Friday, November 2, 2007

Acts 19

Acts 19:1-10: Paul had stopped briefly in Ephesus before, but now he returns for a more extended stay. Already there were people of the Jesus movement present in the city. Again, we will hear more about Ephesus later when we read the book that is related to the Christian community there. Here we pick up on some of the cryptic remarks made about Apollos. Somehow, “John’s baptism” has been a part of the Christian experience of Apollos and some of those who became Christians under his ministry. Anyway, there was something not quite in order here, at least in Luke’s mind. Paul baptizes these disciples in the name of the Lord Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit. Luke may be trying to describe what happens when a group of John’s followers meets up with Paul and becomes more fully incorporated into the Jesus movement. One can argue that Luke, while trying to portray a developing church that is essentially unified, gives a nod here to the reality that many groups were a part of the Jesus movement, often emphasizing slightly different aspects of his teaching or offering some variety of interpretation of his life and death. How we relate to other streams of Christian tradition, and how we relate to other religions remain significant issues in our day and time. If we follow the model in Acts, a part of our task is to share our tradition in ways that demonstrate some areas of common ground while not denying the uniqueness of the tradition. In asserting the uniquenesss of the Christian tradition, we need not assert its “superiority” in every respect to other traditions. That has often been the Christian mistake. In reaction to that, some would simply like to say that every religion is substantially the same, but I don’t think that is satisfying either. We each should from our traditions share what we have found about human life and ultimate reality. Some may find what we share intriguing and convincing and become a part of the Christian faith. Others may simply be helped to deepen their commitment to their own tradition. One goal for our day and time may be to avoid the kind of outright hostility that we find in some of the instances of the interaction between religious viewpoints in the Book of Acts.

Paul remains in Ephesus, speaking boldly and arguing “persuasively about the kingdom of God.” Here we encounter a term we have not seen in a while. Luke uses this as another way to summarize the Christian message – synonymous with the “Messiah is Jesus.” God was up to something special in Jesus and something can be called “the kingdom of God.” Paul continues preaching even after he is no longer welcome in the synagogue. He stays in Ephesus for two to three years (the number varies even within Acts – see 20:31) and the message of Christian faith reaches out from there. Ephesus was the site of Paul’s most extensive ministry, a place from which he wrote a number of his letters, and a place that became the center for Christian faith as Paul proclaimed and taught it.

Acts 19:11-20: Not only is Paul’s preaching and teaching powerful, God’s Spirit is powerful within him so that he is able to touch people’s lives in remarkable ways, ways that heal and free. Some of the methodology for this seems typecast out of bad television revivalism where blessed articles are sold. Luke’s point is simply that God was at work in a powerful way in Paul – the same Spirit that had worked through Jesus was at work by the name of Jesus through Paul.

However, the name of Jesus is not a magic incantation, as seen in the story Luke tells next of itinerant Jewish exorcists who admire the power they see in Paul and try and use it for themselves. They misunderstand that any Spirit power that touches lives arises out of an on-going relationship with Jesus as God’s Christ. As Luke tells the story there is a comic aspect - the demonic spirit saying, “I know Jesus, I know Paul, but who are you?” They are overcome and embarrassed.

For some, this story speaks to the emptiness of some of their own magical practices and they leave these to follow Jesus. This is symbolized by a book burning – not a symbol that would have as much meaning today. It is important to note that the books are not burned out of a sense that they are inherently evil, but as a way to make a statement about where life’s power is to be truly located – in relationship to God and Jesus Christ. In comparison with this, former practices are seen as lacking something important. I would not read in this story any justification for burning Harry Potter books!

Acts 19:21-41: About the time Paul begins making plans to travel, yet another disturbance breaks out “concerning the Way.” In this fascinating story, religious and economic interests combine in raising concerns about Paul and the Jesus movement. It is difficult to untangle the strength of each set of concerns. If Paul continues to pull people into the Christian way, then the market for Artemis statues will decline (the law of supply and demand!). This seems the deeper concern of Demetrius and other artisans whose livelihood depends on a brisk business in religious statues. However, one should not completely dismiss a note of genuine religious concern. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and brought thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. The artisans stir up the people, appealing not to economics but to faith and tradition. A crowd gathers at the huge amphitheater (it seated 24,000) where there is confusing discussion and debate. As often happens, the happening brings together people who are not even sure what is going on. On the verge of chaos, cooler heads prevail, here in the form of an imperial official. He reminds them that nothing need take away from the special status the city has as a center for the worship of Artemis. He is also concerned for his own well-being. He does not want to draw the attention and disfavor of Rome; the Roman leaders did not take riotous public assemblies lightly. It is his interest in the continued peace and prosperity of the city; more than justice per se, that motivates his appeal. Thus Luke shows that enlightened self-interest among pagan officials calls for a halt to public protests and demonstrations against the Christian missionary enterprise. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) Whatever his motives, the official encourages people to seek legal recourse in the courts if they believe laws have been violated. The moral to Luke’s story is that the new Christian faith has a legal right to exist and propagate its faith in the Roman world, that level-headed pagan officials recognize the Christianity is not a violation of city or Roman law, and that they should discourage popular reactions against the growth of the Christian community, for such responses are themselves illegal. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)

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