jamnia (90AD), the participation of the presiding ruler in any ordination to the Sanhedrin was considered essential.
If this sounds fairly familiar, it should: Christian communities, especially those closest to their Jewish roots, quickly organised themselves along similar lines, with councils of presbyters. In the Jerusalem Church the model was the Sanhedrin, presided over by the high priest, and this role fell to James. One of the Latin terms for a bishop is ‘high priest’. That brief summary should illuminate the link with Christian priesthood.
We also heard about the laying on of hands, which is well-attested in Jewish texts about healing as well as in ordination, and we know that Jesus healed in this way. James says that the presbyters are to be called to a sick person to lay hands and anoint, ‘in the name of the Lord’. Jesus’ name was widely invoked in the course of healing and exorcism [e.g. Mark 9.38, Acts 19.13]. While exorcism is not referred to here, James does associate sickness with sin, a connection again strong in Jewish tradition. While Jesus seems sensitive to the theological problems of associating sickness and sin – as we heard this morning in the story of the man born blind – it was a connection widely made.
In the light of that we should notice James’ tentativeness in the linkage: ‘if he has committed sins he will be forgiven’. Given that we are talking about the presbyters’ involvement, this ticks another sacramental box for us; it is clear from this passage that the forgiveness of sins is guaranteed by the office of presbyter.
How serious an illness is contemplated here? As you know, anointing used to be known as ‘extreme unction’, and was only applied to the dying, as a sort of mega-absolution, without any expectation of physical healing. Close examination of the Greek vocabulary of the passage shows that this Tridentine view was not without foundation. The sick person envisaged by James is sufficiently unwell to be unable to go to the presbyters: they must be called to him. The word used of ‘sickness’ in verse 14 (astheneo) is neutral, but the word ‘save’ (sozo) in verse 15 implies healing from serious (but not necessarily mortal) illness. It frequently appears in Gospel healing miracles; it also describes ‘rescue’ in a life or death situation (hence the word ‘saved’ in Evangelical parlance). But the word used for ‘sick man’ in verse 15 (kamnon) signifies physical exhaustion or debility; it was also widely used to mean sick beyond hope, ‘withering away’; sometimes it even means ‘dead’. And the word translated ‘will raise up’ (egerei) in verse 15 is ambivalent. It can mean ‘raise up from the sick-bed’, but it is also the word regularly used in the NT for resurrection from the dead.
So there is an ambiguity in the promise which we heard as:
the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up.
It could mean
‘the prayer of faith will heal the sick man and the Lord will cure him’.
It could also mean,
‘The prayer of faith will save the mortally ill / dead man and the Lord will resurrect him.’
This prayer and anointing was most likely intended for serious but not necessarily mortal illness, and with the expectation of recovery. But the vocabulary is so strikingly and systematically ambiguous that this ambiguity may be deliberate. The basic expectation, as at Mark 6.13, is no doubt that following the presbyters’ ministrations the sick man will recover; but it is highly likely that James, writing with practical pastoral concerns for a settled Church, was aware that in some cases it would not, and the patient would die.
So James appears to hedge his bets. In a case where prayer and anointing were duly performed by the presbyters according to the instructions of the epistle, but the sick man died, it could then be understood, according to James’ own words, as an effectual guarantee of post-mortem forgiveness of sins, salvation and resurrection: in other words, precisely, a sacrament of Extreme Unction. Our modern rites promote this dual sense.
What is surely more striking than any of this detail is how much of our familiar sacramental world is revealed in this letter, including such early witness to sacramental order. I commend the whole of this short letter to you for re-reading in what remains of this season.