The church was located someplace in the hills of West Virginia, a white, clapboard building badly in need of paint. People had congregated in the church on this Wednesday night. So many, in fact, that there was not a vacant pew in the place. For more than an hour the congregation had been singing and praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. The sweat of a hot summer’s night poured off every face. And these were earnest religious faces straining to send their prayers to heaven. There was something very humble and pure about that experience, almost indefinable, until a very thin man with a hard face, missing one of his front teeth, rose to preach about the promises delivered unto the true believers. His repetitious cadence put the whole congregation into a swoon. He told them of the horrors of hellfire and damnation. He told them of the power of Jesus to deliver them.
After about thirty minutes, as if to prove the force of his faith and preaching, he reached into a box placed upon a table near the pulpit and lifted out the biggest rattlesnake I had ever seen. Holding it in his right hand, he lifted it far above his head, while he reached into a second box with his left and pulled another rattlesnake out. The congregation was in emotional ecstasy as he swayed back and forth, saying over and over again, “I give you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions…” And thus he demonstrated the power of his faith.
There were two others that night who held up the snakes to prove their faith. No one was bitten, and as for the snakes, they seem to get into the spirit of the occasion. It was the most amazing religious thing I have ever seen. So, I thought I would try it myself.
Clearly for some people this kind of demonstration and literal reading of the Bible is the proof of the pudding. If someone can tame a rattlesnake before your eyes, what more proof of the power of the Holy Spirit do you need to believe and give your life to Christ? I have to tell you it does make an impression on you.
A long time ago, the prophet Isaiah was writing some wonderfully poetic words about the City of Jerusalem. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”
No one says it better than Isaiah. For centuries Jerusalem and particularly the Temple in Jerusalem stood as the center of the faith of Israel, and for most, the place where God was to be found. It was during the Babylonian Captivity when the Temple was destroyed and the people had been removed to a strange land that a new notion grew up. God was not only in Jerusalem, God could be found even in Babylon. Even in Babylon, we can pray to the Lord. Out of Babylon for the Jews came a new understanding that God was not centered in a geographic place, even Jerusalem. But that God could be found anywhere. Most importantly, the idea of Jerusalem was spiritualized to say that faithful Jews could carry her in their hearts. Jerusalem was no longer a place so much as it was an attitude toward God. God would not merely comfort those who physically lived in Jerusalem, but also those who let Jerusalem live in their hearts.
Saint Paul grasped the significance of this idea that Jerusalem was not so much a place as a way of life, and he transposed it to Christianity. We are, he writes, “a new creation.” Something has changed in us because of our faith in Christ Jesus that makes us different people. You can’t see it. We can’t prove it, but we can feel it and we can show it in the way we live out our lives. It is the language of metaphor which reaches after a truth so true that it cannot be proven.
Today in Jerusalem there are those who are like the West Virginia snake handlers, for they want to rebuild the Temple on the very same spot where it once stood. They want to resurrect the belief that God lives in the geographic place of Jerusalem. They want to prove God with a building like our snake handlers wanted to prove God with the snakes. And this kind of religious experience is the antithesis to faith.
Paul has little patience for people who want to represent themselves as holier than thou, either because of their so-called special religious gifts, or their knowledge of the Bible, or their ability to pray or anything else. Paul kept telling his churches that when people begin to see others as holier than themselves, they devalue God’s love for them. Let me put it another way. I am a priest of the church. I have been a priest for over twenty years and I know something about how to do this ministry, BUT I am no more special in God’s eyes than anyone else either in this church or in this city. The same is true of a bishop, or some renowned monk or person of prayer. This is the hardest part of Christian faith to get people like us to believe. All of us feel as if somehow we have to be better, holier, more righteous, whatever. But right now the way you are, warts and all, God values you for who you are and what you can do in the name of Jesus.
Saint Paul thought this. Everything you need to know about God is already provided for you by God at your birth. What the church and others do by loving you and telling you the Christian story is to open that doorway into the treasure of Christ’s love that is already inside your heart. You do not need to be able to quote scripture to find it, you do not need to be a world champion person at prayer, you do not need to be ordained; all you need is what you have within you. Once you allow yourself to tap into that resource, then it is exactly like these seventy early disciples Jesus sent out. Reading the scripture you can hear their surprise, “LORD IN YOUR NAME THE DEMONS EVEN SUBMIT TO US!”
And Jesus says in return, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Now, what do you think really happened? Did the disciples go out and find some snakes or some demons and beat the hell out of them? Did Jesus see Satan fall from heaven?
Religious life is much more subtle than holding snakes and building a magnificent Temple. The demons we have to conquer come with names like fear, hatred, selfishness, anxiety, depression, illness, stress, competition, boredom, and ennui. These are the real life demons that fall before the power of the Gospel placed upon our hearts. When you go out into the vineyard for Jesus, there no time for boredom. There is no room for hatred, no rest for anxiety. What Christianity does is unlock in us a sense a purpose, the true purpose to which we were born on earth – to love in Christ’s name and to live into that love. True, its not easy because the demons of the devil tell us to be selfish, anxious, worried, bored, and to let go of God and trust in ourselves. But the power of love is so much stronger than any of these.
Some people get uncomfortable when you start using metaphors or words, like myth, to describe God. For them, the proof is in the pudding, and so is their need for control, one of Satan’s strongest demons by the way. But God is too big to be proved by this little world. The only way you can prove God to yourself is to live God in your heart. Jesus opened that window for us. Paul understood all of us could live it, if we merely desired to live it, we would draw close to God
When Jesus sees his disciples living into that love of God, then he does see, like lightning, Satan falling from the sky. The powers of the earth, of hell, have no power over us. And Satan is the term he uses to express everything in our hearts that can separate us from the love of God.
Christianity is not going to God. God is already in you. Christianity is not seeking God, God has already found you, you just haven’t noticed. Christianity is not opening yourself up to God, you can’t keep God out, you can just ignore God. Christianity is not becoming more spiritual, the Spirit is already here. Christianity is not about becoming a better person, you are already the best if you want to be.
Christianity is about God showing us Jesus, because in his beloved, Son God already thinks that you are just dandy the way you are, if you just will try to do it like Jesus. Prayer is just talking with someone who is already talking to you. Christianity is just walking with someone who is already walking with you.
Isaiah had some poetry in an earlier chapter which goes like this: “Fear not for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you.” That’s it! Isaiah figured it out 2600 years ago.
The truth is not in the pudding but in the experience of love in your life. It is not what we can do to prove God to ourselves, but how we can love to draw ourselves nearer to the heart of the matter which is always God. So now is the day to cast out demons, and tread on snakes, and crush the scorpions of our lives; then Satan will fall again from Heaven, and we will rise up with wings like eagles to the Lord. All that is required of us is that we live our lives in the name of Christ Jesus, letting that truth guard and guide our every action.
Let Us Pray:
Come near to us, Lord Christ. For behind the front that we show the world, there is a struggle to maintain our lives, our hopes, our joys. We are easy prey to the demons of self-doubt, jealously, anger, hatred and the rest. We are also victims of our doubts of both ourselves and of You. We are unsure of Your words, unhappy with life’s prospects, and annoyed with our own limitations.
Make real for us this life that Jesus came to bring, lest our cares rob us of the joys of being human. Give us that sense of self that fills us with openness and love to each and to all. Help us not to fear or be anxious about the long view, but to live into the presence secure that You do know our name. Keep us true to our best insights, and willing to cast out whatever in our lives keeps us from drawing close to Your tender presence within us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.