Not For Sale


Acts 8:9-24

Our passage this morning is really a wonderful story about the growth of the very early, and brand new church. At the time of our passage, the followers of Jesus have been gathered together for only a few months. And in those few, short months, with the help of the power of the Holy Spirit, this brand new enterprise, never before seen or 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 has done for them, and they are becoming followers of Jesus and getting baptized.

But things are going so well that the poor Apostles are wearing themselves thin with administration duties. In spite of its newness, the early church was pretty well organized. They had a huge food distribution network that was thriving, there was a pile of money that required regular distribution to the poor and the needy, and, there were, of course, with all of the new people joining the church, multiple pastoral issues that always needed attention. We may not be surprised to learn that not all new believers were well-adjusted middle class citizens who lived beautifully perfected lives that were always well regulated.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when we tried to make the American church look all pretty and middle class, with lovely families with well scrubbed children, but that was a miserable failure. And it continues to be a miserable failure, no matter how much we may wistfully wish otherwise. Jesus sort of made it plain during his ministry that he didn’t come here to minister to beautiful people, but rather to broken and needy people. And no matter who we are, or who we think we are, we are primarily rotten sinners, who have been miraculously saved by grace.

And so the upshot of all of this was that 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. But eventually, two of those deacons, Stephen and Phillip, soon felt the call to go into teaching and preaching, themselves, and so they did. Stephen’s career was very short lived. 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; a magus. 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, and these accolades, he did not disabuse the people of their wrong notions.

But inevitably, truth and deception have got to come to some kind of confrontation. Those who make it their practice to deceive are generally found out. And at first, Simon’s finding out 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, he 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. It is not our place to judge motivations, nor is it our place to judge genuineness. 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 it’s 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 celebrate with the new believers. When they get there, though, they discover that while the new believers have given their lives to Jesus Christ, and have received him as their savior, and have been baptized, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon any of them.

It turns out, that among the followers of Jesus, the Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit does. There is no clear pattern when it comes to the bestowing of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes immediately, at the moment of conversion. At other times, the Holy Spirit arrives at the same time as water baptism. And sometimes the Holy Spirit comes at some other time, but the Spirit always comes. We would 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.”* Charles Dickens, who was always anxious to sneak some preaching into his writings, understood this concept, when in his book, “A Christmas Carol,” he described the ghost of Christmas yet to come, as being “more mercurial than the others…” Dickens adds that this spirit “…will arrive in his own time.”

And so when Peter and John arrived, they laid hands on the new believers, and all of them received the Holy Spirit. It was as simple as that.

But when Simon saw this, he thought it was the greatest magic trick that he had ever seen. It is quite likely, that as the new believers in Samaria received the Holy Spirit, that they burst forth speaking in languages that they had never learned.

And upon hearing this, Simon got out his wallet. Now, normally, when someone gets out their wallet in a worship service, that is a very good thing. It means that someone has been moved by the Holy Spirit to participate in the work of the gospel. Normally, we welcome that sort of thing. It encourages the mission.

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 believer, at least we hope he is a believer; he doesn’t understand very much at all about his new life in Jesus; he is just totally amazed at what he sees. We know that it takes a whole life-time to gain an understanding of our faith, and even then, we barely manage to scratch the surface of the majesty of it all.

But Peter will afford him no sympathy at all. One of the spiritual gifts that Peter received at Pentecost was the ability to see into the hearts of other people. I’m not sure I’d want that gift. That gift 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 paraphrase 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!”

But if it isn’t right for me to repeat what Peter said to Simon, Simon got the full impact of it the first time. And Peter goes on and on with his cursing of Simon to the point where the man is justifiably terrified. Shaken to his bones, Simon pleads with 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. This gives us the opportunity to ponder what motivates us…is it gain, or is it grace?

Do we truly believe that there is nothing that we can buy, nothing that we can bring, and nothing that we can earn to secure our place in eternity? Can we bend the knee before Jesus and receive his free gift of salvation? Or is there something else that we wish to gain?

Church tradition, unlike the Scriptures, 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 than 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 become if he had truly repented? In the Scriptures, the story remains open, but now it remains open for us. What kinds of champions of the gospel of Jesus Christ might we become?

* John 3: 8

** Acts chapter five

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