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
Meeting via Zoom or whatever isn’t great, is it? But, as we keep reminding ourselves, it’s better than nothing. At least we see one another’s friendly faces and hear one another’s voices, however briefly. So we thank God for it.
But “Zoom-fatigue” is becoming more and more of a problem. A friend said recently that he was finding it so difficult that he knew he might be in danger of drifting away from church altogether. You could, if you liked, reply without much sympathy, “Well, given that you recognise the danger, it’s up to you to make sure that doesn’t happen! Get your sleeves rolled up! We all have a responsibility to maintain and safeguard our own relationship with God.” True enough.
But that may be easier said than done, depending on a person’s prior spiritual strength and state of physical and mental health. Which means – and this is the key point - that all of us have a responsibility to look out for those we know who could be in danger.
Again, you might say “But isn’t that the pastor’s job?”, and of course you would be right. But the New Testament suggests that while churches do indeed need pastors who are specially set aside for that role, there is a sense in which we can all be pastors to one another.
James finishes his short, quick-fire letter with this reminder: we all have a responsibility for any fellow-believer who might “wander from the truth”. He suggests that “someone” (ie, not necessarily the pastor) might “bring that person back”, that “whoever” we are (again, not necessarily the pastor) we should recognise our responsibility.
A little earlier, in verse 14, he writes about people who are in need of healing, and suggests that ministering to them may well be a task for people who are specially equipped for it – “let them call the elders of the church to pray over them”. But he makes no such stipulation when it comes to those who drift away.
This raises an obvious question, especially for those of us who may feel fairly secure in our faith: Should I be doing something for people who seem to have quietly disappeared from our online meetings? If, over the weeks, they had gone missing from a normal Sunday morning service, we would probably have noticed fairly quickly. How much easier it is for them to disappear without trace from our virtual gatherings.
It’s worth remembering that appearances can be deceptive. There may be someone we have known for many years, and who we have always looked up to as a strong, solid Christian, but who now finds themselves struggling. I personally can think of someone who was truly a long-standing pillar of the church – always strong, always reliable, always cheerful - but who suddenly, quite out of the blue, slipped into a period of depression.
And while it’s very natural to expect the church’s official leaders to be getting on with the job of pastoring – well, what about the pastors themselves? Very likely they give the impression (I nearly said “project an image”) of constant cheerfulness and super-competence, but who knows if they are quietly breaking up inside?
So what’s to do?
James’s words, I think, are more about people who are consciously lapsing back into sin rather than those struggling under more neutral pressures. But the same principle applies.
So this is simply a call to each of us to keep our spiritual eyes open and to keep our spiritual antennae raised. Not, of course, that we should go grubbing around in other people’s business: God forbid. But, well – it’s all about love really, isn’t it?
Who knows what an email or message, a phone call or card, might achieve? Something as simple as that could be a turning point in someone’s life: as James puts it, “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.
Jesus described himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Did he ever speak a more beautiful word? And did he ever tell a more beautiful story than that of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the open country (presumably under someone’s care!) in order to go after the one lost sheep until he found it (Luke 15:3-7)?
Need we say more?
Dear Father in heaven, thank you for Jesus, my good shepherd, who watches over me and prays for me. Thank you too for loving under-shepherds who have looked out for me over the years. Put into my mind right now, I pray, someone who I in my turn should be looking out for. Amen.