Acts 19

OK so let me tell you about Acts 19, because it has the only Bible passage I ever preached on, which is also one of the cartooniest stories of the Bible. Over the almost 30 years (!) since I preached on it, I’ve come to realize a few things that put it in a different perspective. And none of this shows up in the lectionary of readings that the Church uses, so you almost certainly have never noticed any of this. So pull up a chair, because this will take a minute.

When I was finding my way to seminary in 1991, April swears that I was still open to pastoral ministry, but even though her memory is much better than mine, I’m pretty sure I had discerned that being a preacher was not for me by the fall when I enrolled at Candler. And here’s why I know that:

As first-year divinity students, we had a small group class that went through supervised ministry together (which was as chaplains at a nursing home for the severely disabled, which is another story). As part of the initial ice-breaker/get-to-know-you exercises, we each had to preach a sermon to the class. I knew by that point that I wasn’t going to be a preacher, and I never took a class on preaching, which may be why I never learned the recognizable cadence of the “UMC pastor voice”. But I still had to take my turn, so I preached on this story from Acts 19:11-20.

I have referenced Hanna Barbera cartoons a lot in this slow walk through Acts, but this is specifically a Sylvester the Cat moment. Paul is continuing his “preach-til-you-get-beat-up” tour through the Mediterranean and has come to Ephesus (19:1-10). He is on a roll, at this point, so much so that “God did extraordinary miracles” through Paul, “so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (v. 11-12) It’s almost like he was Elvis, or maybe Oprah.

There were working Jewish exorcists in town, seven brothers who traveled around throwing out demons, and they saw this hanky-healing as some next-level stuff. So they figured, much as Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, “How hard can this be?” And they go to a guy with an evil spirit and say “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.”

But the evil spirit says, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know of. But you – who are you?” And the guy the spirit has inhabited rises up and beats the bejeezus out of all seven guys, who “fled out of that house naked and wounded.” Whenever I read that, the image is always of Sylvester (or maybe Wile E. Coyote), bested by something he’s clearly no match for, running to the hills with big swathes of fur missing and Ace bandages wrapped around his bare-skinned wounds.

When I preached on that, it was with this message: you can fake a lot of stuff, but you can’t fake GOD. Romantic that I was, I thought that if you were going to enter ordained ministry, it wasn’t enough to have the skills for the job or the ambition to get ahead; ministry was something God had to actually *call* you to, or else you’d end up eventually like the sons of Sceva, butt-whipped, exposed, and running for the hills. And I was not *called* to ordained ministry. Amen. Next preacher.

I still believe that. I still believe that God calls people to ministry, and that there are a lot of folks who are tempted to try to fake it. And I believe, even in the face of current evidence, that sooner or later, they’re either going to come up against a God who doesn’t recognize them or a demon who only defers to true holiness, and they’re going to get their butt whipped. And they will have deserved it.

But over 29 years, I’ve realized some other stuff. 1) Whether we’re *called* to official ministry or not, we can and must still take care of each other, which is what ministry is, really. 2) Whether we’re *called* to official ministry or not, we should expect to feel like we aren’t worthy, aren’t ready, aren’t up to the task, because we aren’t. It’s not Paul or his hankies that have the power; they’re just hankies. It’s the fact that God uses them (and him) that makes them something more. Same deal with us. 3) We might get thrashed like Sylvester because we are pretending to be something we aren’t. But sometimes we get thrashed even when we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Such is the nature of God’s timeline versus ours. Many days, it looks to me like the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend at all. But in the long, long run, you can see where someone beaten on a bridge in Alabama or hung on a cross in Jerusalem can be a part of a redemptive story that just takes way too long to resolve for my impatient tastes.

Here’s the other thing almost three decades have taught me: the passage that is really important isn’t the Sons of Sceva skit; it’s the one after it. What does in Paul in Ephesus is that he disrupts the economy and challenges the exceptionalism of Ephesus. You see, the Ephesians were known for being the home of the goddess Artemis. They had an economy built around making little Artemis statues for people to take home after they visited the Artemis shrine (for which they could book Fast Passes. Just kidding.) When Paul caught fire, he turned people against the idea that there was any god but God, and the local chamber of commerce realized that he was an existential threat. If people bought into this idea that God was the only god, they wouldn’t come to Ephesus. They wouldn’t buy the statues. If they were going to maintain Ephesian Exceptionalism, if they were going to Keep Ephesus Great, they needed to get rid of that Paul and his heresy.

The world we live in has its own versions of Artemis. Maybe they’re political. Maybe they’re economic. Maybe they’re national, or racial. Maybe they deny that Paul’s God is the real deal or maybe they just don’t care. But they will kill to keep the illusion they worship safe.

Paul’s world was so different than ours, but the dynamics are the same. Some people, like the Sons of Sceva, are going to try to co-opt the message of God so they can use that power for their own selfish ends. And some people, like the Ephesian silversmiths, are going to try to drive out any message of God that threatens to supplant the idols they make and sell. But in the end, even if it takes longer than you have to wait, you can’t fake GOD. So keep ministering anyway, keep taking care of each other, whether you feel called or not.

One response to “Acts 19”

  1. […] of mine, because it’s the one time we spend time in my favorite book, Acts (even though we skip the most entertaining parts). But even though it maintains the upbeat tone of Easter Sunday (unlike […]

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