A Sermon from Sherborne

Faith Works: Compline Address 5

Faith works: Compline addresses preached during Lent 2017 to accompany the Sherborne Churches Together Ecumenical Study Groups exploring the Epistle of St James.


  1. James 4.11 – 5.20: preached on the 3rd April by the Team Rector, Canon Eric Woods

An ancient Christian legend tells of three brothers who lived with their parents in a house by a river. When their parents died, the brothers decided to go their separate ways. The first said, “I’m going off to look after the sick and those whose hearts are sad. The streets are full of them. I will become a doctor and bring them healing and care.” The second said, “Everywhere I go I see people who are at loggerheads with each other. I’m going to try to reconcile them, to bring them peace of heart and peace of mind.” And the third brother said, “I’m staying here.”

After a couple of years the two brothers came back. The first said, “It’s hopeless. There are too many people who are sick in body and in mind. I just can’t cope.” The other brother said much the same: “It’s impossible. I’m worn out. There’s no peace left in me, let alone my bringing peace to anyone else.”

They sat despondently, looking at each other. Then the third brother filled a bowl with muddy water from the river. “Look into that”, he said. They looked and saw nothing but mud. “Let it stand”, he said, “let it be”. Later on they looked again. And now the water was clear and they could see themselves in it, as clearly as in a mirror. The third brother said, “When the water is always stirred up, it is always muddy. It can only be clear when it is still. It’s the same with you. Only when you are still can you see your true selves, and only then can you be filled with the peace of God. And it’s only when you are filled with the peace of God that you can be of any lasting use to anyone else.”

In his important book Redating the New Testament, Bishop John Robinson – who was my Director of Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge at the time of its publication [1976] – argues persuasively that the Epistle of James is the earliest document in the New Testament. This isn’t the time or the place to rehearse those arguments, but they are important because it is clear from a comparative study of the Letters of St Paul that Paul’s own doctrine and teaching evolved as he grew older. His earlier letters such as 1 and 2 Thessalonians are written in expectation of an imminent return of the Lord to judge the world (which Robinson puts two or three years later than James), and they are full of advice to the Christian community about how to live and conduct themselves in the interim. It is only as his perspective lengthens and his understanding of the meaning of Christ’s ultimate return develops that he begins to reflect more systematically on big theological and ethical themes. One example is his treatment of marriage and family life, which in 1 Corinthians are seen as “things of the world” rather than “things of the Lord” but which are treated much more positively in, say, Colossians.

So, by the same token, I think the Letter of James can be read as something of a miscellany of “interim advice” written to those he wants to “be patient … until the coming of the Lord” [6.7]. There is simply no time for wrangles and disagreements. “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is at the door!” [6.9]. This is a time of waiting, and the Christian community needs to practise patience, gentleness, compassion and endurance.

James is not alone in pinpointing the human heart as the source of our greatest need and our greatest hope. One brother may not kill another very often, but the story of Cain and Abel is repeated constantly in our hearts: how many of you can honestly say that you are in total love and charity with all your family and all your neighbours? James sees how readily the streams of the heart are polluted, and how urgent it is that the heart be purified. From the heart pours a stream, the inner stream of our lives. And if it is polluted at one point, it will be polluted at others.

We all know the truth of this. If you are emotionally upset and anxious, your spirit is disturbed. You find it hard to concentrate, to think, to pray. Your mind is disturbed. You find it hard to rest, to relax, to sleep. Your body is disturbed. You have pains in your stomach, pains in your back, an aching head. We are a delicate creation, a trinity of body, mind and spirit. If we are disturbed in one part of our being we will soon be disturbed in all. And that is why we cannot on our own purify one stream of the heart in a way which purifies every stream. The springs that flow from our hearts can only be cleansed at source. Polluted rivers cannot purify themselves. The only one who is able to cleanse us and purify us is God himself – if we will let him.

And that is why James at the end of his Letter says this:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 [5. 13 – 16].

For almost all my ministry as a priest – not far off forty years now – I have quietly and unemotionally offered to any who cared to receive it one of the most ancient ministries of the Christian Church, the ministry of healing. James wrote of it perhaps no more than fifteen years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And of course it is a ministry given by Jesus himself, and so often offered by him. I often return to that lovely story in Luke chapter 13. Jesus was teaching one Sabbath day in the synagogue, and there was a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was bent double, and quite unable to stand upright. When Jesus saw her he called her and said “You are set free from your troubles.” Then he laid his hands on her, and at once she straightened up and began to praise God.

What a world of suffering, pain and heartache lies behind that story. Imagine being bent double, not just for a few days or weeks, but for 18 years – and being unable to stand up straight, to look people in the face, to gaze at the sky or watch the birds in flight. Imagine the pain and the agony of walking, the sheer difficulty of even the simplest household tasks. And imagine the thrill of nervousness and wonder at being noticed by Jesus, noticed when normally no Jewish man would condescend even to register the women in the synagogue, screened-off in a gallery or side room, let alone stop the service for a woman’s sake. But Jesus did just that. Imagine it. And imagine the sheer joy, the release, the astonishment, of feeling that healing power flowing through his hands into her body, running down her spine and enabling her to straighten-up and look up and gaze into those all-seeing, compassionate eyes.

That is why the ministry of healing is so important to me, and has been ever since I was first introduced to it as a young curate in Bristol. I would love to be able to tell you the stories of what I have seen flow from that ministry – which is not mine, not Eric Woods’, but the Church’s ministry as the Body of Christ, as Christ’s hands and feet in this world. I could tell you of one or two really dramatic and astonishing healings – just one or two – which quite confounded the medical profession at the time and which have never gone into reverse, as it were. I could tell you of many, many, gentle and gradual healings, which have worked the same miracle but over a longer period of time. And I could tell you of those who, whilst not being cured of a specific illness, have nevertheless been made whole through this ministry – which is ultimately even more important.

I believe that we as a Christian community – and I am talking ecumenically, make no mistake – need to take much more seriously the ministry of healing of which James speaks. It is something we could do together. It is something we should do together. So, in the hope that this sermon might actually lead to something (not all sermons do!) let me leave you with a few basic principles.

First, God does not work like a chocolate machine. Prayer is never the placing of the coin of faith into a slot at the top expecting to receive the chocolate bar of healing from the tray below. God is not a machine; prayer is not mechanical

Occasionally our prayer is answered dramatically, suddenly. But more usually, in my experience at least, healing comes gradually, and sometimes the answer to our prayer does not take the form we might have expected or hoped for. For God is not some kind of heavenly pharmacist, dispensing the prescriptions that we have written. No sensible doctor diagnoses his own needs. How much more foolish it would be for patients to diagnose theirs and decide on their own treatment. Yet that is often how we go about our praying: telling God what we want, what we need and what to do about it. No, God can reach out to us and answer our prayer only insofar as we are open to him, surrendered to him, trust him, and are willing to accept that he will answer our prayers in his own way and in his own time.

That means being prepared to cooperate with God to clear away the blockages that prevent the Holy Spirit from getting through to us at our point of need. And what are these blockages? They are all the accumulated clutter and debris of our pride, our anger, our jealousy, our prejudices – all those things which prevent God from being God, and doing his work in us. Yet by his grace they can be cleared away, and then we can truly become both recipients and channels of his power, his love, his forgiveness and his healing.

And finally, who needs healing? The answer, very firmly, is all of us. For we are not just engines that sometimes break down. Any good doctor will tell you that we a complicated mixture, what I have called a trinity, of body, mind and spirit. A lack of ease in one dimension – literally, a dis-ease – will have repercussions in the others. So healing is about wholeness, about being whole people as God intends us to be. That means that the ministry of healing is not just about physical problems. It is about anything and everything in our lives that is less than whole, less than complete. It’s about broken relationships. It’s about bad and bitter memories that still haunt us. It’s about things we’ve done and words we’ve said for which we have never forgiven ourselves. It’s about things done to us and said to us by others which we have never forgiven either. It’s about regrets for the past and fears for the future. And it’s about drawing closer to God and letting him take us as we are and make us what he would have us be. That is why I have known people confined for a lifetime to a wheelchair who are nevertheless healed people in the truest sense, because their wholeness in Christ shines out of them with a most wonderful radiance. And it has to be said that I have known people who are fit and healthy and possessed of all this world’s blessings but who are yet in the most urgent need of God’s healing, of his mercy and of his forgiveness.

So never be too proud to admit your own need of God’s healing touch. Instead come to share your need with one of your clergy or ministerial teams and ask for that ministry which our Lord instituted and which he empowers us still to offer – and hear his words of grace, and offer yourselves to him for healing, and for the wholeness which only he can bring.

James saw clearly that the only solution to the pollution of the heart is a heart cleansed, transformed and filled by God. We lead busy and active lives, and Christianity is not about escaping from our responsibilities and the pressures of life. But unless, in the midst of all our activities and business, there is a secret room in our hearts kept for God, where we can stand alone before God, where we can be still and know that He is God, then our hearts will always be muddied, polluted and defiled. But if we go into that secret place and are still, if we let Christ cleanse and heal and forgive and affirm and renew us, then from our hearts will come the goodness and the love, the strength and the compassion, which will transform not just our lives but the lives of those around us, to the greater glory of God.

Team Rector, Canon Eric Woods 03/04/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne