We all need it, to some extent. We need to know that when we do X, we can expect Y to happen with some reliability. To be sure, we’re not the masters of our fate in the way our cultural myths might have us believe. But we can’t be entirely the victims of our fate either. The more our lives lean in that direction, the less control we have over what happens to us, the less motivation we have to even get out of bed in the morning.
Beyond needing the basic ability to influence what happens to us and around us, however, some people crave power — because in cultures around the world and throughout history, power means privilege, significance, and status. People with extraordinary power are admired, envied, and sometimes feared.
Jesus had that kind of explosive, subversive power; the word in Greek is dunamis, from which we get “dynamic” and “dynamite.” He was, quite literally, a force to be reckoned with. People were naturally astonished at his power over the elements, over disease, and at the height of his ministry, over death itself. But they were also astonished at the power of his words and the influence he had with people of every social station.
Mark and Luke both tell the story of a woman who had suffered for twelve years from a bleeding disorder. She had gone from doctor to doctor and submitted to their treatments. All her money was gone, and she was worse than when she started.
As a last resort, she sought out Jesus. She dared not ask him directly for healing; what legitimate rabbi would make himself unclean by touching her? But she had a plan. She would wait until he was swarmed by people pressing in from every direction, sneak up behind him, and secretly touch his cloak. What have I got to lose? she figured. If this man has as much power as they say, just touching his clothes should do the trick. One teeny-weeny touch, and I’ll slip away.
It worked. “Immediately,” Mark writes, “her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease” (5:29, NRSV). And just as immediately, Jesus felt that power had gone out from him and demanded to know who had touched him. The terrified woman fessed up, and Jesus affectionately sent her on her way in peace.
That’s the kind of power Luke describes in Acts 19, but this time, through the hands of the apostle Paul:
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. (Acts 19:11-12, NRSV)
Your high school English teacher would tell you that the opening phrase above is quite an ordinary one in terms of sentence structure: subject, verb, adjective, object. But Luke actually puts the word “miracles” right up front at the beginning of the sentence, as if to give it pride of place. And that word, again, a common one for miracles in the New Testament, is “power”: miracles are works of divine power. Luke’s adjective, moreover, is an amusing understatement; he describes the miracles as “not the common ones.” Thus, I imagine him thinking about Paul’s ministry, and saying something like, “And the miracles! Not the garden variety, mind you. God worked mightily through the hands of Paul.”
Then, to underscore the point, he describes how Paul didn’t even have to be directly involved. As with the woman who was healed merely by touching Jesus’ cloak, a handkerchief or apron that had touched Paul’s skin became a talisman with healing powers.
Don’t envision genteel ladies brushing Paul with their dainty little lace hankies and delicately carrying them away. Luke’s Greek borrows from Latin words that describe the protective aprons manual workers would wear, and the rags they’d use to mop their sweaty brows.
(Maybe that sounds a little icky. Then again, you have to wonder how Elvis could toss a sweat-soaked scarf into the audience and have a swooning fan act as if she’d just been handed the Crown Jewels.)
Imagine, then, Paul plying his trade as a tentmaker and working with leather. It’s hard labor, and he has to wipe his face repeatedly throughout the day. Somebody was snatching up those sweaty rags. Somebody was getting hold of Paul’s work aprons. (Today, they’d try to sell them on e-Bay.) And those rags and aprons were being used to heal sickness and cast out demons.
Luke says God was working through the hands of Paul. Apparently, he was also working through the sweat of Paul’s brow. Literally.
Now that’s power.
And as we’ll see, that’s the point.