3 Characteristics of the Church

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Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. James 5:13-15

For the last few weeks I have been providing a daily email bible study (sign up here) with a focus on the Letter of St. James.  As the study comes to a close, James makes the point that the church has three characteristics.

  1. The Church is a Singing Church

The early church was always ready to break into song.  Paul describes the meetings of the church at Corinth and finds that singing was an integral part of the meetings (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26). When Paul thinks of the grace of God going out to the Gentiles he is reminded of the joyous saying of the Psalms, “I will praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing to thy name” (Romans 15:9, Psalm 18:49).  There was a joy in the hearts of Christians which came from their lips as songs of praise.  They were celebrating and praising the mercy and grace of God in their lives.

The church has always been a singing church.  When Pliny, governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan, the Roman Emperor in A.D. 111 to tell him of this new sect of Christians, he said that his information was that “they are in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before the light, when they sing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as God.”

In the orthodox Jewish synagogue, since the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there has been no music, for when they would worship they would remember the tragedy of the fall; but for the Christian Church, from its very beginning, there has been music of praise, for the Christian remembers an infinite love of God and enjoys a present glory.

  1. The Church is a Healing Church

This characteristic is inherited from Judaism.  When a Jew was ill, he went to the Rabbi before he went to the doctor.  The Rabbi would anoint him with oil and would pray over him.  Few communities have been as attentive to the sick as the early was.  Justin Martyr writes that many demoniacs were healed by the Christians when all other exorcists had been helpless to cure them.  Irenaeus writes that the sick were healed by having hands laid on them.  Tertullian writes the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus was healed by an anointing at the hands of a Christian named Torpacion and that Torpacion then stayed with the Emperor until his death.

In one of the earlies books about church administration, the Canons of Hippolytus, states that  men who have the gift of healing are to be ordained presbyters (priests) after an investigation has been made to ensure they really do possess the gift that comes from God.

This brings up an interesting issue, the healing comes from God through the person it is not the person who has healed anyone, and to say so, I believe, is heresy.  It is God who heals but God works through us, humanity, to complete his work.  Does he need us for this purpose?  No, but he uses us for the continuation of his kingdom.  I have heard stories of men and woman boasting that they have healed people, I am sure they believe this but their sinful pride is something to be weary of.

For many centuries the Church has used anointing as a means of healing the sick.  During Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, oil is blessed for this purpose and should be used by the faithful in the healing of the sick.  It does not have to be reserved for those who are on deaths door rather it should be used for the healing of all.  Going in for surgery, call the priest and have him anoint you.  It can also be used for spiritual illness, and what some would consider minor illnesses such as a cold.  The anointing was first and foremost used for healing.  It has morphed into the belief that it is the “last rites” this is anything but the truth.  Sure it can be used, and should be used at the time of death, but it is much more than that.

The Church has always cared for the sick; and in the church thee has always resided the gift of healing. The social gospel is not an appendix to Christianity; it is the very essence of the Christian faith and life.

  1. The Church is a Praying Church

This passage points out three basic ideas of the Jewish Religion.

  1. All sickness was due to sin. The Rabbis have said that there is “no death without guilt,” and “no suffering without sin.”  The Rabbis believed that before someone could be healed of their physical illness their sins needed to be forgiven by God.  The Jews always identified suffering and sin.  Although we do not link sin and physical health there is some truth that in order for us to be healed physically we need that spiritual healing as well.
  2. There is the idea that confession of sin has to be made to another person especially the person that was wronged and to God. There is this sense in our Sacramental confession.  The penitent stands before God and the priest is there was witness.  The person, who humbly brings themselves before God, is reunited or reconciled with God, and the priest is there to reconcile us to the community.  So there is a Godly aspect to sin as well as a communal act.  We sin against God and the community and are separated by both and need to be reconciled to both.  We pray, “in peace let us pray to the Lord.”  Well we cannot be at peace to pray to the Lord if we harbor ill feelings towards others.  We must be reconciled to all before we can pray to God.
  3. There is the idea that no limits can be set on the power of prayer. The Jews had a saying that he who prays surrounds his house with a wall stronger than iron. To them prayer was nothing less than contacting the power of God and this power brought them answers to prayer.

The people of God and through them to the Church, needs to be at constant prayer for each one of us and others.  Prayer is central to our spiritual life and we need to pay it more than “lip service” if we want it to be effective in our lives.

On Monday, July 6th I will begin a new series of Study on the Letters of St. Peter.  The study is FREE and you can sign up by clicking this link.

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