Scripture: Acts 8:14-17
The book of Acts tells the story of the expanding Christianity community, focusing particularly on the ways the Spirit of God makes available the Kingdom of God to peoples and places that were believed to be excluded from it.
Our reading this morning comes in the middle of a larger section devoted to how the Spirit and the Kingdom are available to those in Samaria—to the Samaritans. ……and yes, we are talking about those Samaritans, the ones referenced in that parable of Jesus we call “the Good Samaritan.”
You see, Jesus didn’t just use a Samaritan as a convenient motif. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were the epitome of the “other.” They were disqualified from worship, from religion, from leadership…… you get my drift. That Jesus chose such a person to demonstrate the epitome of godly life and love was radical enough to sign his death warrant. But it was also prophetic, in a sense.
At the very beginning of the book of Acts, as the author (Luke) records Jesus’ parting words to his followers, Jesus verbalizes their task. He says:
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV)
In Jerusalem…… in all Judea and Samaria…… and to the ends of the earth……
“In Jerusalem,” as those early chapters of Acts describe—the Spirit descending on the church of Jerusalem at Pentecost, and it’s rapidly expanding influence.
“In Judea and Samaria,” as the early church is scattered by the persecution that rises up against them…… That’s where Acts 8 begins. The day of Stephen’s martyrdom coincided with a rise in violence against Christians, for (as we know) one outburst of violence can embolden those looking for a reason to explode. By the time we get to v.4 of Acts 8, we learn that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (NRSV).
“In Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” “To the ends of the earth” is the final part of the story of Acts. It will coincide with the ministry of Paul the apostle, as his missionary journeys and his legal troubles take him all to the way to the capital of the world: Rome.
This Samaritan portion of the story of Acts is fascinating in itself, especially because of the inclusion of one Simon Magnus, sometimes called Simon the Great or Simon the Magician.
There’s a wealth of fascinating legend about Simon, but we’re going to concern ourselves exclusively with the actual biblical story recorded here. So let’s read around today’s scripture lesson:
“Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:5–8 NRSV)
So here the Samaritan mission begins. Philip, like many other leaders of the Jerusalem Church, is forced by the rising tide of violence to get out of Dodge for a while. He ends up in Samaria (here presumably the capital city) and he preaches the availability of the Kingdom to them. Drawing from its power, Philip and the people witness incredible things—impressive things—entertaining things—but also things that made a real difference in the real life of those who were discounted by society: those seeming to be possessed by demons, the physically disabled, the mentally ill, and so on. It was they who received the Kingdom of God with such power. And the response was widespread joy.
“Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (Acts 8:9–11 NRSV)
Simon had a history in Samaria before Philip came to town.
He was the one who seemed to perform deeds of power that amazed and entertained.
He was the one to whom all ears bent, from the greatest to the least.
He was the one who was heralded as “the great.”
“But when they believed Philip”…..
“who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” (Acts 8:12–13 NRSV)
No longer was Simon the only game in town. Many were convinced of Jesus and his Kingdom. In fact, even Simon was convinced. And since he and Philip seemed both to share the trade of miracle-workers, it may have been inevitable for Simon to attach himself to this apostle. Which further gives some “oompf” what was happening there, because even Simon—who himself worked what others called “miracles”—was amazed at what he witnessed.
So here come Peter and John in our scripture lesson, sent by the regional office to see for themselves how true the reports might be of this Samaritan mission and its success—or maybe to help out, somehow. You see, the Samaritans have been baptized, but the Spirit has not yet come upon them.
Luke does not tell us more about this curiosity, though we keep trying to wring certainty out of this dry towel. In the New Testament stories, sometimes spirit-baptism precedes water-baptism, sometimes it follows; sometimes it all happens at the same time.
Where we want things to be consistent and clear, we find only more ambiguity about “how it works.” It almost seems as though this is one more example of how God is not restricted to acting in the ways we expect.
For Simon, however, this spirit-baptism received through Peter and John seems a whole new level of miracle-working, and one that the Enemy uses to renew his desire for vainglory. Continuing to read:
“Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’
But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.’
Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.'” (Acts 8:18–24 NRSV)
As far as the biblical saga is concerned, this is the end of the tale of Simon. He, a believer in Jesus, has fallen into temptation, has been called to account by the leader present, and has offered what sounds like genuine repentance. But we don’t know what happens next…… because that’s not part of the story that Acts is telling us.
The story of Simon is a story of grace. But in order to be a story of grace, it has to be a story of failing. As Paul reflected in Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (NRSV).
In some ways, we might easily gloss over Simon’s story. I mean: Can you think of anyone else who’s literally tried to buy the power of God with money? I struggle to find so blatant an example.
I do know, however…… that for a small fee you can buy an ordination certificate online that gives you legal authority (in some states) to marry and bury, and to present yourself at hospitals and public meetings as a bonafide clergy person. And that does feel kind of similar.
And when we start picking at this, a lot more starts coming out.
I’ve also known an individual who confided in me that he hoped he tithed enough to get into heaven—and he was not joking.
I know another person intimately, who was directly told by a pastor that if she gave enough money to the church her mother wouldn’t die. She cashed out their life savings. Her mother still died.
You see, what Simon essentially falls into here is a kind of commodifying of God and God’s action. He treats this limitless force and Divine Being as though they were a pack of gum to be purchased at the supermarket. God here gets objectified in a most disturbing way.
And when we start thinking in these terms, then the story of Simon starts to hit a little too close for comfort.
The consumption of Christian commodities is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
T-shirts. Jewelry. Music. Movies. Fiction. Candy. School curriculum. Video games. Recipe books. Internet service providers. Guitar strap manufacturers. Travel agencies. Online streaming services. Self-help books. Candle companies. Exercise videos.
The list goes on and on.
Anything that exists, it seems there is now a “Christian” version of it.
And maybe most of this stuff is innocent, really…… as long as we remind ourself that (first) these things exist to make someone money. And (second) as long as we’re ok paying more money for a lower quality item, which is too often the case.
But in some circles, these things are as central to the identity of “Christians” as the notions of baptism and communion.
If you’re not wearing those t-shirts…….
Or if you haven’t seen that movie……
Or if you play secular video games……
Or if you go to an actual therapist instead of buying a self-help book by Joel Osteen at Lifeway……
well then…… you just don’t fit.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we don’t have such extreme cases in this community here…… or at least I hope we don’t.
But how much of your Christian identity is rooted in external things: like your appearance, or your hobbies, or the language you do or don’t use, or the places you do or don’t go, or whatever?
How much is based on those things?……And how much is based on pursuing that ongoing transformation of every part of your life that God desires to bring about? How much is based on your diligent, intentional practice of the disciples of prayer or study or meditation or fasting or simplicity or service or confession or others?
How much of being Christian is managing your public image?……versus experiencing the Kingdom of God in ways that render you vulnerable and lay your failings open?
Because one of these things is not like the other.
One of these things is to follow our own desires… to rule our own lives… to control and shape things as we see fit…… This is to sell out to the Enemy.
The other one is to submit ourselves to God’s desires… to allow God’s rule to invade our lives… to obey and be conformed as God sees fit…… This is to fully buy into the Kingdom of God.
Though they did not seem too far apart a few moments ago; in truth, the gulf between the two could not be greater. And the temptation to substitute this cheap imitation for the expansive grace and inclusion of God is constantly with us.
So as Simon implores: Sisters and brothers, pray for each other to the Lord. And pray for me.