We've reached the final part of the letter of James, and next week we'll be finishing the series with a summary of the letter's main themes. In this final section of chapter 5, we are given a picture of what a church community should look like.
1) In a church community, people should be reliable. James writes about swearing oaths (5v12), and we find a very similar passage in Matthew 5v33-37 where Jesus deals with the same issue. Religious people appeared to think that if they swore an oath by a less important name than God's, it didn't matter so much if they then broke that promise.
But James says this isn't so. Instead, Christians are to be reliable. We're not to make vague promises that we don't really intend on keeping, but instead we're to keep our word - "yes" should mean "yes", and "no" should mean "no"; otherwise, James says we will be "condemned".
For example, you may know someone to whom you've lent something, and they didn't return it. Then they borrowed something else, and they didn't return that either! Eventually, they become "condemned" - you know that they cannot be relied on to return something. So James writes, if you don't keep your word, you will be condemned in the sight of others.
In order to be reliable, though, you might need some practical help. For example, I use Google Calendar to remind me to ring my parents each week! You might also need to reconsider your limitations. Being reliable doesn't mean always saying "yes" when someone asks for help; sometimes, people need more knowledgeable help than you're able to provide.
2) In a church community, people should be expressive. Suffering can be expressed in prayer, and joy can be expressed in song (5v13). James clearly considers the sober prayer and the praise-filled song are both reverent ways of approaching God, and are not activities for a select few, but for all the church. Whenever the church gathers, it is appropriate to provide opportunities for open prayer and corporate singing.
James then describes a process by which an ill person can receive prayer from the elders (5v14-15). The individual is to call for the elders, and the elders are then to pray for God to heal. They anoint the person with oil, a symbol of God's blessing which the disciples had used previously when healing (Mark 6v13). There is also an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness (5v15).
What is "the prayer of faith" (5v15)? It is a prayer that combines a conviction of God's ability to heal with submission to His will. The only type of effective prayer is the prayer of faith - without faith, we should not expect to receive anything from the Lord (1v6-7) - and this faith in God is expressed through the words "if the Lord is willing" (4v15).
This private scene of healing and forgiveness is then developed further, as James instructs the church to confess their sins and pray for each other's healing (5v16). Here is a good reason for church communities to meet in different contexts during the week, rather than only once on a Sunday morning. Large public meetings aren't the easiest situations for people to be open about their struggles and to ask for prayer. Smaller groups (especially in someone's home), where people have grown to know and trust each other, provide more appropriate and safer opportunities for confession and heartfelt prayer for healing.
James emphasizes the power of prayer (5V16-18). He has already said that faith and works will be found together (2V17), and so I believe the "prayer of a righteous person" is the same as the "prayer of faith". Faith and holiness will grow together.
3) In a church community, people should be gracious. James closes his letter by highlighting the importance and blessing of bringing back believers who have wandered from the truth (5v19-20). Jesus Christ is our greatest example of this, as he came to find the lost sheep and bring them home. Just as he prayed for Peter (Luke 22v32), so he also prays today that his people will not fall. When we see fellow believers begin to wander, rather than behaving as judges (5v9), we should behave as brothers and sisters, and seek to bring them back into the church family.