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.
Growing up as a Protestant, in what was then still a very Catholic Republic of Ireland, was an interesting experience. I was always clear on the things that distinguished us. We rejected praying to the Virgin Mary and to the saints. We spurned crucifixes, statues, relics, and religious objects. We objected to the mass. Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw captures the essence of this experience succinctly in the preface to his play John Bull’s Other Island, “in Ireland all that the member of the Irish Protestant Church knows is that he [sic] is not a Catholic”.
I remember at one point being plagued by the childhood curse of the swimming pool – a verruca. I was told by a Catholic friend what I should do after several failed attempts at conventional treatment. I should go to a ‘holy well’ and dip a torn piece of my sock in the water of the well and tie it to a neighbouring hawthorn tree – and I would be cured. Well to me this was just another example of how ‘they’ were dangerously misguided, unbiblical in fact, and how ‘we’ were right.
I obviously hadn’t read my Bible very well, because when I chose to reflect on today’s passage, I was shocked at what I read. Now, I had read the book of Acts many times, and yet, for the first time it seemed I was reading scriptural evidence for God’s healing being mediated through pieces of cloth – ‘relics’ which had touched Paul’s skin and were brought to the sick and disturbed to heal them. This is rather like the woman who was healed with just a touch of the hem of Jesus’ garment.
There is so much more I could say, many other arguments I could make. But perhaps for me, I will accept this as a lesson in humility and a warning – when we define ourselves by what we are against, undoubtedly, we limit truth even when it’s staring us in the face.
God of truth, too often,our human made divisions, have unwittingly constrained our sight. Help us to see truth in openness, openness to one another and to you. May we live humbly, full of wonder and receptive to new possibilities. May we be empowered to do so, by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev’d Jonnie Hill, Minister in the Greater Manchester South & Cheshire Missional Partnership