Sermon for Evensong on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 7th September 2014
Acts 19:1-20 – The Sons of Sceva

All being well, I shall see you on Wednesday. Touch wood, fingers crossed, it’ll stay fine until then. Touch wood: fingers crossed; I expect some of you will be preparing to tackle me on the way out already!

I expect some of you may say that touching wood and crossing one’s fingers and so on are superstitious gestures – and that no true Christian should get involved with superstition.

What’s the difference between what S. Paul was doing, in performing ‘extraordinary miracles’ [Acts 19:11], so that, when handkerchieves or aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were brought to the sick, they were cured, and ‘evil spirits came out of them’, and on the other hand what the seven sons of Sceva did? We are told that they were also casting out demons, making people better, and curing people by invoking the name of ‘Jesus whom Paul proclaims’.

Presumably, some of the time it must have worked for the sons of Sceva. They must have cured some people, because it says that they ‘were doing this’ [ησαν … ποιουντες], not that they had just come along to see whether they could do it. On this occasion an evil spirit challenges them, saying that he recognises Jesus and Paul, but not the sons of Sceva.

This is all very strange. These days we have some difficulty understanding miracles at all, but here we are being asked to distinguish between authentic miracles and mere superstition, mumbo-jumbo.

Even today some people still do perform exorcisms, to drive out ‘evil spirits’. There is still in some quarters a belief in demonic possession. The distinction which we’re supposed to draw here is between mere superstition, black magic or something, and God, genuinely working through S. Paul and the disciples.

Miracles are said to be all right – and indeed they demonstrate the authenticity of the Christian message – but black magic, superstition, is not all right. But what is the difference?

If I was a wizard in Harry Potter and I declaimed a spell invoking powers, magic powers, and presumably the names of powerful witches or wizards and magicians in order to make my spell happen, this is said to be entirely different from praying to God, and asking in one’s prayers for Him to do certain things, for example, to heal a sick person.

I think this is very tricky; because if you pray for God to do something, for example, praying that somebody who is ill should get better, we traditionally invoke Jesus to help us in this. We end most of our prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Through Jesus Christ: we pray through Him, our advocate in heaven.

We say that, but we can’t possibly know the mechanics in any detail. Why do we pray ‘through’ Jesus Christ? Prayer is ‘talking to God’, not, surely, giving Him a message through an intermediary, or asking for somebody to intercede for you, like a barrister in court. Of course, if you are a Catholic, this isn’t a strange idea. ‘Hail Mary, mother of grace, … pray for us’, they say. There is a difference between Protestants and Catholics here. Article XXII of the 39 Articles (on page 620 of your little blue Prayer Book), says,

The Romish Doctrine concerning … Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

The Catholic idea is described in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (22.1). ‘We have a high priest who has entered the heavens: Jesus, the Son of God. The characteristic role of a priest is to act as a go-between between God and his people, handing on to the people the things of God, offering to God the prayers of the people …’

We are in Reformation territory here – Calvin resisted Thomas’ idea of priesthood, and put forward instead the idea of a priesthood of all believers. As Anglicans, we still hold to the compromise between the Catholicism of Queen Mary and the Protestantism of the boy king Edward (or really, of his advisers) made by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559. This kept the Catholic orders of bishops, priests and deacons, and used the word ‘ministers’, ministers of religion, standing between God and people. So it’s not a big mental step from having your worship mediated, passed on to God by a minister, to being comfortable with the idea of Jesus as our ‘mediator and advocate’ as several of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer call Him.

In the light of this, were the sons of Sceva doing anything particularly wrong? They were praying, invoking, calling on the evil spirit to come out of the afflicted person, and invoking the power of Jesus to strengthen their petition.

What is magic supposed to be all about? If I ‘magic’ something, I am trying to bring about something in the future. But it’s not supposed to be necessarily a good thing. In this passage, many of the people who were converted had previously believed in magic and had practised magic – Ephesus was apparently known for magical formulae (the Εφησια Γράμματα or Ephesian Letters) which were said to ward off evil spirits. When they were converted, they gave it all up and burned their magic books.

What is it that we can get from this today? Is there something harmful in Harry Potter, and does it matter if a good Christian crosses his fingers or touches wood? I think the difference is that crossing one’s fingers or touching wood is not something which we take very seriously. Doing these gestures is not a sign that we are really invoking some magic powers or undermining our belief in one true God, all-powerful, the creator.

It might be different if we were, to some extent, hedging our bets spiritually, as perhaps some of the early Christians may have done, believing in God, believing in Jesus Christ, but still – just to be on the safe side – making sure they didn’t do anything to offend their old gods.

The difference is perhaps this. If one invokes Jesus as mediator and advocate, the prayer is always subject to the overriding idea that ‘Thy will be done’, in other words, a prayer is always as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, ‘not as I will, but as thou wilt’ [Matt. 26:39]. There is no question, in prayer, of trying to direct the future. God works through people, through believers, not the other way around. Indeed, if we look at our lesson again in Acts 19, at verse 11 we read, ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.’ Paul didn’t cast spells. God did the miracles.

In magic, the idea of the magician making something happen is central. But the power to do this which is invoked is not divine, but mysterious and not necessarily good, not good in the sense of being beneficial for all. It implies that the magician believes – invokes – the power of something other than God: indeed, it’s possible that it could be something opposed to God.

Now all this is predicated on the assumption that we accept that there is such a thing as demonic possession, and that there are ‘evil spirits’ as opposed to mental illness. I think, however, that whatever our view on that is, we can understand the distinction which S. Luke, the author of Acts, is drawing. Harry Potter is harmless. But to pray to God, and to invoke our mediator and advocate, Jesus, is real and serious. Do tell me what you think!

Advertisements