Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – The Ephesian Church
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche — November 8, 2020
We are continuing in our sermon series: Borders, Bridges, and Bodies as we follow Paul and his companions through missionary journeys in the book of Acts to introduce the story of Jesus in various cross-cultural settings.
Paul’s answer to the divisive differences between human bodies and the power dynamics of culture, gender, government, and money is the bloody, disconcerting, riot-inducing reality that in the radical welcome of Jesus’ crucified and resurrected body everyone, anyone, who believes in him is set free from every sin (cf Acts 13:38-39).
As we arrive here in Acts 19, Luke wants us to pay attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in the formation of the multiethnic church. He opens Acts 19 with a question, “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”
I’m reading from Acts 19:1 – 4:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” … 5On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-4)
God is doing something significant among the believers of Jesus, there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on everyone, transforming those who hear the message into witnesses of the resurrected Messiah, Jesus. And with this partnership and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus announced in Luke 4 is happening here in Ephesus. Luke picks up the familiar template: Paul arrives in a new place, he starts to preach the Gospel, and then experiences resistance.
8Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. 11God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
There are so many miracles, healings, and deliverances that are happening in this multiethnic community that the message of the Gospel isn’t staying contained to Ephesus, it’s spreading all over the entire province of Asia. This community marked by the resurrection has become known as the people who free others, who heal the sick, who are transforming people, and their future. This community is a witness to the good news of the Gospel. This message of hope, transformation, and liberation is compelling. Listen to how Luke puts it:
13Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” 14Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15⌈One day⌉ the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. (Acts 19:13-16)
There’s something so powerful about the demonstration of the Gospel that even those outside of the believers in Ephesus want in.
I think I understand this invitation. We see this with our Homeless Ministry Thanksgiving Meal; we usually have more from outside of our congregation volunteer for this event than those we serve. Our church has a reputation in our city as caring for those at the margins whether it’s those facing housing uncertainty, those seeking affordable housing, those looking for a faith community that’s actively engaged in the well-being of the city. Lots of you serve all across our county whether in the local jails, on community boards, helping under-resourced students with tutoring, serving in medical clinic, food pantries, reforming criminal justice, or advocating for affordable housing for everyone. Let me pose a question here, Couldn’t any group of good hearted people get together and pull off the same things church people are doing? Why does it matter, really, that we’ve got the Holy Spirit?
People are getting healed. People are getting delivered. People are being transformed. This buoys those outside of the community of believers to want to try their hands at liberating and delivering people from demonic and evil spirits. Luke helps us here — these folks are close enough that they hear the words and wonder if its just an incantation, if they just get the words right,
They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” (Acts 19:13)
These Jewish leaders could see what Paul saw, the same pain, the same hurt, the same suffering, and they wanted to do something about it. Is this healing that Paul announces just something in the atmosphere, something that we too can possess and offer to those we encounter? They wanted people freed, they wanted the power of the Holy Spirit, without first submitting to the Spirit. That’s just not how it works. Luke makes that point crystal clear.
⌈One day⌉ the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” 16Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. (Acts 19:15-16)
They do challenge these evil spirits, they just aren’t connected to the source of the power of the liberation. The power that raised Jesus from the dead that has been unleashed in those who follow him is a confirmation of the Gospel, as Hebrew 2:4 says,
4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:4)
It’s not a mantra or set of words, it’s a demonstration of the community that is submitted to Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. There’s a warning here from Luke — when you are not being pressing into the life of Jesus, you may be overcome by evil. So the message spreads, this power, of the Holy Spirit is real. It’s connected to the community of believers and those around them respond with respect, honor, and fear. Then there’s something else that happens. People are getting convicted. They come before the community and confess. They renounce the ways they tried to wield power and Luke alerts us to, it’s costly. They give up the tools they used to acquire power.
17When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. 18Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. 19A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. 20In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
The community around Jesus and the Gospel continued to spread and grow in power until resistance breaks out, this time in the form of a riot.
23About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in no little business for the skilled workers there. 25He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” (Acts 19:23-27)
The Shaken City
On a recent call with Indian pastors who are being trained in discipleship making movement, one of the pastors offered this question, “Someone asked that if they follow Jesus, can they also keep their other gods?”
For many of us this can feel like an easy answer, no.
This is also our question, can I follow Jesus and keep my idols? We just haven’t formed our question/request as clearly. Because we do have our idols: status, wealth, power, technology, dominance, our kids. We just haven’t been as honest with our dual worship.
I had to confront one of my idols, technology. When you grow up poor, you don’t often have a lot of nice things, often receiving hand-me-downs for everything: computers, clothes, school supplies, etc. You kinda overdo it when you come into money – at least that’s my story. I’ve never waited in line for a concert ticket or camped out to meet a celebrity, but I have done my own share of worshipping at the altar of materialism. For four years in a row, I would take a week’s vacation and attend a computer conference called MacWorld in San Francisco. This annual conference served as the platform for Apple to meet with the faithful in a semi-religious experience and regale us with the latest and greatest they had to offer. This experience always did two things: it created discontent with whatever I already had, regardless of how powerful it was. Secondly, it rewarded for me for my taste, my wealth, and my status. I could never afford things like this before, but I could now. It took several cycles of this before I was able to detach myself from this reality distortion field and inspect it for what it was: an idol. The promises offered were never fulfilled, they were always fleeting, and after a short period of elation, there was nothing. In that moment, I could hear the Spirit speak to me. I stopped upgrading my iPad annually.
Paul is declaring here in Ephesus that Artemis/Diana is an idol. God, since the beginning, has purposed to bless creation, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that blessing because on the cross Jesus has reconciled the creation to God.
When the Gospel is proclaimed and demonstrated, it’s transformative. That’s what we see here in Ephesus: Paul’s Gospel declaration threatens the very economic heart of the city because the Gospel declares there is one God and one creator of the universe and this God has reconciled the world through his son Jesus. The Creator God is no idol, this God is alive and at work.
Demetrius saw it clearly. The gospel was bad for business. People are literally losing their livelihoods over this. That’s scary at a survival level, as well as the fear of this cultural shift away from Diana. Demetrius was also shrewd because he made the connection between the well-being of the city and the prevailing religious ideology that they had adopted. Demetrius, using this insight, evoked the fear of those threatened by the Gospel (the call to abandon our idols and to surrender to and follow the creator God) by stoking the people’s fears and inciting their hatred, which easily led to violence.
25He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.
Part of our work, both as Christians and as people who are working on giving up idols, is to imagine a better story. It’s true, things can’t stay the way they are if Jesus is the top God instead of Diana. But could they be better? If we have to lose something in the process of God’s transformative work to reconcile all things to Godself, can we believe that there is much much more to be gained? When we consider what’s at stake and what we are being invited to give up, all we can see is what we are about lose, what if we helped paint a better picture that invites what Paul saw that life was better with Jesus. This can be difficult as we turn to our idols out of fear, need, greed, power, identity…whatever it is they’re doing for us, can we believe that Jesus has something better? That when we give up our idols we don’t just have less [power, money, sex, security, control, confidence etc]. We also have more Jesus, and more of the transformative power that comes with the Holy Spirit that we’ve seen earlier in this story.
Let me just say that every time the church stands on the side of the Gospel condemning the idols we create, it is met with hostility, hatred, and violence.
And it feels like the same violence is going to erupt here in Ephesus until the city clerk speaks up and quiets the crowd.
35The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: 37You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38If, then, Demetrius and his associates have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. 41After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.
The passage here in Acts 19 ends so abruptly. Those in Ephesus worshipping at the alter of Diana and the other gods were doing everything they could to appease the capricious gods. They didn’t know if the gods would bless them with rain for their crops or send pests to destroy the crops. So, day after day, they made their offerings, they purchased amulets, they practiced magic, anything they could do to try predict what was going to happen or to control the gods that governed them. Can you imagine the uncertainty, the doubt, the fear that that must have governed their daily lives. Is the goddess angry, will she destroy us? Is the goddess in a good mood today? Then Paul comes along and says, “You’re on the wrong path. More than that, gods made by human hands are no gods at all.” They are idols, and idols are deadly, false, and empty.
Paul tells us just how it is. He pulls no punches. We were dead in our sins. We were dead in our trespasses. We were dead in our participation in the rebellion against God. We were dead in our disobedience.
“But,” Paul says. The Creator God who you have offended with your disobedience, with your participation in the rebellion, this God isn’t angry, ready to lay waste to you, everyone who you hold dear, and everything you have. Instead, this Creator God, Paul says, has made a sacrifice for you already, a sacrifice that reconciles you not only to the Creator, but is offering reconciling between each other.
In a world filled with uncertainly, fear, and doubt this declaration from Paul is good news, very good news indeed. Then Paul goes on to demonstrate the love, acceptance, and reconciliation of this Creator God by healing those with sickness, and delivering those afflicted with evil spirits, and these signs are an acknowledgement that the Creator God is breaking into this reality with healing and transformation.
“But,” Paul continues, not only has the Creator God sacrificed to rescue you, the Creator through Jesus Christ is offering to seat you in the heavenly realms in order to show the incomparable riches his grace.
This friends, is the birth of the multiethnic church and this is call.