My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19,20)
Wandering can be a dangerous thing. If you have ever been lost on a walk or a hike, you know how easily you can get turned around and unable to work out how to get yourself back on the right path. You need some way of being located and brought back – perhaps a map, or a GPS device, or – the most helpful – someone to come and show you the way.
These verses are the closing words of James in his letter, and in many ways they sum up the goal of his letter. James wants Christian believers to look out for others. We are to watch out for other Christians when they begin to wander and we are to do what we can, under God, to bring them back.
Perhaps you remember the words that God speaks to Cain back in the book of Genesis? In Genesis chapter 4, Cain is consumed by jealousy for his brother, Abel, because Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is rejected by God. That jealousy then leads him to murder his brother. After Abel’s death, God comes to Cain and asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain answers, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain’s answer springs from his jealousy and pride – and it is the opposite to what we should say about our Christian brothers and sisters. We are supposed to be our brother – or sister’s – keeper. We are meant to keep an eye out for them, watch out for them, make sure that they are doing well and not wandering. We are supposed to have one another’s backs!
James spells out one of the ways we can do that in verse 16 of his final chapter. In the context of praying for healing and forgiveness, James says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other…”
James isn’t talking about a priest in fancy robes, here, sitting in a dark booth taking confession. Rather he is talking about an attitude that should be present among Christian believers: an attitude that takes sin seriously and is honest with one another about our struggles and our weaknesses.
Looking out for those who are wandering does not mean a judgemental attitude or a prideful self-righteousness. It means an open honesty about our own struggles which allow us to meet people in their struggles. We can turn our fellow Christians from sin and back to God because we have been there before. Not only that, but we also need people to look out for us and turn us back to God too.
Church should be a messy place. Too often it isn’t, but it ought to be. It should be a place where we can be honest about the mess we find ourselves in and the struggles we are wrestling with. It should be a place where we can be honest about our lostness so much of the time, and the need for others to look out for us and draw us back to where we should be. That way leads to openness instead of resentment, honesty instead of being judgemental, growth instead of defensiveness. Let’s pray that God will enable us to be these kind of Christians and this kind of church.