From the Acts of the Apostles:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practised magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 19:11-20 – July 8, 2012)
The readings for the Daily Office on a Sunday depart from the daily flow of the lessons for the rest of the week; they are also unrelated to the lessons in the Eucharistic lectionary (especially since our adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary). On Sundays in recent weeks, those who recite the Daily Office have been treated to excerpts, like this, from the Book of Acts. I’ve set out the whole of today’s lesson, instead of simply quoting a verse or three, because of the symmetry of the passage: we start with magic (Paul creating magical amulets of handkerchiefs and aprons) and we end with magic (magicians burning their valuable grimoires). I find this sort of biblical pericope troubling and difficult to handle. ~ Many Christians wear crosses and medallions, carry prayer cards, wear scapulars, and use “prayer napkins” blessed by bishops, priests, revivalists, and television evangelists. The tradition of the church teaches that these talismans derive their power, not from anything inherent in or given to the object, rather from the firm faith and Godly devotion of the believer. But the handkerchiefs and aprons described here by Luke, the author of Acts, seem more like fetishes, given healing powers through what can only be called contagious sympathetic magic; these objects touched Paul, now they heal – the belief or faith of the sick person healed has nothing to do with it. ~ At the end of the passage, we are told that many “who practiced magic” became believers and burned their books of spells. They seem to have done so not through any conversion, but because Paul’s magic was greater than their own. ~ I’ve read several commentaries and sermons exegeting this passage, and all attempt to differentiate Paul’s “sweat rags” (as one might also translate the original Greek) and working aprons from magical talismans, but all, in my opinion, fail. Luke’s story boils down to “our magic is better than their magic.” In the 21st Century, I find that singularly unhelpful! ~ But here’s what this story makes me think about: contagious sympathetic magic is supposed to pass magical power from one person or object to another that it touches; I don’t think that actually happens, but I know that faith can be contagious, passing from one powerfully faithful person to others whose lives and hearts he or she may touch. And that powerful faith can set hearts on fire rather than books (don’t get me started about burning books)! It is neither through magic handkerchiefs nor through burning grimoires that the word of the Lord spreads and grows mightily and prevails: it is through shared faith setting hearts on fire for Christ.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.