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Throughout this series in Acts we’ve been talking about points of contact we have as Christians with the world around us. Points of commonality. Things about the human condition. Questions that we struggle with. As our story turns toward the great city of Ephesus I want us to think about another question that question we all have in common - “Whose power is at work in the world?” For those who follow Christ, the question is “What does it mean to name Christ as Lord?” “Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour” is a phrase that can become almost glib. We can rhyme it off. This morning I want us to stop and consider what it means to name Jesus as Lord.
Particularly in terms of competing claims. The thing about Ephesus in Paul’s day is that it was another big deal city. The capital of the Roman province of Achaea – in the western part of modern day Turkey. It was a port city that was part of a major east west trade route. While the importance of its port facilities had waned somewhat, its importance as a tourist destination had not. Just outside the city stood one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Artemis or Diana as she was known to the Romans was a big deal goddess – goddess of the hunt, goddess of fertility tied in to the local mother earth goddess. The temple was not only a place where people came to sacrifice and worship, it also served as a bank. There was a bi-monthly festival which included a parade through town to celebrate Artemis. Worship here was tied in to civic life and economic life. You can visit the ruins of Ephesus today which have been excavated since the 19th century. One of the amazing things about this is that you really get a sense of the grandeur of the place as you go through the city.
This place was a big deal.
I can’t help but think of our own city as we read accounts of Paul staying in places like Corinth and Ephesus. The similarities are numerous. Economic, cultural, educational centres of power.
Which brings us back to the question - Whose power is at work in the world? To put it another way, “What is the thing that we are going to worship?” Everyone worships something. What is the thing that will save us? Economic prosperity? Financial security? Good government? Ourselves? Our education or looks or smarts or charm? To put it another way, what is the thing that will change us?
Which brings me back to the idea of points of contact. Do we not all share a sense that there is a need in our world for transformation on both a personal and societal level? Do we not have the sense that we are in need of transforming? “Be best” is the call. “Do better” is what I often say to other drivers, in my head anyway. If we stopped long enough to reflect and think about it, do we not long to be better? When we consider the things that we do to each other as individuals, as nations, as tribes. When we consider what we do to God’s creation, whether or not we consider it God’s, do we not get the sense that we should be doing better?
I believe this to be inarguable really. Where th debate comes in is to whom or to what do we look to effect transformation? Is it civic pride? Is it really the economy stupid? What is the overriding or overarching or undergirding or foundational thing? The thing about being in a city, the marks of what the thing is can be pretty obvious. A temple to Artemis. Financial towers. A coliseum that contained a quarter of the city’s population. Cathedrals to sport. Glittering cathedrals to consumption and the idea that I spend therefore I am.
Whose power is at work in the world?
Into this question steps Priscilla and Aquila. The husband and wife team from Rome that we first encountered in Corinth working with Paul and having Paul as their guest. Apollos has come to town and he’s zealous – he speaks with burning enthusiasm (great!) – and he has been instructed in the Way of the Lord and he’s a native of Alexandria which was another big deal town and library town and he is eloquent and learned (to the point where Paul would have to remind the people of Corinth that it’s not about a competition between the two of them) and he taught accurately. The thing is he only knew the baptism of John. John the Baptist, the first Baptist. The Christ following life is about being transformed. The Christ following life is not one in which we’ve arrived, it’s one in which we’re on a journey together. Part of being on this journey is that we’re coming to know more of God. “Tell me more about Jesus” is how our hymn put it. Not just head knowledge but knowledge that is transforming our hearts. Knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and justice and love. This being a Christian is a corporate enterprise, we’ve been seeing this throughout the book of Acts. Priscilla and her husband Aquila take Apollos aside because it wouldn’t do to correct him publicly. They explain the Way of God to him more accurately and here we have a case of a woman teaching a preacher and I’ll just put that out there. These followers of the Way are following together and the stuff about devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers has not fallen by the wayside. When Apollos wished to cross over to Achaia the believers in Ephesus encourage him and they write to the disciples in Ahaia to welcome him and so he was helped and when he arrived he helped those who through grace had become believers.
And lived are transformed.
The same sort of scenario plays out when Paul arrives in the great city. He finds some disciples and asks them how it was going with the Holy Spirit. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” he asks them. “We didn’t even know there WAS a Holy Spirit,” they tell him. Paul explains to them about John’s baptism being one for repentance or turning to God and John’s telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after – in other words Jesus.
They receive the Holy Spirit. I don’t think this story is here to be programmatic in terms of timing when we’re talking baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen throughout Acts the Holy Spirit coming on people after they are baptized and before. What I think this story should remind us of is two things. One is again this idea that followers of Christ are, through the Holy Spirit, coming to know more about the truth of Christ, the truths of our faith. We can often have ideas that are quite out there that we may have picked up here or there or made up ourselves.
The second is the power of the Holy Spirit. Coming to an ever greater understanding of the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that as we go through our Christian life, oftentimes the member of the Trinity we identify most with as we’re young Christians is Jesus. After that comes more of an intellectual understanding of God and things doctrinal. After that comes an identification with the Holy Spirit, who is really the hardest person to grasp in many ways. The power of God in the Holy Spirit. The power to bind us to God and Christ and to one another, the power to comfort, the power to console, the power to transform.
And don’t we all long for transformation?
The power of God which is the power that continues the work that Jesus began that continues in Jesus’ church which is empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. It’s a power that results in people being made whole. It’s a power that results in people being healed. It’s a power that results in people being set free from bonds from which they were unable to free themselves. The power is not in the person. It’s not about Paul. It’s not about me or you. The power is not in the magical handkerchief or apron. The power is the Holy Spirit of God. It’s a power that brings personal transformation. This is not a power that is to be harnessed for one’s own ends or simply a name to invoke in order to advance one’s personal agenda.
So we have the episode of the Seven Sons of Sceva (which again might be a good band name though I
don’t know what kind of band!). This is described as a comedic episode and I suppose in some places and at some times it might seem funny for a group of men to be attacked by a man with an evil spirit who beats them up a little and takes their clothes or their clothes come off as they’re running away (which seems to happen with some regularity in the Bible) and the whole “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” thing. Right now though let us not so much focus on these details as much as we focus on the result. The name of the Lord Jesus was praised. It’s the same kind of thing that happens when the Spirit comes upon Cornelius’ house. The name of the Lord was praised. Praise is a result of the Spirit in us – not a result of our own emotional state or how into a particular song we can get or not. The will and ability to praise comes from God so let us pray to God to fill us with the Spirit in order that we might praise. Practices are being changed. The way people are living is changing.
Which is not only affecting individuals. It’s affecting all of society. This is the Holy Spirit’s work. No little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. By “no little” Luke means big. This Way thing is affecting the city to the point where it’s affecting business! Paul is saying that gods made with hands are not gods and to believe such a thing means that all of life is affected including what we do with our time and money. To say “Jesus is Lord” or to sing “Great are you Lord” as we do is to say that fill-in-the-blank is not Lord and this can lead to feelings of discomfort to say the least. Greta Thunberg spoke to the UN this past week and said “People are dying; entire ecosystems are collapsing… We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” No matter what you think of Greta Thunberg or her message it is undeniable that her message garnered strong reactions and we Christians might take note and question how we’re doing with getting our message out there and how we’re doing with comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable (which might include ourselves). NT Wright puts it like this – “Imagine someone setting up shop in the heart of the financial district of one of our great cities – London, Frankfurt, New York, Tokyo – and using the basis of a powerful ministry of healing to declare, over and over again, that the money markets and the stock markets were simply a way of worshipping the god of Mammon, that this was destroying the lives and the livelihoods of millions in other parts of the world, and that the whole system was rotten and anyone who saw the light ought to reject it outright. You might get more than just a sharp word now and then…”
Great is Artemis of the Ephesians. Great are you Lord. The situation is dicey. Paul wants to go out into the crowd – what an opportunity! – but is advised not to by his friends and even some officials. Eventually the town clerk restores some order and tells the crowd that these people are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers and that if Demetrius and the union have a problem they can take it up in court. The crowd disperses and the mission goes on.
As our own mission goes on here at Blythwood – continuing through the power of the Holy Spirit the work that Christ began, continuing the demonstration and proclamation of the good news of Christ - may our hearts continue to be shaped and formed by the same Holy Spirit that empowered Paul and those we’re reading about. May we be ever more coming to know what it means for every aspect of life what it means to claim Jesus as Lord. May these things be true for us all.