The Seven Sons of Sceva

January 29, 2011             The Seven Sons of Sceva                    Acts 19:1-20  

For the past couple of months, I’ve been having something of an identity crisis….and since I’m a preacher, you all get to hear about it this morning!  
See, I’ve really been struggling with issues of ‘calling’.  “Call” language is something we use kind of flippantly in the church, and so it’s kind of lost meaning in my life.  
Don’t get nervous…or I should say don’t get too excited…it’s nothing that’s going to make me quit my job or seek other employment…for the time being you’re still stuck with us!  🙂  
But lately I’ve been wondering what it means to be ‘called’?  
What’s it mean, to hear the voice of God?
How does “Faith” play out in the every day realities that each of us experience?  
We have good, “faithful” Christian friends with three small children who live in upstate New York.  
They’re in the process of buying some land where they plan to build a cordwood home and live ‘off the grid’, producing the majority of their own food and electricity.  
To hear them share, it’s obvious that this is where there faith is taking them.  This is where they sense the voice of God leading them to go.  
They’re taking a step of faith.  
So how do we know whether we should support them or ridicule them?  
After all, those are our only two choices, right?  
When someone steps out in faith and does something unconventional; something that the majority of us well-balanced Christians wouldn’t really consider…and especially when they claim that they’re doing it as a faithful response to God’s leading, or “calling”…
That’s when we need to choose, right?  We need to either support them, or ridicule them.  
Like the guy who was predicting the end of the world…good, respectable Christian people are still making fun of him.  
You know, I’m just so tired of it…the endless cycle of judgment; the endless posturing people do in hopes of ending up in the right group, with the right answers to the right questions, making the right friends to advance the right agenda.  
We’ve come to expect it in politics; but what I’m talking about is our endless repetition of this same model in church.  
It can make me physically ill; the name calling and the bickering and the polarization that happens in the church on every issue ranging from homosexuality to the payment of taxes.  
The bottom line is that the church looks suspiciously like the world anymore; and I don’t like it.  
We have crippled ourselves by failing to acknowledge the full reality of evil, sin, and brokenness that we deal with every day.  We’ve been too content for too long in simply applying the band-aid of Jesus’ name alone to the gaping wound in the broken body of his church.  
If the scripture for today is any indication, we’ll be much worse off in the end.  
See, if you go home today and really look at these chapters in Acts, let’s say chapters 18-20, the picture you get is of Paul traveling one place after the other, making the case and persuading people that Jesus is the Christ in every way he could.  
He goes to synagogues and he goes to gentiles, and he consistently makes his case for Jesus.  
The language that’s used isn’t “saving” people…it’s “convincing” or “persuading”.   
There are times the people aren’t persuaded, times when they become hostile, times when Paul shakes the dust off his clothing and goes elsewhere…times when he causes a riot, and times when he’s allowed to settle down for a couple of years to make his case.  
The point I’m trying to make is that Paul is disruptive, and the gospel itself is more disruptive.  
When it comes into contact with the world, there’s a confrontation that happens.  People are changed and systems are changed.  
Sometimes the change is resisted and other times the change is accepted.  
But nowhere do you see the early believers adopting the pattern or the structure of the world they live in.  
Except in the story of the seven sons of Sceva.  
And it should be noted that they weren’t really believers.  
They were just trying to use the power they saw in the life of Paul when he used the name of Jesus.  
It’s not just that they were imposters.  I don’t think we do ourselves any favors when we oversimplify this story and just leave ourselves with the nice moral lesson about really meaning it when we say we believe in Jesus.  There’s some truth to that, but I think there’s more here.  
Time and time again in Acts, and even in the Old Testament, God’s people are surprised by what God is doing independent of their actions.  
Last week we looked at Melchizedek, this mysterious king who worships the One True God and blesses Abraham, the father of the faith.  
This week, Paul finds believers who didn’t quite understand everything, but chose to act on faith anyway.  And when you read through several of these chapters, you’ll find it’s not the only place where that happens.  
God is present and active in the world, and sometimes it seems like Paul is just struggling to keep up!  
It’s when people seek to force God’s hand that disaster follows.  
Now, there are three parts of this story that I think are relevant for us this morning.  
First, Paul finds these 12 disciples who didn’t know anything about the Holy Spirit and who had only received the baptism of John; that is, the baptism of repentance.  
The lesson is that God was up to something in these people, and Paul was simply available to help them on their journey of discipleship.  He wasn’t there to cast judgment or to help polarize them into camps of right and wrong; he was there to hear their story and add to it what he could.  
All I have to say about that is, “Go and do likewise.”  
Meet people where they are, and share with them what you know.  
Second, there’s an important warning for the contemporary church in this story about the seven sons of Sceva.  
Quite some time ago I preached about the power of the unseen; how our motives are more powerful than our actions; and how there is a reality that is even more real than our physical surroundings.  
I can’t think of a Bible story where that reality comes into focus more clearly than this one.  
We are told that the seven sons of Sceva were doing these exorcisms, and that Sceva was the Jewish High Priest.  
But Sceva doesn’t really sound like a Jewish name, does it?  
It looks a little more like Greek to me.  
In fact, I did a little research, and I learned that the name actually has Latin origins.  
And I dug a little deeper, and I found out that there is not and never was any high priest named “Sceva”.  
Apparently “Sceva” is connected to a Latin word that means something like “left-handed”.  
You’ve heard about cultures where the left hand is the dirty hand…the hand you never want to shake or eat with.  
So it seems like Luke is being pretty intentional about his choice of words.  
He’s referring to the high priesthood as ‘dirty’, or ‘unclean’.  
Not just the high priest at the time, who some people think was probably Caiaphas…but the whole system.  
And his argument is further strengthened in the story he tells, where the sons of this unclean high priest are in the habit of manipulating the unseen world for their profit!  
It makes me want to say “Woe”!  Woe to us and Woe to me!  
See, what these guys were doing wasn’t abnormal.  They apparently made their money by going around and charging people to cast out demons.  
It wasn’t an uncommon thing to do in biblical times.  
Neither was it uncommon for such people to simply use the names of different spirits to invoke their power.  It was something like using the right tool to fix the problem.  
The name of Jesus is a dangerous ‘tool’, but an incredible, powerful, and life-changing identity!
Names are identities; not tools.  
That’s why this demon’s question strikes so close to home, even today.  “Jesus I know, and Paul I know…but who are you?”  
Who are you?  
What name are you called by, and what’s it mean?  
That’s the second lesson; know who you are.  
Finally, the Jews and Greeks who were living there heard about what had happened, and they were seized with fear.  
The result was a vast act of communal repentance.  
Magicians brought their scrolls and burned them; something like fifty thousand drachmas worth of scrolls.  That’s like fifty thousand day’s wages.  
So you can think of one person working for 137 years, or like 14 people working for ten years, and all of their wages getting burned up.  
See, we don’t get anywhere by pretending that evil doesn’t exist, or applying the simple name of “Jesus” like a band-aid to an evil situation.  
The point is that “Christian” is an identity, not just a religion and definitely not a tool!!  
The point is that repentance is costly, but in the end it’s the only way out of the broken mess we’re in.  
Christ’s body was broken so that we wouldn’t be.  That’s why I get so tired of the poisonous rhetoric that pollutes the church today.  
The crucified and resurrected Christ is the hope of the whole world for wholeness.  
That’s what we proclaim in communion, and that’s what we receive as well.  
We’re going to take communion in a minute, but I also wanted to take it a step further this week.  
You’ll hear more instructions after the song of response, but as you come forward, you will be invited to take a loaf of bread with you as a symbol of grace received through the cross of Christ.  
Following Jesus isn’t just a matter of what you leave at the cross; it’s what you take from it, too, and how you use it.  
God’s grace isn’t a tool or a weapon.  
It’s more like a loaf of bread you didn’t expect to get.  

Amen

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