Today, in our culture, we don’t understand the world to be filled with demons–except maybe on Halloween. Otherwise, we’re more likely to ascribe illness to a virus or bacterial infection or cancer; erratic, illogical behavior is blamed on mental illness; a series of tragedies chalked up to bad choices or plain old bad luck.
We understand the causes differently than they did in the first century. But the problems persist. Whether you call it demons or disease or neurosis or bad luck–people still suffer, people still need the power of Christ to set them free and lead them to abundant life.
Back in Paul’s day, it seems that there was some confusion about how exactly that power worked. I imagine that the seven sons of Sceva weren’t the only people to confuse miracle with magic, to try to harness and control the power of God rather than opening themselves up to let God’s power control and transform them.
It’s been a temptation throughout the history of the Christian church–to think that if we say the right prayers, give money to the right people, worship in the right way, follow the right set of rules, hang out with the right crowd–the temptation to believe that if we just get some external piece right, the power of Christ will prevail in our lives for health, for wealth, for restored relationships . . . for whatever we want.
The earliest Anabaptists were, in large measure, arguing against such magical understandings of the power of Christ and the work of the church. Baptism is a choice to follow Jesus, not some magical protection spell. Communion is a demonstration of faith and community, not a trick to get God’s good favor. Prayer is a means of developing a relationship with God, not a ticket for forgiveness. We Mennonites have a long tradition of wrestling with the power of Christ–with what it is and what it isn’t.
There are, of course, grotesque examples today of people who try to manipulate the power of God. I once received a paper prayer rug in the mail with instructions to put it on the floor and pray while kneeling on it. And maybe send this organization a little money. And my prayers would come true.
And there are slightly more subtle examples of this phenomenon. . . . We can try to control God’s work in our spiritual lives as well. . . . I talked to my spiritual director yesterday about how I’ve been slacking on my spiritual practices and feeling a bit ungrounded, cranky, spiritually lazy. And if I’m honest, what I probably wanted was a few magic words or a specific formula for making God show up when I pray, for making the Holy Spirit hold my tongue when I’m getting ready to say something harsh. But instead we talked about several practices I could try. Because, according to him, there is no magic way to rub the lamp and make the genie appear. Sometimes we experience God in one way, sometimes in another.
God is not ours to control–not with the name of Jesus or by any other means. And our attempts to control God rarely turn out well. In fact, they often leave us vulnerable and wounded on the side of the road.
A key message of this story from Acts seems to be that we should not attempt to claim the power of Christ unless we are allowing Christ full claim to our lives as well.
But this is not the only story Luke tells about a renegade exorcist. In the prequel to Acts, the Gospel of Luke (9:49-50), the disciple John tells Jesus, “We saw this guy driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop because he is not one of us.”
And Jesus didn’t say, “How dare he!” He didn’t say, “I hope those demons send that guy running scared!” In fact, Jesus didn’t rebuke the exorcist at all. Jesus rebuked John. Jesus told John, “Don’t try to stop that guy. Whoever is not against you is for you.”
The work of casting out demons–of healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, of seeking the Divine–this is the work of God. It can be good and holy work, even if we don’t have the purist of intentions, the most faithful methods. It can be good and holy work even when we have ulterior motives, power issues, faithless hearts.
So I’m not sure where we go from here, with these two contradictory stories. Except to know that there is a difference between using the power of Christ and allowing the power of Christ to use and transform us. And to know that even when we don’t get it exactly right, there is grace.