Sunday, January 10, 2016

In the Name Only

In the Name. . . Only
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 10, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Acts 8: 14-17

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.

I’ve decided after a year of looking at one Gospel that I wanted to try to follow the lectionary for a while. The only trouble is that I had this same thought three years ago, so wouldn’t you know it, since the lectionary is on a three year cycle it is the same passages again. I think the way that my career has gone up to this point that I have actually done this before too, and that I am really versed in Year C. But there are four passages each week, and I thought maybe I would focus on the non-Gospel New Testament reading, which would put us studying Acts and the Epistles a little bit more, which could be fun. It is today, and also a good reminder about the importance of context because this is one where it is quite eye opening to not just read this in the vacuum of space, but to see exactly the situation for it in the book of Acts. Here is Acts 8: 14-17, a baptism story on the day where we celebrate Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan:

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The 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). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Obviously this is a short text. One that captures a baptism of new converts in Samaria, so we hear Samaria and we think about Samaritans, like the Good Samaritan, we think about the Woman at the Well, we think about outsiders, and race, and the history of the struggle between the two nations, and how this new fledgling Christian movement is breaking down the barriers that use to exist. We see Peter and John Baptizing, laying on hands and giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. What jumped out at me, in my first reading of this, before doing further study into the context was the parenthetical statement here that says, “for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of Lord Jesus.” Strange is it not?  And I started to think about what does this idea of being Baptized in the Name of Jesus, but not just in the Name of Jesus, but in “only the name of Jesus.” What does this mean? Why would that be insufficient? Is it only a technicality? Is it connected to having not said the right magic words? Or is it because the wrong person does the baptism it? Is it a mental piece, that something was missing from the equation on the convert's end? And if so, what would that be?
We hear a lot about this whole, In Name Only, idea in today’s culture. I know I’ve heard it in politics, usually with conservatives taking about Moderate Republicans being RINO’s or Republican’s in name only, but what does it mean with Christians? And is our understanding of in name only, what is going on here? Because you’ve probably heard or thought that before of Chrsitians whose world view or perspective on certain issues is different from yours, that you may say that, well they say they are a Christian, but it is an empty distinction, and usually it is meant to call into question some aspect of them that is fraught with hypocrisy. Is that what is going on here? From the very beginning we have a sense that not all people claiming conversion are actually converted, not all Christians are Christians, some may be wolves in sheeps clothing at worst, or mere hypocrites at best. To say the least I was puzzled and I wanted to study more before I jumped to conclusions because there are alot of conclusions you can jump to.
So I looked at the text before and after. If you look at chapter 8 as a whole you get a lot of information. For starters you get that the disciples Phillip first and then Peter and John are in Samaria to begin with because they are fleeing from the persecution of Saul back in Jerusalem. You see Saul hasn't headed out on the road to Damascus yet, and there has been no blinding light, no conversion and therefore no Apostle Paul, out to spread the gospel to the gentiles, but Saul the Pharisee persecuting. . . and the stoning of Stephen has just taken place. So that's where we are. And Phillip is here in Samaria first, talking about Jesus and people get excited about what he is telling them, and he heals many and drives out unclean spirits out of people, and so there is great joy there, and there are many who are wishing to be baptized. So good things are going on, and it is here where we are introduced to a new character: a man named Simon. Now Simon is famous in Samaria, and he is a magician of sorts, or as verse 9 says, "he practiced magic" and was known to the people as a great man for it, and then it says in verse 10 about him, "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." So you actually have competing folks who are being listened to eagerly, Simon, the old news, and Phillip the new news. They are both doing wondrous deeds, amazing the crowds, they both have the crowds convinced that they somehow represent God. Then it is in verse 12 that we have the baptizing that our scripture passage referenced as being "in the name of Jesus only." The story continues, verse 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." And then it goes on to say, "Even Simon himself believed." And he was baptized too, because it says, "After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip, and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place." It is here, where our passage begins:
14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The 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). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

So it seems that the big difference between In name only from verse 16 is "they received the Holy Spirit" in verse 17. The Holy Spirit is the difference. And if only the story would ended here, we could be confused by the simpleness of the difference, but it goes on.
8 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.” [1]

So you get the idea from this story that it is the Holy Spirit that was the missing piece throughout, but how interesting here that Philip could not bestow the Holy Spirit but Peter and John could. Is it because they are more worthy as disciples? Or is it just a difference in the time? Is it that there are two of them working together whereas Philip was working on his own? Was it obvious to them at the time the difference, or much later, when all of this was compiled? Or is this something like the Gospel of John seemed to have again and again, where the heart of the people is somehow visible and known, and it was shown that though they had gone through the baptism ritual there was a piece missing?
It would seem that the ritual is not enough, and it would seem that the power of the Holy Spirit is something that you cannot control at least not with money. . . As Simon finds out pretty harshly. And Simon gets a raw deal because named after him is the idea of Simony, the buying and selling of church offices that has been such a problem at different times throughout the history of the church, possibily most notably in the middle ages. It was one of the major reforms of the Reformation, addressing the corruption. Just like many times my classroom teaching seems to parallel nicely with the text for the week because this week we begun our Middle Ages Literature, and we were talking about the Germanic Tribes and the Church, and how these Chieftains would use religion to consolidate their power. There was this Frankish Chief Clovis, who started the ball rolling, he was the first of the Germanic Chiefs to be baptized by the Pope and made King. He was to renounce his pagan faith, and become a Christian. But the question is always there, and it actually isn't much of a question because the evidence is overpowering, but does Clovis really convert or is it completely a political move? Because his behavior doesn't really change, he's ruthless, one of the things he does is kill off all of his family that could challenge his sons' succession to his throne. Hardly, loving his neighbor. And he is far from the only story like that in all of Christendom, and we are to some extent the heirs of such legacy.
How much of our faith is wrapped around the idea of control, or seeking the upper hand? Trying to control our present, trying to control the future, trying to Control God? How much are we like the people of Samaria in this story, seemingly swayed by Philip and his gospel just like they were swayed previously by other magicians like Simon? What is lasting? Will another magician come by next week and we change again? How much of it is what God offers us/ What we think we can get out of the deal? How much are we like Simon, willing to pay not for the grace, but for the power, the ability to wield the Holy Spirit, even if for good? Even if our intentions are good? Even if we are convinced that the ends we have in mind allow us to use any means? Is it possible that the real message of this little story is just that the Holy Spirit cannot be wielded, cannot be faked, cannot be captured by a name, even if that name is Christ Jesus. The Hebrews knew the power of names so they would never say the name of God, his name is actually a word impossible to say, to pronounce, you can’t do it. They knew that the name had great potential to see like you have become able to encapsulate the whole, and if you can do such things, it will give you power to use God, and such limited ideas of God cease to be God. This idea is one that is certainly very human, and we understand, but history would show that such human endeavors lead to failure and are fraught with peril, the peril, of much worse. May God keep us from such things, instead embracing the mystery in awe of the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:18-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.