Let’s talk about snake handling for a minute. Show of hands, anyone been to a snake handling church? There’s one allegedly in Greenville (SC), I went once but they didn’t pull the snakes out. They are notoriously secretive and not sure about outsiders. Snake handling is actually illegal in every state but West Virginia, most states will allow you a permit with really heavy fines and penalties if something goes wrong, best estimates are there are only about 125 churches that practices snake handling left, most of them in Appalachia (but there are two that openly practice in Canada). The formal practice is only about 100 years old, for most of history Christians avoided snakes, in fact most ancient commentators believed that this snake that bit Paul was potentially Satan trying to stop Paul’s ministry or some agent of his and believed taking up snakes was tempting that same fate.
So the practice probably has more real estate in imagination than in reality, its something that can show up in movies and tv shows and immediately establish a stereotype of small southern churches while actually never being all that common and becoming more and more rare. But this is the story that they point to, along with a single line from Mark 16: “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.” Interesting enough, I think at least, Paul doesn’t take up the serpent in this passage. He’s aiding the people of Malta in starting a fire and the heat wakes a snake up who latches on him in response. But the idea is the same either way, what snake handlers believe is that if the Spirit is moving in you, and if your faith is strong enough, you can be bitten by a poisonous snake and survive.
My grandmother wasn’t a snake handler. I want to make that very clear. I don’t guess there would be anything wrong with her if she was but I think she would very much not want to be thought of that way. What she did have though, was a snake handler’s faith. She died fourteen years ago this May, and I’m still in awe of her faith. My Mema believed that if she prayed then nothing could touch her, that if she asked God for protection it was a done deal. She died from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it was the third or fourth time it had come back I believe with all my heart that if she could come down and talk to us she would tell us that the only reason it got her that time is because she decided she was ready to go. Now don’t misunderstand me, she went to the doctor, she trusted medicine and treatment, she believed that part of faith was trusting in the people God has given the knowledge to help us and take care of us, but she believed that if she prayed to be safe and protected God will respond. Which caused issues during things like Hurricane warnings, when she fully believed the family should still head down to Myrtle regardless of little things like evacuations. I remember one time in particular I was supposed to go with her to Columbia to watch one of my cousins play softball and the weather was awful, that nasty deep purple on the radar between us and there, tornado watch over all of upstate South Carolina, and she fully intended to still go and was shocked that my parents didn’t want me to come along. And when they brought up the weather she said “snake won’t bite me,” which was her shorthand for saying she wasn’t worried about it. And she ended up going and I didn’t and sure enough she was fine, but that scene does present a question for us: what’s the balance, as people of faith, of faith and practicality?
I’m going to go ahead and tell you I don’t have a tidy answer for that one: I do envy that snake handler faith at times, that belief that a snake won’t bite me and even if it does I don’t have to worry, but I and I’m sure you also grapple with the ugly truth, sometimes the snake does bite. As of 2015 there were 91 documented cases of snake handlers dying from bites they received during their actions. Was their faith lacking? I don’t think so, I think sometimes if we tempt fate too many times the odds will catch up with us. I think sometimes snakes will get us.
Eve was wandering through the garden one day and a snake came up to her. And his first question was so ridiculous she almost had to laugh, “did God really say you can’t eat anything from the Garden?” What a silly thing to think. But the snake pressed on a little, “there is something God told you not to eat though, isn’t there?” And the snake kept pressing and pushing and eventually she was convinced, “how bad could it really be? Is it really that much of a risk? Could it really be that bad?” And you know the rest of the story. There’s a danger in getting too comfortable with snakes. Sometimes they bite. And sometimes the sting of that bite isn’t as easy to shake off as we might believe.
So what’s the answer, where’s the balance, I think the rest of Paul’s story here can help us. Because his snake encounter came when he was on the way to Rome to face trial after being arrested in Jerusalem, a trial that would eventually lead to his house arrest and death, but a trial that Paul had asked for because he believed God was calling him to get to Rome, and he was willing to take the risk if it meant serving the kingdom. That’s the kind of faith we’re called to. Not faith that takes unnecessary risks. Not faith that tries to make bigger and bigger and bigger shows as if daring God to live up to his end of the bargain. Faith that takes steps into the unknown if that’s where God is leading. Faith that trusts that the God who calls us stands by us.