Acts 19: 11-20
November 3, 2013 (All Saints)
I heard an interview this week with someone from Atchison, claiming that town as the most haunted in Kansas, maybe even the United States. There are ghosts in the old newspaper office and in several of the houses–they have tours this time of year. There is even, supposedly, a gateway to hell in the basement of one of the old houses. Of course, we have a gateway to hell much closer–right over at the Stull cemetery, which I think they keep a very close eye on this time of year. Some people, though I am not among them, make it a point to watch horror movies and go to haunted houses in October–scaring themselves with thoughts of a world beyond this one; a world where there are dark, evil forces that intersect with our world in ways we don’t understand.
This world of demons is something most of us give attention to for brief periods of time around the end of October. But for the people in the book of Acts, for the Greeks and Romans, the Jews and Christians of the first century, the presence of demons was a daily reality. Demons were an absolute–if unfortunate–fact of life; like viruses or clinical depression today. Demons were so pervasive in the early church that every ancient order of baptism scholars have found includes an exorcism. Casting out demons was just standard baptismal procedure.
So it is not surprising that there were professional exorcists wandering around Ephesus. These seven sons of the Jewish high priest Sceva, though, they are a suspicious bunch. To begin with, there is no historical record of a Jewish high priest named Sceva–so they are falsifying credentials. And secondly, they don’t seem committed to any particular faith or method of exorcism. So when they hear of a new and improved way of sending the demons fleeing–this new magic name guaranteed to make you 100% demon-free–well, they decide to try it out for themselves.
They go into the house of a man who is possessed by a demon and say to the demon, “I order you to come out in the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” They have no connection to Paul–they’ve just heard the rumors about the magic aprons and handkerchiefs. They aren’t trying to learn about or follow Jesus; they just want to tap into some of his demon-crushing mojo.
But the demon doesn’t buy it. Like a scene from The Exorcist (so I’ve heard; never have, never will watch the movie), the demon starts talking to the seven sons of Sceva: “Sure I know Jesus. And I know Paul. But who the heck are you losers?” Then this one guy (granted he is demon-possessed) beats up all seven of the would-be exorcists–I imagine a scene from a Bruce Lee movie–and sends them whimpering out the door bleeding and naked. (Why has no one made a movie about this?) That’s what the text says. Naked. And you have to wonder exactly how seven men loose all of their clothes inside that house. We probably don’t want to know.
I love the next line of this story: “When this became known to all residents of Ephesus . . . “. Can you imagine how long it took those rumors to get around? Seven naked, bloody men running out of a house. Maybe about five minutes.
And the people who hear this story are awestruck. Not by the power of the demon. They are well acquainted with demonic power. The news here isn’t really the seven wounded exorcists. They are awestruck by the power of Jesus–that the demon knows Jesus, yes. And also that the name of Jesus doesn’t function the way all of the other magic spells function.
It was supposed to be the words that mattered. Learn the right words, and the spell will work. But Jesus has some kind of power beyond the name. He somehow works on behalf of those who know him, who are in relationship with him. But his name is not a commodity to just be used by anyone who is looking for a new spell to try out.
This power of Jesus is a power that they have not known before. Many people who hear this story come to believe in Jesus. Some who are magicians even burn their books of spells–very valuable books. Well, valuable in one sense, but those spells have become useless to those who now understand the true power of Jesus.
Luke, who is writing this account of the early church, gives us a victorious end to this little episode in Acts. These exorcists’ folly leads many people to believe. (You might have noticed that this happens a lot in the book of Acts–stories ending with phrases like, “And many were added to the number of believers.”) So we have a happy ending here.
Only, wait a minute. As far as we know, the seven sons of Sceva are still naked and bleeding in the road. The man who was possessed by a demon is still controlled by that evil force. This story might have illustrated the power of Jesus to those who heard it, but those who lived it have somehow missed the power–or been broken by it.
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.
Turn on a Christian radio or TV station and listen for awhile and you will hear the sons of Sceva–using the name of Jesus to try to gain power that they have no right to claim; trying to use Jesus instead of letting Jesus use them.
And there are slightly more subtle examples of this phenomenon. I see this a lot in the world of “Christian financial advice.” A popular testimony goes like this: “I didn’t really have enough money to pay my bills, but I decided to give ten percent to the church anyway and the next day I won the lottery!” Or got a bigger tax refund than I was expecting or got a check from Aunt Matilda or . . . you get the idea. If you just give God ten percent of your money, God will take care of you.
See what I mean. Subtle. I do believe that we are called to give a portion of our money for God’s work in the world–ten percent is biblical. And I do believe that we can trust God. But sometimes, somewhere in there it can become a power game. “Let’s see if God will come through this time. If I give ten percent, how much will God give me?” We give as a way to claim some Divine power for ourselves, a way to make God pay attention to us. When the reality is that sacrificing money is not a way for us to control God, but a concrete way for God to control us.
We can try to control God’s work in our spiritual lives as well. I once went forward with a friend at a Christian concert. The concert itself was a particular type of spiritual manipulation. Then they took us in groups to separate rooms where we held hands in a circle and were told to pray in tongues. Which basically means that they were commanding the Holy Spirit to give everyone the gift of tongues right there on the spot. Which isn’t how the Spirit works.
Now I doubt any of you would try to force the Spirit into giving you the gift of tongues. But maybe some of the more useful gifts of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience . . . 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.