Paul finds in the Greek city of Ephesus a spiritual contested space. Those who have half-heard about Jesus Christ, vv2 –7. Those in a synagogue who are highly wedded to what they have learnt there, vv8 –9. A place of evil spirits and of extraordinary miracles, vv 11 –12. A place of exorcists and of the quest for spiritual power, vv13 –17. An economy based on magic, v19.
This series of vignettes comes over as quite chaotic, fluid, unclear. Nothing works according to anyone’s labels or expectations. The magicians burn expensive books. The demon-possessed man jumps his excorcists. Jewish people both use and resist the name of Jesus. Hankerchiefs heal people. Believers receive the Holy Spirit. Nothing much makes sense here, in terms of anyone’s theological or metaphysical or sociological categories. It’s a spiritual free-for-all, and in this mess, talk about Christ sometimes works, sometimes fails. For us, there are natural categories we recognize, such as when the synagogue resists this upstart preacher. There are spirit categories we don’t easily recognized, laced throughout. It is as if the natural human social realm and the shadowy spirit world have over-spilled their boundaries.
Yet the section reads with an air of quiet optimism, and with no discernable anxiety. Those seven brothers have some anxiety when their plan for power backfires, but we us are treated to a moment of comic reversal when the spirit sneers ‘who the hell are you?’ and beats them up.
I suppose you’ve noticed by now that we dwell in spiritually contested space. I am unsure whether real spirits vie for power among us, although our despair and performance-fixation and forms of desperate pleasure- and power-seeking all hint at something, as do the global spotfires of insurrection, atavistic political movements and hate. We certainly live among a contest of spiritual ideas; and all of that awash with a thousand flavours of anxiety.
In reply to it all, Acts 19 suggests to us: expect that. Speak continually and quietly into that. Bring Jesus Christ to that. Chip away at that, for as many years as it takes. And when you can, be un-anxious in that, for the Kingdom of God has seen it all before, while ‘the word of the Lord grows mightily and prevails.’ (v20)