One of my memories of school dinners is custard. I quite liked custard, but at least in memory it always formed part of the pudding served – with fruit tart, sponge pudding, or anything except rice pudding. As James comes to the end of his letter on practical Christianity, he seems to do something similar with prayer. It goes with everything!
We read James 5:13-20, and his closing remarks begin by suggesting those in trouble pray, and the happy sing praise. He may refer to the “normal” letter ending of those times which would have wished health to his hearers. Instead, he urges prayer for wholeness when it is needed to restore health. Those who can’t get to the church gathering will have members come to them to pray.
Of course there can be confusion about the ministry of healing – after all, Christians still get ill and die. Here the phrase “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” is carefully phrased. It does not promise medical cure (which sometimes does happen) but is more holistic. There can be a “making well” in living with a condition. The important thing is to be in God’s hands.
Rather the same thing is implied by the instruction to confess to and pray for one another. Prayer is not limited to church leaders! It can be difficult to find a community where people are confident enough to admit their failures. It is easier in a small group, but wherever it can happen it is a strength, and a strengthening.
Elijah, the prophet, is quoted as an example of the power of a good man’s prayer. And finally, James ends with the challenge to rescue those who have lost their way in faith. It is not entirely clear whether the benefit is limited to the sinner who repents, or is shared by the agent of their rescue. Either way, it is a most important mission, and one we easily forget in our culture. It is an apt ending for a letter to a community which is making some mistakes and may have some in danger of going astray. James is practical to the end.