Somethings money can’t buy…

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 8:3-24

August 9, 2015

 

 

Last Sunday, we explored the passage of Stephen’s martyrdom.  The blood of martyrs often fertilize the soil for church grown and as disturbing as reports of Christians martyrs—in Syria and Iraq, in Egypt and Iran, among other places—we should pray their lives are not given in vain.  May God will use their witness to soften the hearts of those who persecute and, thereby, led them into an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ.

If you remember, Stephen was the first listed in the group of seven men chosen to help the Apostles… The aftermath of Stephen’s death is that many Christians fled Jerusalem, concerned for their lives.  But they couldn’t help but to tell others along the way about Jesus and pretty soon the church was spreading around the world.  Stephen’s death led to the growth of the church.

Today, we’re looking at the second individual in that list of those assigned the task of helping the Apostles.   Philip was listed right after Stephen.  He’s in Samaria and has an interesting and somewhat funny encounter there.  Read Acts 8:4-24:

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I know I’ve told some of you about this… One of the strangest phone calls I’ve had as a pastor—and I’ve had plenty of them—came a month or two into my ministry in Utah.  It was a Monday morning and the call was from a woman who’d visited our church twice.  She introduced herself and I vaguely remembered having spoken to her and her husband the day before.  Then she asked: “How much would it cost for us to join your church?”  I was a bit taken aback by this question and tried to explain that there was no cost, that people are to give freely from there hearts.  I went on to say that I’d love to sit down and talk to her and her husband about joining and asked her if she was a member of another church.  She wasn’t.  So I said she’d have to join by making a profession of faith and, if she had not been baptized, I’d be glad to talk to her about baptism.  There was quietness on the other end of the phone… “Oh,” she finally said, “I don’t want to convert.  I just want to join your church.”  At this point, my head was spinning.

It turns out she was Jewish.  They were fairly new in the community, having moved from California.  As often happened, as soon as they moved into the community, their Mormon neighbors started hounding them.  At this time, about 95% of the population was Mormon, so there were plenty of folks to do the hounding.  The couple decided they needed to find a place to attend church, as a way to get their neighbors off their back.  The closest synagogue then, was in Las Vegas, 175 miles away, so they decided to give us a try.  They felt comfortable in our fellowship and wanted to be a part of it, but were not ready to convert.   She never did convert, although she regularly attended and participated in the fellowship till she moved out-of-state.  We were blessed with her presence and hopefully she was, too.  You never know when seeds planted will bear fruit which is why we, as a fellowship, should always extend hospitality.

By the way, when I told this story to the Session of the Church in Utah, one of the more business-oriented Elders told me that I should have answered her question about cost with the amount of the deficit we were forecasting for the budget that year…  He was joking, I think.

“There are some things money can’t buy,” as MasterCard frequently reminds us in their very successful commercial.  Of course, they want us to lock in on the second part of their mantra, “for everything else there’s MasterCard,” but we’re not going there.  We know, by experience, there are things not for sale, regardless of how much money we might bring to the table. Good health is one of them.  Certainly, if we have enough money, we can hedge our bets by having the best doctors and eating healthy, but there are times it’s not enough.  When it comes to the end, our lives are not in our hands, but in God’s.  Another thing we can’t buy is love; we can try by paying another person to love us, but there’s a word for such a transaction and we won’t find love.   As we learn from the Songs of Solomon, attempting to buy love is foolishness and should be scorned.[1]  Likewise, we can’t buy grace nor can we buy spiritual gifts.  Such gifts are freely given by a benevolent God.  Certainly, we can invest in such gifts with our time and effort and the gifts may become stronger, but the gifts themselves must be given.  Grace allows us to accept in faith God’s forgiveness; spiritual gifts allow us to respond to grace in a way that helps do God’s work in the world.

Simon, we’re told, was a magician.  Think of him as the Wizard of Oz, behind a curtain or screen, pulling levers and astonishing people.  The crowds are amazed with his tricks; he develops quite a following.  Simon doesn’t seem to have demonic powers, like the slave girl whom Paul and Silas encountered in Philippi.[2]  With Simon, we don’t have such indication.  The girl in Philippi recognized who’d sent Paul, and as demon’s do, was filled with fear and trembling.[3]  Instead, Simon’s abilities appear limited to the more traditional magic skills which essentially pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, dazzling folks with his abilities and giving them a good show for their money.[4]

Simon must have been good at his craft as people referred to him as having the power of God and called him Great, but one day, that changed.  Philip showed up in Samaria, preaching about Jesus.  Many people believed; even Simon believed and was baptized.  Simon recognized that someone else was better at magic than he, or so he thinks.  Then Peter and John come down to Samaria and they pray and lay hands on those in Samaria who’d been baptized and there is a Pentecost event as the Samarians are filled with the Holy Spirit.  Seeing this, Simon decides he wants such power and approaches the Peter and John with his wallet out, offering to buy their power.  Simon wants to be able to do, on demand, what Peter and John have done.[5]  Only they didn’t do anything, it was God working through them.  Simon may have gotten into his racket by paying another magician to teach him the magic arts, so he hopes he can convince the Apostles to do the same.  He’ll pay them some money, they’ll teach him their tricks, and he’ll go on the road and make more money.

Simon may be a little surprised at the harshness of Peter’s words, who essentially tell him that he and his money can go to hell.  It’s interesting that Peter—who, if you remember was rebuked harshly by Jesus when he told the disciple, “Get behind me, Satan”—is the one who rebukes Simon.  But the rebuke seems to work, for Simon is now scared of what he’s done and asks that the Apostles pray for him.  Hopefully, Simon’s desire for repentance has more to do with his quest for the truth than in receiving a get-out-of-jail free card.

Scripture leaves us hanging, without knowing what happened to Simon.   Did he truly repent?  Did he receive the gifts and was he able to use them for God’s glory or did he go back to his old ways?  We don’t know.[6]

There are two things wrong with Simon’s request.  First of all, as I’ve talked about already, God’s gifts are not for sale.  From our point of view, it doesn’t make sense that one could even think they are for sale.  After all, as the Psalmist proclaims, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[7] Given that, to think that we could buy God’s favor is the height of arrogance, for what do we have that God needs for which he doesn’t already hold title?

But there is another problem with Simon’s request that’s even more problematic and that’s the reason behind it.  Simon, I believe, was looking for another trick for his magic show.  He wanted a new way to bring in the dough, to sell himself to the crowds.  Not only was he mistaken to think we can buy such powers, his desire to use them for self-promotion is also wrong.  Using what God gives us to build up the kingdom for personal gain or profit is at best poor stewardship, or at worst diabolical behavior.

Now, let me ask a question.  Are there ways in which we act like Simon?  Do we ever think that by giving to the church or through our good works and deeds that we are earning God’s favor?  If so, we’re like Simon.  Yes, we’re to support the mission and ministry of the church, but not out of an “I’ll scratch your back, God, if you scratch mine” mentality.  We’re to respond to God’s grace, which comes before any of our actions, out of a thankfulness for a grace-filled God.  We can’t buy God’s favor!  Another question:  Do we ever seek church positions or even church fellowship because of its prestige or because it might help us in our businesses or in other endeavors?  I know it happens and we can hope that some good comes out of people joining for the wrong reasons and hopefully they do get their motives right.

I don’t know if it’s true and it may be just a fanciful tale, but I’ve heard this story several times but never seen it officially cited.  When Dwight Eisenhower was getting ready to run for the Presidency, it was suggested he join a church.  Although he considered himself a believer, in his years of running around the world leading armies, he’d never joined a Christian fellowship.  If I remember correctly, he also had to decide on a political party…  As for a church, his advisors suggested he join either an Episcopal or a Presbyterian Church.  Checking them both out, he chose us, according to the tale, because he didn’t have to kneel.  If the story is true, it’s certainly not the right reason to join a church.  That said, Eisenhower did become a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church and in his latter years was very active with the congregation in Palm Springs, California.  Sometimes God uses strange ways to get our attention, to bring us to the gospel.  That’s what may have happened with Ike and with the woman in Utah and maybe even Simon.

Simon’s story reminds us to get our hearts right with God.   We can’t buy God’s gifts and we’re to use such gifts for God’s purposes, not our own.  We’re to seek to align ourselves with God and with his mission in the world, not to appropriate God for our own wants and desires.  In all that we do, may God be glorified.  Amen.

©2015

[1] Song of Solomon 8:7

[2] Acts 16:16-24.

[3] James 2:9

[4] See Bob Deffinbaugh, “Simon and Simon (Acts 8:1-25) on Bible.org

[5] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts: The new International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 183.

[6] There has been much speculation as to what happened to him.  In several of the Apocryphal books that didn’t make it into scripture we get a more fuller account of him, but ones that don’t fit the account in Acts and we written much later than Acts.  See Johannes Munck, Acts of the Apostles: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 74.

[7] Psalm 24:1


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