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:

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

Not to mention the record in Acts of what happened when St Paul visited Malta:
And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
And when Paul 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.
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.
And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
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 of St Mark) that led “Around the year 1910, a well known Church of God preacher named George Went Hensley of Grasshopper Valley in southeastern Tennessee, (to begin)… the practice of handling venemous snakes during worship in the mountains of Appalachia.

(Seemingly quite independently, one James Miller in Sand Mountain, Alabama. Also took up this practice with his followers eventually forming the Church of Lord Jesus with Signs Following.

A later account of this tradition from the Appalachian Magazine (which I take to be authoritative in such 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.

Over sixty cases of death as the result of snakebites in religious worship services have been documented in the United States.

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.”

From “A Glimpse Into the Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia”,  Appalachian Magazine, April 3, 2017

http://appalachianmagazine.com/2017/04/03/a-glimpse-into-the-snake-handling-churches-of-appalachia/

By comparison with such excitements I can but fear you may consider the liturgy today to be 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 for my own part to observe from a respectful distance (there being no recorded case of an observer coming to harm among snake handling congregations).[1]

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 on the one hand the relation between freedom and the earlier (Mosaic) law

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.

(And how that connects with snake handling I will you to ponder for now)

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’.[2]  – a phrase which could be taken to mean Rome (though it would still be representing the centre of the Gentile world)  or, as is more probable, the furthest extent of the inhabited world.[3]

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)?[4] 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).

Perhaps the solution lies in a double understanding of the role of the apostles in Acts.

On the one hand they function as an historical and fixed group connecting the church to Jesus.

While on the other hand they are representative believers implementing the mission of the church.

In other words Luke sees them,  first as the group which received the promise/ commission/ revelation

—a fact and circumstance that would be unrepeatable since there could be no more ‘witnesses’ to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—

and secondly as representing all the church in its mission activity, which is to be directed to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the end of the earth, (for the Twelve are not depicted by Luke as missionaries outside Palestine; while Paul and others are).

But however we seek to resolve these questions of history – the fact of a hugely important shift from a relatively local initial evangelistic context,  framed to 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

Paul, Galatians and the understanding of true Christian freedom

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.

This is set against a strongly apocalyptic background of expectancy in 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.  Yet, as the story of the Passion made clear, some were not at all open to the possibility that this hope was found in Christ.

Something parallel to this, is clearly present in some of the language we find in the writing of St Paul who speaks of the ‘present evil age’ and means by this the life of the world before and without Christ. One which he sees as a life under siege of, or according to flesh (Gal 4:23, 29) and consigned to sin (Gal 3:22).

In saying this,  it was not our necessarily incarnate condition –as creatures–  that was the problem[5] but rather man’s choice to live according to the dictates of the corrupted world in opposition to God.[6]

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 strongly against something that was introduced originally as a remedy and response to this condition,  namely THE LAW

This, St  Paul 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 many centuries (430 years)  after the promise given to Abraham to equip believers with guidance on his will.

Paul thus – as befitted a former Pharisee– is positive about this original role for the Mosaic law which he recognizes as divinely given (Gal 3,19-20)  

But he was also emphatic that this settlement and indeed Covenant, only held until the advent of the Son of God namely Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16).

One of St Paul’s most telling illustrations of the limitations of the legalist dispensation is his use of the metaphor of the teacher.

The paidagogos manifestly had but  a limited function in relation to a child whom he was to teach in terms of what was proper and honourable, and what was shameful. And to this end he could punish the child. However, when the child reached maturity it was time for the paidagogos to withdraw.

In parallel, St Paul understood the law as merely an aid to the people of God requisite only until the coming of Christ[7].

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 Luther of course).

Covenantal remedies, might provide some temporary relief through law, but such law could not enable man not to sin and provided no remedy for the effects of that sin. Indeed,  it posed a new danger,  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, or cultic, ceremonial, dietary and calendar laws, all of which he saw as, ultimately, implying the whole Judaic legal system.

Accordingly, to him,  those who wished the early church to revert to circumcision were actually seeking a reversion to legalism and the old dispensation, which he saw as an alignment of flesh, law and slavery…

Christian freedom was utterly and radically different and the result of Christ’s liberating those who believe in him,  which action,  at the same time however,  also set out a goal and direction for the life of the Christian (and thus offered 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”  Betz 1979, 256)

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. …. 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 a Pauline sense, ‘to be free’ means thus to participate in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection” too. (Betz 1979, 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. On the contrary, the Spirit was presented to them as nothing less than the Spirit of Christ

(Paul refers to Him in Gal 4:6 as the Spirit of God’s Son).

Furthermore, 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 Gal 2:20 namely – “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

This was such a life changing experience that Paul refers to the believer’s new status as a “new creation” (Gal 6:15). In other words, 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. This is why we should take Paul very seriously when he says: “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under law” (Gal 5:18) – as what he means is that there is simply no need for it!

The new situation is that salvation was brought about by the faithfulness of Christ (Gal 2:16) (Hays 1983, 249-50) and revealed into 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.

But what does the ethic of the new dispensation look like?

But might not all this talk of freedom and release from the law not simply result in licentiousness you might ask? 

And it is indeed just such a fear that has repeatedly through history opened the way for some new form of legalism or neo-nomistic ethic.

As always such law is often introduced with the noblest of intentions, most especially when undertaken with the intent to honour God. But St Paul would ask: can in fact the most effective God-honouring ethic be the fruit of external laws?

In this regard it is notable that 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 and in the passage we have heard today, he states that the whole law is fulfilled in the love command.

When we read of the fruit of the Spirit, starting with love, ending with self-control and other good things we are reminded that for St Paul,

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”.

FOR

“True Christian freedom, therefore, is the subjective experience of the restoration of the image of God through union with Christ, so that God’s holiness and righteousness can be expressed in ethical conduct (Hansen 1999, 212-3) of love (Gal 5:13-14).”

Accordingly the authentic pneumatological ethic of freedom can be neither licentiousness nor laissez faire anarchy. Rather it is 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.

It requires that one should really be fully responsible and accountable for one’s deeds yet sees that as long as there is some form of external code according to which one must act, this robs one of a great deal of responsibility in doing the hard work of figuring out God’s will in a given situation.

The believer’s ethical responsibility is not to a set of external codes. He should not be put in the position where he has to motivate or rationalise his actions simply because it deviates from the set rules or predetermined norms. The believer is primarily responsible for doing God’s will in every given situation. Whatever the guidelines,            one’s responsibility is to love one’s neighbour and concretely prove it in every situation.

Thus, the believer is called to be responsible on 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.

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

Well the short answer is that they do not ! And what matters is 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] Those seeking a fuller history of this unusual religious phenomenon may wish to consult, Taking Up Serpents: A History of Snake Handling,  2002,  by Dr. David L Kimbrough.

[2] Although the promise is given only to the Eleven we may assume the Τwelve are meant for when the choice of a successor to Judas is made he is selected on the basis of his ability to witness.

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

[4] 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.

[5] Cf. Bultmann’s living “in the flesh”: 1953, 231-234.

[6] Cf. Ridderbos 1975, 66; Kung 1968, 151-3; Sasse 1965, 891.

[7] This fits well with Gal 3:23-25 which ascribes a role to law only until until Christ came.

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