This is our last Sunday in the book of Acts, and we are going to read one of my favorite stories. It’s a short but very rich little narrative about demon possession, magic, money, and the name of Jesus. Before we read it let’s remember where we are in the adventures of the early church. Last week we heard about how the mother church in Jerusalem decided that Gentile converts needed only to follow a few important rules, and not practice all 613 Jewish laws. Once this issue is settled, the gospel begins to spread even more rapidly in the Afro-Asiastic world. The book of Acts begins to follow the work of the apostle Paul specifically and this morning’s story takes place in a city called Ephesus on the western edge of modern day Turkey. Paul spent several years in the city of Ephesus and the book of Acts records several of his adventures. The one I want us to focus on this morning is important because it’s going to help us tell the difference between faith and magic.
The ancient world was generally a much more magical place than our world. And by that I mean that because there was less scientific understanding of disease and weather and physics, people believed more strongly that invisible personal forces were responsible for events in the world. People wanted to live healthy, successful, peaceful lives, just like we do and so they sought out ways to try to make that happen, just like we do. In the ancient world, magic was usually focused on manipulating or coercing a god or goddess to do something good for an individual person. If you could say the right words or do the right ritual in the right way, you could make something happen. It should work the same way every time. Magic.
So you can probably already see why it’s important to understand that our faith is NOT magic. In this story, I want you to listen for difference between Paul’s actions and the other people’s actions and what happens as a result.
God performed miracles, extraordinary and not by chance, by the hand of Paul. So that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
Some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know well, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all awestruck, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. Many of those who believed now came confessed and disclosed their practices. A number who had practiced magic brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to $35,000. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.Acts 19:11-20
Isn’t that a great story? It begins with the affirmation that God was doing powerful miracles. They are described as extraordinary, which is a word that can also mean not by chance. This is important because in the ancient world, nobody believed in coincidence or random events. Even those most baffling happenings were attributed to a goddess named Tyche. She was the goddess of chance, who was like a toddler in an antique store, running around, sweeping her hand along the shelves and breaking some things while leaving others alone completely, with no accounting for what’s valuable and what’s not. Worship of her was especially popular during times of great uncertainty. So the author of Acts goes out of his way to say right at the beginning of this story that the powerful miracles were done by God, not by chance, and also not by Paul. Paul is God’s conduit, for amazing, healing, beautiful blessings. God’s power is so strong that even random pieces of cloth that Paul comes into contact with, like his dinner napkin, can be placed on sick people and they will be healed. Now please note that it doesn’t say Paul is going around blessing pieces of cloth, nor that he sells them. This has nothing to do with Paul. It’s simply a description of how strong God’s power is in Paul. God has the power and Paul is God’s instrument,
But as always happens, when power is present, some people will try to abuse it. Some exorcists see what is happening, they hear the way that Paul prays for people, and they think it’s magic. They think that Paul is using the magical name of Jesus to coerce God into doing what Paul wants God to do. And so they try to do the same thing. Did you see the difference? They want to have the power and use the name of Jesus as a weapon. They even say to evil spirits, “I command you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” These seven sons of Sceva don’t know the person of Jesus; they haven’t had an experience of the Resurrected Christ. They just think they’ve gotten their hands on some new spell and so they try to use it. To disastrous and hilarious results.
We don’t know how many times they tried this, but one day they try to command an evil spirit by Jesus’ name and the spirit talks back. So imagine a demon-possessed person, who turns to these young men and says, “Jesus I know very well, and Paul I am acquainted with. But who in the world are you little twerps?” And then the demon-possessed man—one man—beats up the seven guys and runs them out of the house. Obviously, that story is going to get around. And it’s going to make an impact.
It’s important that we know the difference between faith and magic, the difference between the God we worship and the goddess of chance. Because, if we are honest, we would really like to be able to practice magic. I would love to have some words, some way, of manipulating the power of God to do what I want it to do. To bring an end to this wretched virus. To control government officials. To protect my husband and son from ever being harmed. To heal people I love.
But our faith is not magic. Our prayers, our songs, our baptisms, our communions, they do not manipulate or coerce God into doing what we want. When we call on the name of Jesus we are not using a spell; we are speaking to a friend. A friend we can trust. Our prayers, our songs, our baptisms, our communions, they deepen our connection, our relationship with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Source, the Word and the Breath. We are not trying to placate the goddess of chance who is randomly wreaking havoc in the world. We are trusting in the One God who is the Mother of Us All, that although her ways may be mysterious to us, she is working in all things for good.
This way of life makes demands on us. We cannot trust God and practice magic. Remember at the end of the story, Christian believers who had been still practicing magic gave it up and burned their spellbooks. They made an actual commitment to living in trust instead of trying to manipulate chance. And let’s not be naïve—this has a cost to it. Fully committing to following Jesus, to trusting God, will shift the way we live, including our economic commitments. The book of Acts talks about money. Money has always been a part of the life of the church because it’s always a concern of human beings. If our commitment to trust God and partner in the way God is working in all things for good has not changed our economic priorities, we need to ask ourselves why and where we are still holding back.
Money is magic for us. We think that with enough wealth we can accomplish health and safety and peace. We use our coins and bills to manipulate the world around us, to try to manipulate God, into giving us what we want. But money isn’t going to save us any more than magic words or rituals will. God invites to place our trust in God and to direct all our words, all our rituals, all our resources, all our actions, towards joining the good that God is doing in the world.
Whether you believe in goddesses and demons isn’t the point. We know that there is evil in the world. We feel it, we see the results of it all around us. It transcends our individual actions, and yet evil also affects us on an individual level. That’s what the Bible is communicating with the images of cosmic evil and also demon possession. The word Satan simply means “adversary” which absolutely resonates with the way I feel sometimes that something in life is out to get me. The point of all the healings, all the exorcisms in the Bible, is that Jesus has defeated evil, in all its forms. And as we cultivate a deep, personal, intimate connection to the divine, to the Resurrected Christ, we will experience and express victory over evil in our own lives and in the world. Not because we have magic powers. But because God is graciously using us as instruments. Our words. Our rituals. Our everyday actions. Our money. All of it at God’s service for the healing of the world and the revealing of God’s Kingdom. Amen.