Summary: The growth of the first-century church of Ephesus shows how the Word of God overcomes world-systems by the power of the Holy Spirit.
21 May 2012
The Word of God, Jesus, has overcome the world. Today’s reading from Acts gives us a glimpse of how the Word overcomes. The Word of God overcomes the world through the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the disciples. The foundation and growth of the church at Ephesus is a great example of the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesus, in Asia Minor, was at the time of St. Paul about 250 years old. The capital of the Roman province of Asia, it held as many as a half-million people. The massive theater, referenced in these chapters of Acts, held over twenty thousand. The Roman roads are still in existence there. The great temple of Artemis, known by the Romans as Diana, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This fertility goddess, also patron of hunting, was a great source of economic prosperity for the Ephesians. Read the whole story in Acts 19 and 20, especially about the riot of the silversmiths whose living was adversely affected by Paul’s preaching and the growth of the Christian community.
The situation we see today is quite simple. A little community of believers–the use of the number twelve echoes the original band of Jesus– had heard part of the Christian message, but had only been baptized, we might say, as John the Baptist taught. Their baptism was only symbolic of their repentance and desire to follow the Jewish law. It’s not clear whether they had heard of Jesus, but Paul certainly fixed that. To be baptized in the name of Jesus means to be baptized in Jesus. That means soaked with Jesus, filled with grace and full of the Holy Spirit. The ordinary manifestation of that soaking with Jesus seems to have been prophecy–speaking in the name of God–and tongues–a kind of prayer language.
What came of this simple act of evangelism was the growth of the most important Catholic church in Asia Minor. We see evidence of the speed of that growth, which was aided by many miraculous healing, in the following verses you won’t hear at Mass. We also see how the silversmiths reacted–almost murdering the companions of Paul. They had reason to be nervous. Paul and his companions were so successful that Ephesus became his home base for several years. Within a few decades, Ephesus was almost completely Christian, and the great Temple of Artemis was deserted.
Here, the world-system, fueled by trade in silver images of demon-gods, turned loose its fury on the Word of God. And it failed. It failed to destroy this insignificant band of believers for two reasons: first, the Spirit of God manifested His presence in the moral life and worship of the startup church. Second, this church, through good works and miraculous cures, did things for the pagans and Jews that their own religions could not do. The Holy Spirit was manifest in power. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul said that the Gospel, the Word of God manifest in Jesus, is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
The power of the Holy Spirit contrasts starkly with the exercise of power by the world-system. That’s because the Holy Spirit is an interior power in the believer, acting to bring the believer’s thoughts, desires and actions into line with God’s will. It is a gentle force that acts with one’s conscience and will to prompt us to do good and avoid evil. The world-system exercises power externally, by the force of law and edict. It doesn’t care about the person it affects, about changing hearts and minds. It just wants behavior in line with its own intentions. As the Holy Father says, the divine power, the same power that raised Jesus from death, brings hope, joy and liberation. As we see in the edict of the Dept of Health and Human Services (what an ironic name in context), government power exercised against what is good brings fear and enslavement. Ultimately, inhumane force must yield to the power of divine Love manifest through the works of the Holy Spirit.