Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
One of my favourite definitions of church is that it is “not a rest house for saints but a hospital for sinners”. By “church” both James and this description refer to a gathering rather than building. Nevertheless our churches have a wonderful commission in these verses: to offer prayerful support for the suffering and sick; to join our voices with those singing songs of praise; and to enable healing and forgiveness to be lived experience rather than vain hope.
I suspect that personal suffering, celebration, sickness and sin don’t always dominate the agenda of our Elders’ Meetings or Church Meetings and maybe church isn’t necessarily the place we associate with our need for help and healing. We cannot deny that for too many people church is where we end up wounded or wound-up rather than healed and liberated. We do well to remember that all of us, without exception, are both patients in “a hospital for sinners” and also agents of God’s healing and forgiveness.
At the risk of sounding controversial I would support any church proposing to instal a Confessional – not because I believe that any one individual has the power to forgive sins but because there is something profoundly liberating for us to hear, audibly from the lips of another, that despite our own conclusion that we are beyond forgiveness God forgives us. Such pardon can only come within a context of trust where we dare confess sin’s grip on us. In his book, “In His Hands”, former Assembly Moderator, David Dale, tells the story of the church member who called together some members of the church to gather around the death bed. The member disclosed a wish to confess ill-feeling and resentment towards others before death. This honesty prompted others to do the same and, Dale concludes, all experienced the healing power of forgiveness. May every church be a place where such humility and honesty lead to the experience of hurts healed.
O God, make the door of our church wide enough to receive all who need human love and friendship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged enough to turn back evil’s power. God make the door the gateway to your eternal kingdom. Amen.
(adapted from Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711))
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator of East Midlands Synod, St Andrew’s with Castle Gate, Nottingham