A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 13, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Acts 8: 14-24
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
Today is an exciting day in the life of the church. Today we install the new ruling elders, who have answered the call to lead, and today they begin that journey. Two of our newly elected officers are new elders, so today we also get the unique opportunity to witness an ordination, how appropriate that we do so on this day of the church calendar where traditionally is celebrated the Baptism of Christ and the beginning of his ministry with us on Earth. And on this second Sunday of my new discipline of preaching according to the Lectionary, I got to make a choice. The way that the Lectionary works is that there are four readings. Typically there is a selection from the Old Testament, a Selection from the Psalms, a Selection from the Gospel, and then another from the New Testament outside the gospels. The calling passage from Isaiah, proclaiming God's ever presence with those whom he chooses to call, certainly appropriate for today's special service. But then I had a choice. The Gospel Reading was Luke's account of the Baptism of Jesus by John, but I was strangely intrigued by this more obscure story from Acts.
There are a couple of aspects of the story that grabbed my attention. The first was the thought that the baptism of these folks was not sufficient, on one hand, and then the man Simon's attempt to buy the power, of giving the Holy Spirit. I thought that these two aspects of the story are very important for us to look at today, because it offers a reminder to who is really in control, who is in charge, who does the calling, who does the commissioning, who does the ordaining, whose mission we are on, and most importantly whose church this is. These reminders are central to the business of today, and are easy to miss in the rituals and the roles that we play, easy to forget as we get bogged down in the business of church. For those called to lead, it is easy to lose sight of in the heat of the battle, in the hard days of service, on those days when we are frustrated by the process and the slowness of progress, the long meetings, when the temptation to go our own way and "get things done" is strong. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is Christ who is in charge. It is Christ who calls us, and it is Christ whose will is to be done.
But let's look at the story. It is an interesting one. It is an away game for the apostles because conversion, or at least something like it, is going on in Samaria. Phillip had been preaching there for a while, ever since Saul had been persecuting the Christians in Jerusalem, he hasn't had his big change of heart and name yet, that is the next story after this one. So Phillip has been in Samaria, and has called in reinforcements because he was having such success. Now remember what Samaria is, and what it represents. Remember all the Good Samaritan sermons you have heard, and remember that Samaritans were hated by the Jews. They were seen as turn coats, sell outs, compromisers, and as such blasphemers. People who would leave tradition and make peace with the occupiers, folks who had cooperated with the enemy. And now they had, as the text says, "accepted the word of God." But when John and Peter got to them they found that there was still something missing. Though they had been baptized, they were only baptized in the name of Jesus, and as yet the Holy Spirit had not come to them. More had to be done.
Now this can be troubling for folks in the Reformed tradition, mostly because we only believe in doing one baptism. Now here it seems that, that one baptism is not sufficient, as the text says because it was "done only in the name of Jesus Christ." What does this mean, to be baptized only in the name of Christ? Does it mean in name only, and so not in the totality of Christ? Sure there seems to be a distinction there, but how could you ever know? What would it look like to only be baptized in the name and not in the totality of Christ. There is a clue in the text here, and that is that apparently at least one thing is missing in the people. . . the holy spirit. How does that happen?
Let's look back at the text here, because there is more to this story, some clues to the idea of Christ in name only, and there also is this guy Simon, who gets chastised by Peter. The earlier part of the story gives us a glimpse at just who this guy, Simon is. Here is the beginning, starting back at Acts 8:4:
4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
So we get a glimpse of Philip and his ministry. There are healings, exorcisms, crowds all together listening eagerly, and finally great joy. It certainly seems like a gospel like encounter. There are stories of people encountering Jesus in the Gospels that are at least parallel to what is going on here, but the story continues.
9 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. 10 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.”
Hmm there is something here. At least there seems to be a pattern of behavior for these folks. Strange man comes to town, performs wonders, every one listens intently, or as it says both times, eagerly. Even the words the adverbs are repeated, that the people "listened to him eagerly." The parallel caused me to look to the original Greek word. In both it is the same "Prosecho," which can mean listen eagerly, but it can also mean take heed, and can mean to attach or moor yourself to as a ship attaches itself to a dock. Now here are these folks, seemingly attaching themselves to each new teaching that comes along. But if you look at the chronology of the story, the encounter with Simon and the people listening eagerly happens before them listening to Philip, so why bring it up here, unless it is significant, and you want to show how wishy washy the people are. Flip flopping to whoever comes to preach. Let's continue on.
11 And they listened eagerly [ there is that word again, "prosecho"] to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.
So if you can do some magic, you can get these guys to follow. Do you see it, these folks are attracted to the wonders and the actions, and they are connected to the person who stands in front of them doing these things, but they do not have a real insight about who or what is the source.
12 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. 13 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. 
It is at this point that our passage begins, when Peter and John show up and pray that the Holy Spirit will come to these people. But look at Simon, he believes, and he attaches himself to Philip, amazed at the signs and great miracles. "He stayed constantly with Philip." What is he waiting for? What does he want to see? Is he seeking a relationship with Christ? At this point in the story we don't know, but since we read the rest of the story earlier we have a glimpse of his real motivation. . . because John and Peter show up, and they say a prayer, lay their hands on the people and the Holy Spirit comes down on them. And then Simon, this guy Simon, we get a glimpse at his heart. Can I get some of that action? He seems to say, Can I become a bestower of the Holy Spirit, too?
Isn't it interesting that he doesn't ask for the Holy Spirit to descend upon himself, but rather to have the power to give the Holy Spirit to others? He has no interest in relating with Jesus himself, he has no interest in being transformed himself. He wants to transform others. He wants to be a wielder of power. He wants to lead people, but not in the name of Christ, who he does not know, or care to know, but in his own name. The story introduces him as a magician. He is from the ancient Pagan tradition. He is not up for submitting to Christ, instead he is out for control. He wants control. He is interested in Christ, sure, at least he is captivated by the possibility and by the power, it seems that he is drawn to it, but here we see his real motivation. It is to control it, he sees it as a commodity that can be bought and sold. So rather understanding it, he wants to buy it. He wants to by that which is freely given. Oh Simon, Simon. . .
Now why was I drawn to this story? Why do I feel that it is important to us to hear this morning as we install and ordain our new leaders? I think it is important for them to hear, and also us to hear anew that it is not us who are in charge, but Christ. This very fact is the central truth of this story. There are miracles in this story, there is magic in this story, there are hungry souls searching in this story, there is great potential for conversion in this story, but we also get an important glimpse at how quickly it can all be misinterpreted, how easily it can be corrupted, how easy it is to miss the source for the messengers, how easy it is to trivialize the true source of the transformation. The power is not in Philip, the power is not in John and Peter, the power is not in the words, not in the rituals, not in the laying on of hands, not even in the name of Jesus, if it were Simon could have bought it, for all of that stuff is cheap, but instead the power is in the totality and the person of Christ. If Christ is not present, if the Holy Spirit is not moving, the actions themselves are empty, and insufficient.
So today we will perform a ritual, we will lay hands on Kane and Lizbeth, ordaining them as officers in the church, as Ruling Elders. And years ago when Nancy became an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, it was the same for her. Today is the confirmation of their call to serve, and though we elected them, and though we nominated them, it is not us who calls them, nor is it us they serve. Elders in the Presbyterian Church do not function like elected officials in the United States Congress, which is certainly a good thing judging how well congress is working these days. They are not the representatives of the congregation, ruling based on popular opinion. The members of this Church are not their constituents, from whom they form their understanding of how to make decisions, nor do they represent themselves and their own agendas. They serve this church as representatives of Christ, called by Christ, serving Christ, and beholden only to Christ. Christ and no other, not power, not money, not personal agendas, not popularity, not what is practical, not what sustains the church, not what will grow the church at all cost, at the center of their call is the principle: not my will be done, but thine.
Otherwise we serve Christ in name only, and we like Simon are simply trying to buy empty authority, misunderstanding the source and the true value and import of our calling to serve, and Peter's rebuke rings a little too close to home:
21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”
We are not perfect. We may falter. We may fail. We in ourselves are not worth, but in Christ all things are possible, and in Christ only is anything possible. May Christ bless this his Church with the leadership of his servants Nancy, Lizbeth, and Kane, and may their relationship with Christ grow in the years to come as they walk a new and wonderful path of called leadership. Amen.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:14-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:4-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:20-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.