Driving Without Gas
Today’s readings from the daily office include one of my favorite passages from the Acts of the Apostles. The setting is Paul’s third missionary journey to Greece and Asia Minor in the mid-50’s A.D., during which time he spent three years in and around Ephesus, a city of several hundred thousand people.
11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ 16 Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. 17 When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. 18 Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. 19 A number of those who practised magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. 20 So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed. (19:11-20, NRSV)
This is one of several passages in Acts that are both theologically meaningful and more than a bit comical. The mental image of these seven would-be exorcists running through the streets, naked, bloody, and limping, chased by some raving lunatic, will make a wonderful comic-relief scene if they ever make a movie out of Acts.
Even though it’s funny, it reflects an attitude that is still around, at both the personal and corporate level. Speaking for myself, I’m a whole lot better at asking things “in Jesus’ name, amen,” than I am at being a disciple. It’s no wonder Satan so frequently hands me my rear end on a platter.
At the corporate level, one of the characteristics of the Church in the West – especially the mainline Protestant denominations, though the Catholics aren’t immune – is a constant effort to invoke the power of God while being completely unwilling to recognize the authority of God. I remember, in my old denomination, constant references to how God will take care of His Church in times of trouble, when the same Church was expressing absolutely no interest in following the revealed commands of the God they were counting on to prosper them. The bishops seem to be like loud environmentalists with big SUVs. They want the power that comes from a big V-8, but they really aren’t willing to pump the oil to fuel it. Eventually they’ll find themselves in nice leather seats, halfway up the Mountain of God, with an empty fuel tank. I really don’t want to be there when the powerless hulk starts rolling back downhill.
A few years ago, when I was a vestry member, a request was made to put up a poster of the Twelve Steps in the Parish Hall. (The Twelve Steps were originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous many years ago and are now used by many different recovery and self-help groups.) Someone not familiar with the Twelve Steps wanted to know what they were, so the guy making the request read them out loud. I was a bit stunned that the version of the Twelve Steps as read had been carefully amended to avoid any reference to God. My first comment was, “Do these people actually think they can take God out of those steps and still have them work?” You can’t have the power if you remove the power source. It’s sad. A gasless SUV may coast along for a while on fumes and inertia. Recovery groups, or the Church, may coast along for a while on the remnant of those current members who are still committed to the God Who is, as opposed to the god they might prefer. Once those people are gone, and have been replaced by people brought up in the current paradigm who simply don’t know any better, the gas tank will be truly and fully empty. When that happens, I’m afraid, there’s going to be one hell of a crash.