Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 1st October 2006
Readings: James 5: 13-end; Mark 9: 38-end
From the time of the ministry of Jesus, healing has been at the centre of the Gospel message. In the world of the New Testament, where suffering and sickness are so obviously part of the human condition, the word that is most often used for healing is 'salvation': people are 'saved' from their suffering. Healing is healing of body andsoul. The two go together.
In the New Testament, one of the great signs of the coming of God's reign is the healing that Jesus brings. Luke tells how, when Jesus returned from his forty-day spiritual struggle in the wilderness, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, he preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, his home town. First, he read from the scroll,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
Then, he began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing' (Lk 4:21). We read in the Gospel how, from that time on, healing was central to Jesus' own ministry, and to the ministry of the early church. The reading we heard from James shows how, from an early stage, the Church practised anointing with oil as a means of healing - a ministry continued in places like Westminster Abbey, where herbs were grown to provide medicines for the sick. Over the centuries, monastic infirmaries developed into great hospitals, where the finest of modern medicine is now available, hospitals with Christian names like St Thomas's (just across the river from here), St Bartholemew's or St Mary's. Working alongside those who bring healing through modern medicine, we still have regular healing services here, either in St Margaret's Church or in the Abbey. At these services, following the advice of James, anyone who feels the need may confess their sins, have prayer made 'over them', and be anointed with oil.
In the passage we heard read, James tells us that if any are sick, they should send for the elders of the church. The word for 'elders', presbuteroi, is the word from which Anglicans (and Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) derive their use of the word 'priest'. In a later generation, James might have said, 'Send for the priest, or the priests.' The elders are to pray over the sick person, to anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord, and then, he says, 'the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven' (5:15). James goes on to tell the Christians that they should confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that they may be healed (16). The prayer of the righteous person, he says, is powerful and effective. He gives the example of Elijah, who, according to the First Book of Kings, prayed that there would be no rain, and for three and a half years there was no rain; and then he prayed again and it rained, 'and the earth yielded its harvest'.
As so often in understanding the New Testament, we have to know something of the Old Testament background to see what James is getting at. According to the Book of Kings (1 Ki 17:1ff), Ahab was one of worst kings of Israel. He had turned from the true God to serve the Canaanite god Baal. To demonstrate the error of his ways, Elijah prophesied three and a half years of drought. During that time, Elijah went to Zarephath (I Ki 17:8) on the coast, to the house of a widow, who had one son and was living in extreme poverty. Despite her own desperate need, she received the prophet hospitably. In response, Elijah ensured that throughout the drought she did not want for the basics to feed herself and her household: meal and oil. The story in Kings goes on to tell how the widow's son was suddenly taken ill and died - which would have been a complete disaster for a dependent single woman - but Elijah lay upon him and prayed to God that he would recover. Elijah's prayer of faith saved the sick child and raised him up. This is the picture that James has in mind.
There is a reference to the same story in the New Testament (Lk 4:25), just after Jesus' sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. When Jesus told the congregation that Isaiah's prophecy about the coming of the God's reign, with its prediction of healing and liberation, was being fulfilled before their eyes, they would have none of it. Jesus then answered by saying that 'No prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown' and, then, that there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was famine for three and a half years, but only to the widow of Zarephath was he sent. The point for us is that sometimes and in certain circumstances, like the widow, we may see and experience God working with extraordinary power, but there is nothing automatic about it. Lots of people - like the other widows in Israel - do not experience God working in that way. God works as God chooses. This gives us a way of approaching the text from James, because, though we may pray for healing with great faith, healing doesn't always come in the way that we want it to come, and sometimes doesn't seem to come at all.
To understand James's instructions about anointing, we need to understand the symbolism of oil. Anointing with oil is a symbol and sign of God's blessing. In the twenty-third psalm, the psalmist says, 'You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows' (Ps 23: 5) and then goes on to say, 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever'. The whole of Psalm 23 is a wonderful meditation on what it means to be anointed and blessed by God. Psalm 133, which is even shorter, uses the picture of anointing as a picture of the blessing of unity amongst Christians: 'How very good and lovely it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron Ö It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion' (Ps 133:1-3). This is exactly the point James makes when he tells us to confess our sins to one another: reconciliation and unity is a wonderful thing. It is itself a blessing of God, and it brings health, it brings fruitfulness, to our lives.
What then can we expect if we are anointed, with prayer for healing, as the Church has done from the beginning? I believe we can expect the Risen Christ to work by his Spirit as he worked in his earthly ministry. The Church has from the beginning believed that the first sort of healing we need is forgiveness of sins - and this is what Christ came to bring. James is just as interested in the forgiveness of sins as he is in healing: we tend to think we can have one without the other. In the Gospel, healing of soul and of body go together. Reconciliation with God and with one another is itself a powerful form of healing. Having said that, we can expect, with James, that sometimes, through anointing, there will indeed be wonderful healing of the body or the mind that goes beyond anything medical science can explain. Mostly, though, the healing that comes with anointing will come through the God-given skills of medical science. Sometimes, as in the ministry of Jesus at Nazareth, there will be no evident healing at all.
It helps to look very closely at what James says. He says that the prayer of faith will 'save the sick' and that 'the Lord will raise them up'. Given the background of the story of Elijah, it seems clear that James' first meaning is that the Lord will restore physical health. But we have to appreciate that in Christian teaching the language of salvation applies beyond death. In the language of the New Testament, Jesus was 'saved' from oblivion after the crucifixion and 'raised' to the right hand of God. In the same way, James' language of 'salvation' and of being 'raised' may apply beyond death. If there is no physical healing in response to our prayers this does not mean our prayers are useless. We take it in faith that they are powerful and effective, and that they play their part in sickness being transformed from something absolutely negative and destructive to something which may bring good to the sick person and to those round about. Even in continuing, debilitating sickness and in death we may experience God's 'salvation'. Indeed, thinking back to Psalm 23, it is precisely in such dark times (in 'the valley of the shadow of death') that we may find in a special way the presence of God's goodness and mercy.
As Christians who worship in a tradition rich in sacramental symbolism, once we have been anointed with oil at baptism and confirmation, only on two other occasions do we normally receive the sign of the cross traced upon our forehead. The first is on Ash Wednesday, when we are signed with ash, and we are told 'Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return'. The second is when we are sick. No words are given for anointing with oil. It is the anointing itself which says: 'Remember you are God's beloved child, and your God is your salvation.'