The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”. In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith. On May 11, we visited Ephesus, and talked about the controversy that took place when the Apostles challenged the status quo. You can read about it in Acts 19.
I have had the privilege of traveling to Malawi in Central Africa a number of times. Because I am profoundly grateful for that, and because our friends in Malawi have some significant needs, I rarely travel empty-handed: I usually try to bring along some relief or community-building supplies.
Generally, I fly into the airport closest to where our sister church is, and I am met by some sort of a delegation that helps me to sort out my luggage, etc. However, on one trip I was flying alone and happened to be landing in the capital city, a six-hour drive from my close friends. I’d be on my own.
As it happened that day, there was an extremely zealous Malawian customs officer on duty who was very curious about the contents of my second piece of luggage – a foot locker containing sports and medical equipment that was clearly not for my own use. I explained that these were gifts for friends, and she explained that she didn’t care about that, and that I needed to know that I was liable for several hundred dollars in import tariffs and had a long afternoon of government paperwork to look forward to…
I was wearing my collar, I was trying to look kind and compassionate and, well, meek. She was having none of it. She handed me a sheaf of paper and a pen and instructed me to itemize everything in both suitcases and assign it a value. Just as I resignedly took the paper, I heard a voice calling from across the terminal. “Abusa! Abusa Davie Cava! Abusa! Stop right there!” And, looking up, I saw a uniformed police officer sprinting toward me. He had his baton in hand, and he grabbed the paperwork from me and laid it on the table. He smacked the papers with his baton and went to town on the woman from customs. He was talking so quickly and with such animation that all I could pick out were the words “Abusa” (that’s the Chichewa word for “pastor”), “mzungu” (Chichewa for “white guy”), and “Davie Cava” (Chichewa, evidently, for “Dave Carver”). They had a rather energetic discussion, during which point he was placing items back in my luggage and attempting to close it up whilst she was taking items out of my luggage and pointing to the paperwork.
He packed faster than she could unpack, and he slammed the lid on the footlocker, gave it a whack with his baton, and said, “Abusa, come with me.” She started to argue, and he smacked the footlocker again and said, “No!” They were ANGRY!
We went around the corner and he broke into a huge grin, hugged me, and said, “I can’t believe you have come back to Malawi!” I hugged back, a little tentatively, because I had no idea who my rescuer was. It turns out that he had been a member of a congregation in a very remote area that I’d visited about ten years previously. So far as he knew, my family was the first American family to visit his village, and he remembered my preaching in his church – and he was going to be darned if he let someone like me pay taxes on relief supplies that were heading to a village like that! He told me I was famous in Makanjila, one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Malawi.
I realize that doesn’t help me get a discount at Shop N Save or good seats to the Pirate game, but, hey – I’ll take what I can get.
Where are you famous? Who knows you, and where do they know you? I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture reading tells about the day that Paul found out that he was famous in Hell. Did you catch that? These charlatans are going around trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and the demon says, “Jesus, I know. Paul, I know. But who are you?” and then goes ahead and gives the would-be exorcists a run for their money. Those who would drive out the demon are themselves driven away.
As we continue to look at the process by which disciples and followers mature into apostles and those who are entrusted with a ministry of real import, our venue shifts this morning to the town of Ephesus, a port city in what is now known as Turkey. What were the characteristics of the Body of Christ in that place, and what can we learn from them in our attempts to be faithful?
One thing that Luke wants us to know about the church there is that it was a powerful, powerful place. The church in Ephesus came about because of a deep investment by some really gifted people. In fact, we’re told that Paul stayed in Ephesus longer than he stayed anywhere else. His commitment, and that of the rest of the believers, left a profound impact not only on the local population, but, as we’ve seen, on those in the next world as well! The stories of handkerchiefs and aprons are significant because they reveal the strength and power that is attributed to the presence of Paul and the other leaders in that community.
In the same way, I have been encouraged by some real signs of the presence of the Holy in and around Crafton Heights. Oh, so far as I know, we’ve not seen any healings as a result of used handkerchiefs, but we also haven’t had any botched exorcisms, either – so I’ll call that a draw. What we have seen, though, is a community that is growing stronger as people engage in long-term commitment and the intentional practice of ministry – a commitment to a place and a people that is remarkable in our mobile, 21st-century American culture. In fact, one of the things that drew me to this place more than thirty years ago was the depth that I saw in friendships shared between people like Dorothy Larimer and Peg Morse and Margaret Tranter and John McConnell and Beebe Lightell. Prior to coming to Crafton Heights, I’d never really seen a community where people valued long-term friendships like this. If anything good is happening in and through this church, then it is happening at least in part because a group of you have decided that you are called to invest yourselves in each other and in these neighbors. Do not, my friends, underestimate the power of that commitment.
There’s a danger, of course, to that. In Ephesus, we see that the power and strength that comes from the witness of the Christian community leads others to have a certain familiarity with the name of Jesus and the trappings of faith, but no real relationship with Christ or his people. The “Seven Sons of Sceva” see that the name of Jesus is associated with big things, and so they try to appropriate that name without knowing the One it represents. To them, the name is a magical incantation.
I thought about that earlier this week as a few friends and I engaged in a conversation about the ways that sometimes people will look at me and say, “Well, what do you think, Dave…will you say a little prayer about this for us?”
What, exactly, is “a little prayer”? Is it a brief prayer telling God what we think we need and which he already knows? I’m ok with those kind of prayers. Or is “a little prayer” an incantation that we send out when it doesn’t seem like anything else is going to work, anyway?
Prayer is a powerful gift. But it’s not magic. I have to remember that when you shake my hand and tell me that your family reunion is on Saturday and will I please pray for good weather – and then the next person through the line reminds me that she’s planted more tomatoes than ever before, so will I please pray for rain. I can only pray for us to experience God’s best in the place God has given us. That’s not magic, and it’s not a little prayer. It’s recognizing the power that is given in the context of a relationship with the Lord of all creation.
The third thing that I notice about the church in Ephesus is the stark contrast between the faithful, intentional, long-term ministry that the church is seeking to build and the fly-by-night hocus-pocus that the Sons of Sceva are attempting to sell – and the ways that that contrast is an invitation to the church in Ephesus to take a step forward in faith and demonstrate what really happens when a people know not just his name, but Jesus himself.
In our context, I think that begs the question, “How do we create a climate that constantly invites deeper growth and maturity in faith?” To put it another way, are we showing up at worship because we want some of the “good luck blessings” that seem to come to Jesus’ friends to rub off on us? Or are we growing in our ability to trust that Jesus, not chance, rules the world; that service and humility, not fame and fortune, are the hallmarks of successful living; and that obedience, not convenience, is what God wants from us?
I was getting ready to assist in a baptism in Malawi when my friend Pastor Ralph engaged in an animated conversation with the young couple who’d brought their daughter forward. The baby was wearing a lovely little necklace, and Ralph spoke sharply and pointed his bony finger at the parents, then roughly grabbed the necklace and threw it to the ground, grinding it to dust with his heel.
I discovered that the “necklace” was an amulet given to the baby by the local witch doctor, who had assured the parents that if their daughter wore the charm, she’d be protected from all evil spirits and bodily harm. Ralph insisted that when we baptize our babies, we aren’t guaranteeing them anything – we’re insisting that they grow up knowing that they belong to God and are called for his purposes. He said, “Look, you can’t have it both ways – are you going to worship the god of the witch doctor, or learn the Way of Christ?”
In our world, we face a similar choice. Every year at this time, I get a litany of complaints about the fact that the sports leagues schedule their games on Sunday mornings and how we wish that Johnny could come to church, but he made a promise to the team to show up there, too.
Now, hear what I’m saying, people. Pastor Dave is not capping on the folks who have to go to Dance recitals or softball games. And Pastor Dave is not making the world a place where it’s all black and white, and where church is the only place that God’s intentions are revealed. After all, if we act like that, we’re acting as if this place is magical and we’re treating our baptism like it’s the good-luck charm.
But Pastor Dave is (in addition to talking about himself in the third person) saying that we have a responsibility to learn for ourselves, and to help our children learn, that our primary identity is that of being part of the Family of God. How and where and when we choose to work, to shop, to socialize, to engage in the day-to-day aspects of living are reflective of the values that underpin those choices. Seeing ourselves as the family of faith who wear the name and carry the power of Christ in this place means that there will be days when we go for the team event or the family reunion because Christ plays in those arenas, too. But it will also mean that we integrate our spiritual lives into the fabric of those other areas so that we play, shop, eat, and vote in ways that reflect the glory of God.
The rest of Acts 19 describes in vivid detail a riot that ensues when the church in Ephesus lives into its call to walk in faith in humility before God. In particular, the local metal workers create a disturbance when they realize that if everyone adopts the Way of Christianity, then the market for their shiny idols will drop and they’ll lose business. The Church, carrying and living the name and power of Christ, represented a real threat to the status quo and the powers of the day. We can do the same thing, you know. In fact, we are called to do so.
What if our embrace of the radical call to follow Jesus prompts us to follow the example of the church in Ephesus?
Listen: the early church was filled with people who believed in Jesus AND in sorcery and witchcraft – until they saw what happened to folks like the Sons of Sceva. Then the believers in Ephesus decided that they needed to purge their homes of the scrolls and books that guided them in that aspect of spirituality. We read where they burnt their libraries – worth 50,000 silver pieces – because they felt as though those libraries were holding them back in their ability to follow Jesus effectively. A silver piece was a day’s wage – so if I do the math right, that’s more than 150 years worth of wages for a single person. It’s a huge number…and it represents the fact that the Christian community was willing to pass on something that was attractive in order to gain that which was eternally important.
Do you need to purge something from your life today? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus in ways that bring forth power and really make a difference in the world, what do you need to set aside?
Maybe you need to trust God to be your comfort, not the rocky road ice cream or the drive-through at the Taco Bell. Maybe you need to quit looking for relaxation and “inner peace” by zoning out with bad television or substance abuse. Maybe you even need to stop spending so much time doing something good so that you can be fully engaged by something great. I don’t know what it is for you – but I know that the Lord Jesus Christ is calling you to drop anything that stands between you and whole-hearted obedience so that his name and power are more clearly seen in your life.
I had the privilege to visit Ephesus about six years ago. I went to the site of the Temple of Artemis – one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” I saw the temples that were built to the local goddess, and the images in stone and marble that had once been incredibly beautiful but now bear witness to decay and death.
I served communion in the Coliseum where the riot described in Acts 19 took place, and where Christians later met their deaths at the hands of gladiators or the claws of beasts.
And as impressive as all of that old architecture was, I was more overwhelmed by the power of the Name that was proclaimed in the homes and churches of this ancient city. Scratched into a paving stone in the ancient sidewalk was a small, insignificant shape – it looks a little like a pizza – but it is the coded shape that the earliest believers used to say “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.” The graffiti has lasted as long, or longer, than the temples to the idols. And the message it represents is eternal: the Gospel of Christ that freed slaves and fed the hungry and drove out demons and unleashed dreams… May we be able to receive the call to purity so that we can focus on that which is most important even as we hope for the transformation of what we see before us.
If we are able to commit ourselves to seeking the truth of Jesus single-mindedly, we probably won’t become famous here or anywhere else. But we’ll be participating in the kind of lifestyle that builds the Kingdom in our children and grandchildren – the only Kingdom that will last forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.