We live in a very different world than the one in which my grandparents grew up. The management of sickness and health is part of the story. Even in the short time I have been in the ministry things have changed dramatically. Over the last few years, members have had heart attacks, have gone to the local hospital, have been sent to a major cardiac centre, had a stint put in, and then sent home before I heard what was taking place. Others may inform me but are already in treatment. That’s a big change. Pastoral care takes place after the treatment phase.
When our health is threatened we quickly run to the doctor. Most health issues we do not consider a spiritual crisis. When a major health issue does confront us, we first engage the medical profession to address our issues. It was not always so. There was a time when sicknesses lead a person into the arms of the elder, the pastor (priest) or other leaders of faith. Scripture was written in such times.
Not surprisingly, James speaks of the role of the elder in healing ministry. What exactly happened in the time of James is not well known. But as Steve and John note in the forum, there are many questions we have that are left unanswered. So here is my approach to the text and to the ministry:
- Calling an elder was a common practice. Sickness, including infection, was always a threat to life. Understandably, our present circumstances are quite different. Elders are less likely to be called.
- When elders did go to the sick person’s home, they engaged in a ritual practice of prayer. We do not know the ritual. There are remnants in the sacrament of the sick in the Roman Catholic church. There are certain elements to the ritual practice. In my thinking, these included some form of liturgy, the use of oil, and the prayer for healing. There may be more but James mentions these.
- Another important text is found in Psalm 38. Not only do we find the psalmist sick and praying for healing, there is in the psalm a confession of sin (v18).
- Confession of sin is part of the healing process. It is important to note that this does not mean that a particular sin was the cause of sickness. It does mean that when we come before the Lord with a request on our lips we also prepare to enter into the presence of God. Coming before the Lord is not a “right,” but a gift of the Lord. He grants that gift because in love he chooses to forgive in Christ. So we come before the Lord through the ministry of reconciliation. Liturgy of healing acknowledges this through the “coming clean” before the Lord by the confession of sin.
- The use of oil is a sacramental way of conveying the blessing of God. It is not a magic potion that heals. The blessing of God is rich beyond compare and the blessing is not limited to healing. In essence we declare with certainty that the richness of the coming Kingdom of God is poured out on this particular person. The fullness of divine grace is with him or her.
- We are sometimes led astray by “the prayer of the righteous” as if the righteousness of the person praying will be the hinge which determines whether or not healing happens. This is not helpful. Sometimes God’s answer is "no." God’s "no" to our request does not mean that God loves us less or that we are less righteous than our neighbour. The righteous person is in the presence of God. Like the prophet Elijah and Elisha, like Abraham in his conversation over Sodom and Gomorrah, in prayer we become participants in the conversations in the Council of God. The prayer of the righteous is not merely a wish list, but a serious engagement in the reign of God. We come as people made righteous by Christ. This is what makes prayer so powerful. But it also means that the answer may be “no.”
- Any ministry for the sick places the prayer for healing in the context of God’s love and grace in redemption and in the light of God’s promise for the New Creation. In essence we ask for a bit of the kingdom life to come here in the present moment of this person’s life.
- When praying in a hospital room or in a person’s home, having a liturgy that embraces these aspects of our life in Christ and his Kingdom can be a helpful way of ministering. Sometimes we can use oil. But it is not necessary. A good liturgy clearly puts the person in the embrace of Christ and his work and blessing. It makes prayer an act of resting in the grace and love of God.
- Elders ought to engage in such a ministry. I have often thought I should write a little liturgy to help elders in this ministry, but up to this point I haven’t.
Sickness is often a time when we are confronted with our limitations and mortality. But it is also a time when grace can come alive in our life. Elders have a wonderful opportunity to be ministers of grace. While we celebrate the power of the modern medicine, we do so in the context of the wonderful power of our Risen Lord.
May God bless your ministry.