Our passage this morning is really a wonderful story about the growth of the Gospel in the very early, brand new church. At the time of our passage, the Christian Church is only a few months old. And in those few short months, with the help of the power of the Holy Spirit, this brand new church, never before heard from on the face of the earth, has been growing in leaps and bounds. People are responding to the message of what Jesus Christ had done for them, and they’re becoming Christians and getting baptized. It’s almost as if there’s a revival going on, but the church is too young to have a revival. Its just getting off its feet.
But things are going so well, that the poor apostles are wearing themselves out with administrative duties. As new as it was, the brand new church was pretty well organized. They had a huge food distribution program going on, there was money that needed to be accounted for, and there were, of course, with all of these new people joining the church, pastoral issues to be dealt with. It may or may not surprise you to learn that the new church members were not all well adjusted, middle class citizens who had not a care in the world. There was a time a few decades ago that we tried to make the American church look like that, but it failed miserably. The Christian faith attracts persons from all walks of life, because the Christian church attracts sinners. And no matter who we are, or what we are, or who we think we are, we are primarily a sinner, who has been miraculously saved by grace.
And so the upshot of all of this was hat the apostles were so busy handling pastoral issues that they weren’t having any time to preach and to teach. And the people were complaining that their pastoral needs were being neglected, and round and round it went, until everybody got the idea that they ought to appoint some deacons to take care of the pastoral issues so that the apostles could tend to the preaching and the teaching. And that worked out great for a while, but two of those deacons, Stephen and Phillip, soon felt the call to go into teaching and preaching, and so they did. Stephen’s career was very short. He preached a sermon that angered some local Jewish authorities, and he got himself stoned to death over it. Stoned with rocks, that is. But Phillip felt called to go into Samaria to preach, and that’s where we encounter him this morning.
With Phillip in Samaria, the Gospel had great success. People were practically lining up to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Sick people were healed and demons were sent back to hell screaming in agony. But also in Samaria there was this fellow named Simon. Simon was a magician. And a magician will always attract a good crowd. And like most magicians, Simon had a higher opinion of himself than he deserved. He was, though, apparently, very good at what he did, and everyone who caught his show was utterly amazed at his ability. People were flocking to him in droves, and they were attributing god-like status to him. They said, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And because Simon enjoyed this attention, he did not disabuse the people of their mistaken notions.
But inevitably, truth and deception has to come to some kind of confrontation. And at first it came rather gently, almost with a happy ending.
For reasons that we’ll probably never fully understand, Simon responded to Phillip’s preaching, and for all intents and purposes, gave his life to Jesus Christ, and he was baptized. We could debate all day long about the genuineness of his conversion, but we’d get nowhere. We just know from our own experience in the faith that sometimes a person will come to Jesus Christ, get baptized, seem to be an active part of the congregation and then after some time just fade away. Its not our place to judge motivations. Our place is to proclaim the good news, to teach the tenets of our faith, and to leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit.
And at first, it sure seems as though Simon’s conversion is for real. Simon sticks around. He stays with Phillip, he’s amazed at the signs and miracles that he witnesses, and its fairly clear that he’s willing to learn.
But before long, things start to go a bit sour. The fantastic results of Phillip’s preaching and teaching in Samaria has attracted the attention of the apostles in Jerusalem, and so Peter and John come to Samaria to check things out. When they get there, they discover that while the new Christians at Samaria have given their lives to Jesus Christ and have received him as their savior, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended on any of them. Now quite frankly, this is not as big a problem as some theologians have made over it. Whole churches and denominations have divided over this issue, especially this business of being baptized only in the name of Jesus. Its not really worth getting worked up over. In the New Testament, there is no clear pattern when it comes to the bestowing of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes immediately at conversion, sometimes the Holy Spirit comes at the same time as water baptism, and sometimes the Holy Spirit comes after water baptism. We’d do well to heed the words of Jesus when he told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
There is no indication here that Phillip’s preaching or teaching was inadequate or defective. When Phillip preached, people came to Jesus. That’s what’s important. And so when Peter and John arrived, they laid hands on the new Christians and they received the Holy Spirit. It was as simple as that.
But when Simon saw this he was even more amazed with this new Christian faith than he had been before. It may be that he’d never seen anyone speaking in tongues before, and its quite likely, that as the new Christians in Samaria received the Holy Spirit, that they burst forth speaking in languages that they had not learned.
And upon hearing this, Simon got out his wallet. Now normally when someone gets out their wallet in a church service its a good thing. It means that someone’s been moved by the Holy Spirit to participate in the work of the Gospel. Normally, we welcome that sort of thing.
But Simon had no such direction from the Holy Spirit. He wanted to use his money to gain power, and he’s very clear about it. He wanted a share in the action and he was willing to pay for something that he didn’t realize could never be bought. Even here, I want to have a little sympathy for Simon. He’s a new Christian; at least we hope he is, he doesn’t understand very much at all at this point in his life, he’s just totally amazed by what he sees. It takes a whole life-time to gain understanding of the Christian faith, and even then we barely scratch the surface of the majesty of it all.
But Peter will afford him no sympathy at all. One of Peter’s spiritual gifts that he received at Pentecost is the ability to see into the hearts of people. I’m not sure that I would want that gift, at least not in its fullness. It carries with it a tremendous amount of responsibility. So far in the book of Acts, Peter has had to use this gift only one other time that we know of.
It is impossible to adequately convey Peter’s response to Simon in polite company. I know of no committee-produced English translation of the New Testament that has dared to convey the full impact of the original Greek. Only the J.B. Phillips translation has been so brave. And so we will have to be content, this morning with what the committee of the N.R.S.V. has decided for us: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!” Let me just say that the word “perish” has connotations that are a whole lot worse than simply dying.
Compared to perishing, dying is not a bad thing at all. In fact, compared to perishing, dying is a very good thing.
But Peter doesn’t stop there, he goes on and on to the point where Simon is justifiably terrified. And that’s because Peter barely leaves open the opportunity that Simon could possibly be forgiven of his sins. That is absolutely frightening. Shaken to his bones, Simon begs Peter, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
And with that, Simon goes out of the narrative. He’s never heard from again.* The story is left open-ended. And perhaps that’s for the best, because at this moment, all of our stories are open-ended too. It gives us the opportunity to ponder our own motivations and our own understandings of God’s great unmerited free gift of salvation to us. It gives us the opportunity now to decide for ourselves that there is nothing that we can do, nothing that we can buy, and nothing that we can bring to God to earn our place in eternity. All is free, all is unmerited and all is because of something else that Jesus very likely said to Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
*Church tradition has not been kind to Simon. He has been portrayed as a committed, vocal opponent to the Gospel, returning to his magical mischief, and continuing to think more highly of himself that he ought. He is purported to have died after commanding his disciples to bury him alive on the premise that in three days he would rise again. If tradition might be based on fact, what champion of the Gospel might he have been if he had truly repented? The story remains open, but it especially remains open for us and for our own lives.