Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, July 7, 2019, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen

Having listened with your customary attention to the words of today’s Gospel I am sure that many of you are in consequence — as I speak– wrestling with the question of “snake handling”.My reference is to that closing verse:

“I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions,…
and nothing will hurt you” 

That verse will, in turn, have doubtless called to mind the passage in Mark which reads:

17 And these signs shall follow them that believe;
In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents;
and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them;
                                    Mark 16:17-18 (King James Version, KJV)

Not to mention the record in Acts of what happened when St Paul visited Malta and after he:

3 ….had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
(Acts 28)

It was after all these very verses (especially those in St Mark’s Gospel) that led, round the year 1910, a then well known Church of God preacher named George Went Hensley of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee, (to begin)… to embark upon the practice of handling venomous snakes during worship in the mountains of Appalachia.

A rather later account of this tradition from the Appalachian Magazine (which is evidently authoritative in such liturgical matters) records that

Worship services usually include singing, praying, speaking in tongues and preaching. The front of the church, behind the pulpit, is the designated area for handling snakes. Rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads ….are the most common, but even cobras have been used. During the service, believers may approach the front and pick up the snakes, usually raising them into the air…. The snakes are considered incarnations of demons, and handling the snakes demonstrates one’s power over them. Members are not required to handle the snakes. Some believers will also engage in drinking poison (most commonly strychnine) at this time….

If a handler is bitten, it is generally interpreted as a lack of faith or failure to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Bitten believers usually do not seek medical help, but look to God for their healing. George Went Hensley died in Florida in 1955 from a venomous snakebite.” [1]

By comparison with such excitements the liturgy here today may risk seeming overly sedate – not,  I hasten to add,  that I wish in any way to impugn the skills in the domain of spiritual herpetology of the clergy of the parish –should they wish at some point to demonstrate them

– though in that instance I would seek to observe from a respectful distance (there being no recorded case of an observer coming to harm among snake handling congregations).[2]

All of which brings us to two rather interesting questions that arise as we look at the reading from Galatians,  on the one hand, and the Gospel of Luke on the other.

Here I mean the relation between freedom and the earlier (Mosaic) law on the one hand And on the other: the expansion of the church’s mission (post Pentecost) into an epochal transition — namely to embrace the whole world of the Gentiles.

Though just how these points connect with snake handling, I will leave you to ponder….

Expanding Mission to embrace the Gentiles

If we bring together the testimony of Luke (24. 47-9) and Acts (1. 8)  we have first the promise of the risen Lord to the eleven apostles that they will receive power through the Holy Spirit and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and ‘to the end of the earth’.[3]  – a phrase which could be taken to mean Rome (though it would still be representing the centre of the Gentile world)  or, as I take to be more probable, the furthest extent of the inhabited world.[4]

What is set out in Acts is — a promise that also contains a revelation:

Namely that what is witnessed to, namely the gospel and the risen Lord,

is for the whole world, Jews and Gentiles.

But an interesting question is to exactly whom was the Commission first given?

To the Twelve alone, the Twelve plus Paul, or to the church as a whole, (Luke taking the twelve as representative of the church)?[5] And indeed what was the role of the 70 spoken of in today’s Gospel? (To which the short answer is that they were sent out to implement the vision of evangelism first seen at Pentecost but they were not the source of that vision).

On the one hand, the Apostles function as an historical and defined group connecting the church to Jesus which as such uniquely received the promise, commission and revelation of Christ as ‘witnesses’ to his life, death, and resurrection. But they are also representative believers implementing the mission of the church, which is to be directed to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the end of the earth, (and the Twelve are not depicted by Luke as missionaries outside Palestine; while Paul and others are).

But, however we seek to resolve the questions of history – the fact of a hugely important shift from a relatively local initial evangelistic context,  framed by Judaism, to a message of salvation made available to the whole world is one of the most fundamental shifts in the entire history of the early church and indeed our very world itself.

Yet there is a dynamic within and framing that change which I suggest we find embedded in the Epistle to the Galatians – and this  lies in the Christian call to authentic freedom which it contains

II

Tellingly,  in Galatians,  St Paul emphasizes primarily Christ’s Advent rather than his parousia and Second Coming at the end of the world. It is the Advent of Christ that marks the fundamental beginning of the new cosmic era.  Something that is set against a strongly apocalyptic background of expectancy in certain strands of Judaism at the time

Thus, there were many Jews eagerly anticipating an apocalyptic event that would see the demise of their present evil age and the rise of a new age to come, when God would rule supreme and exclusively in their midst.  Yet, as the story of the Passion made clear, some were not at all open to the possibility that this hope was to be found in Christ.

Something parallel to this, is clearly present in some of the language of St Paul,  as when he speaks of the ‘present evil age’ and means by this, the life of the world before and without Christ. A life which he sees as lived according to way of flesh (Gal 4:23, 29) and sin (Gal 3:22).  In saying this,  however, it was not our necessarily incarnate condition –as creatures–  that was the problem[6] but rather man’s choice to live according to the dictates of the corrupted world in opposition to God.[7] Thus the present age is evil for St. Paul (Gal 1,4) owing to man’s natural inclination,  (ever since Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden),  to allow himself to submit to this fallen existence.

St. Paul then further reacts very negatively to something introduced originally as a remedy and response to this condition,  namely the Mosaic law.                                                                                                                                                                  This, he states, was introduced because of man’s transgression (Gal 3:19). Accordingly, Law as such,  was not part of God’s original design, rather it was only introduced  after the promise given to Abraham to equip believers with guidance on his will.

Paul thus – as befits a former Pharisee– is positive about this original role for the Mosaic law which he recognizes as divinely given (Gal 3,19-20) while also being emphatic that this settlement and indeed Covenant, only held until the advent of the Son of God namely Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16).

One way to interpret St Paul’s analysis is to see that for him the prior legalist dispensation could never truly allow man to attain the goal to which it pointed – which was perfect obedience. It thus (paradoxically) resulted in establishing all too clearly the inevitability of man– left to his own resources– sinning — in terms of the law, which only emphasized his plight as never ultimately justified before a God –from whom he must be thus forever alienated. (A theme to recur later in a different way in Luther).

Covenantal remedies, might provide temporary relief through law but could not enable man not to sin and provided no remedy for the effects of that sin. Indeed, the law posed a new danger from distraction,  insofar as mankind became enslaved to the pursuit of the law’s myriad precepts rather than to the life of faith. Viewed In this way, law could be seen as an instrument of sin that merely ensnared those who attempted to follow it.

It was for precisely these reasons, therefore, that St Paul was so hostile to those who wanted to maintain the tradition of circumcision. For him this action was of a piece with all the identity markers, cultic, ceremonial, dietary and calendrical laws that comprised the whole Judaic legal system.

Accordingly, to him,  those who wished the early church to revert to circumcision were simply seeking a reversion to the slavish legalism of the old dispensation. Whereas, Christian freedom by contrast, was utterly and radically different and the result of Christ’s liberating those who believe in him, while also setting out a goal and direction for the life of the Christian (and thus offering an ‘imperative’ content) as well.

The richness of thought here is well captured in the words of one commentator who wrote that:

“Theologically, Paul states that there can be no existence in freedom unless man is first given the opportunity of freedom,

but that the opportunity of freedom is given only as the task for freedom…

This task is then defined as the preservation of freedom”[8]

Life in Christ is a life in freedom by virtue of being the life in which we are enabled to be ourselves most fully, and it has to be preserved from any form of slavery. In the same vein, believers had to put it into practice, as assuredly as Christ had to put into practice,  that which God willed for the purpose of saving us. …. For only by taking up the freedom obtained by Christ and by sharing in his act, could freedom really come to fruition.

But here too is a deep theological answer to the question of why the early church was able to see that the message of salvation in Christ was one for all mankind and not one restricted to his own Jewish people alone.

For the message of Christ was one of access to the true freedom found in the fullness of what it is to be our human selves most fully – and that was a message that by definition stood for all mankind – for whom Christ had died – whereby he alone could make possible our atonement with and before God.

And that is why too – however paradoxical it may at first seem, in the Pauline sense, “‘to be free’ means to participate in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection” too.[9]

For, “True Christian freedom, therefore, is the subjective experience of the restoration of the image of God through union with Christ” [10] and it is through this also that God’s holiness and righteousness can come to expression in ethical conduct that is in conformity with love.   (Gal 5:13-14).[11]

Notable in all this is the implicit challenge that St Paul makes,  by asking ultimately if the most effective God-honouring ethic can truly be the fruit of external laws?

St Paul saw a clear contrast between the notions of works of the flesh (Gal 5:19) and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) while in Gal 5:14, he also states (As our Eucharistic text reminds us) that the whole law is fulfilled in the love command.  Thus for him, the fruit of the Spirit, starting with love, ends with self-control and other good things all of which is consistent with his view that in those who have been received into the body of Christ, (which is to say those in whom the Spirit of Christ is active and who have a share in the gifts of this living fellowship), the outworking of this – the fruit – appears naturally and is not as it were manufactured from laws on the outside as it were. [12]

Accordingly the authentic ‘pneumatological ethic’ of freedom can yield neither licentiousness nor laissez faire anarchy. But is rather  to be found in a well-ordered life maintained in the absence of law’s dictates, yet in accordance with the divine and loving inner guidance of the Spirit.

Where one is not reduced to being unthinkingly reliant merely upon some form of external code but rather engages responsibly in doing the hard work of figuring out God’s will in a given situation. The believer’s ethical responsibility cannot be abdicated mechanically in favour of a set of external codes (where actions stand merely in relation to adherence or deviation from sets rules or predetermined norms). Rather the believer must seek to do God’s will in every given situation, and thus to love one’s neighbour, in concretely considered ways that manifest this highest goal of actualizing love.

Thus, the believer is called to be responsible so to speak on both a vertical level (which is his relationship with God), while also seeking to live life in the Spirit such that each one of us can truly fulfil our horizontal responsibility to love our neighbour as well. (For the second is entailed by and instantiates the first).

BUT where are the snakes in all this?  You may ask…. Where do they fit?

Well the short answer is that they do not – they are a distraction!

And what matters is to understand why….

For while in one sense,  snake handling might seem an eccentric testimony both to human freedom and trust in God. In fact this phenomenon represents the opposite.

It reflects an underlying legalist and transactional relation to God – who will not –as we have been warned in the Bible,  be thus “put to the test”,  but it also represents a dark misuse of our capacity for freedom as is amply demonstrated by its failure to promote fullness of human flourishing and the sad record of injury and death such conduct left behind it.

By contrast let us remember the words from Isaiah

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;…

and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,

AMEN.


[1] “A Glimpse Into the Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia”,  Appalachian Magazine, April 3, 2017.

[2] For a fuller history of this curious religious phenomenon see, David L Kimbrough Taking Up Serpents: A History of Snake Handling,  2002.

[3] Although the promise is given only to the eleven we may assume the Twelve are meant.

[4] The phrase itself is derived from Isa. 49. 6, and is used again in Acts 13. 47 in relation to the Gentile mission.

[5] Since in Acts, Paul is later given an individual commission, the second possibility is unlikely

In the actual mission activity of the church, if we leave aside Paul and his co-workers, the only evangelists Luke presents are Peter and John, Stephen and Philip; the apostles remain in Jerusalem at 7. 1. There is no point in which we are shown the general activity of the church in mission.

[6] Cf. Bultmann’s living “in the flesh”: Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Tübingen: Moore-Siebeck1953, 231-234.

[7] Cf. H.N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids:1975, p. 66; Hans Kung 1968, The Church, 8. 151-3.

[8] H.D. Betz, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Philadelphia, 1979, p 256.

[9] Ibid, p.256.  When the Galatians experienced the Spirit of God in all his wonder (Gal 3:1-5), it was not an experience unrelated to Christ’s work of salvation. The Spirit was presented to them as nothing less than the Spirit of Christ. St Paul depicts their experience of the reception of the Spirit (in Gal 3:1-2) very vividly (“before whose eyes”) as a portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion. It was thus, because of Christ’s Spirit having been sent to them, that they could partake in his redemptive act of liberation; that is, his crucifixion and resurrection.  It was because of the Spirit’s mission to them that they were able to confess what Paul himself does in Gal 2:20 namely – “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Hence St. Paul’s reference to the believer’s new status as, a “new creation” (Gal 6:15) where the believer has been re-oriented to life and can no longer live life merely as before. Through the Spirit’s baptising of the believer into Christ and his salvation, the believer is free from the slavery of the present evil age. And it is because of this freedom the believer can produce the fruit of the Spirit. Hence also the conclusion that: “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under law” (Gal 5:18) – as there is simply no need for it. The new situation is that salvation was brought about by the faithfulness of Christ (Gal 2:16) (Cf. Hays The Faith of Jesus Christ : An Investigation of the Substructure of Paul’s Theology in Galatians 3:1, 1983, 249-50)

and revealed to believers’ hearts by the Spirit (Gal 3:3). Believers are now themselves crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and dead to the world and the world to them (Gal 6:14). This new life has to be lived in the very same faithfulness of Christ (Gal 2:20), and in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25). This reality is characterised by the opposite alignment to that of the old dispensation, namely by the alignment of Spirit, faith, freedom and promise

[10] G.W. Hansen, ‘Resurrection and the Christian Life in Paul’s Letters’, 203-224, in R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Life in the Face of Death. The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, 1999.

[11] Hansen, Ibid, 1999, 212.

[12] Through subsequent history there has been a recurring fear that all this talk of freedom and release from the law might simply result in licentiousness. (And just such a fear that has repeatedly opened the way for some new form of legalism or neo-nomistic ethic with the result that while introduced with the noblest of intentions, most especially when undertaken with the intent to honour God it ends up undermining what it was intended to protect.