Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 9, 2022
Acts 8:14-17 Commentary
Familiarity may, as the old cliche goes, breed contempt. But sometimes it also breeds a kind of blindness. I’ve written a sermon commentary on Acts 8:14-17. I’ve preached on it multiple times. My familiarity with it hasn’t yet dimmed my fascination with one of the Scriptures’ most mysterious and intriguing stories.
However, my relative familiarity with the context of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson has obscured a fascinating detail in it. Acts 8:9 announces that “a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city.” Last Sunday’s Gospel Lesson’s proclaimers noted how Matthew 2:1 reports that “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem … Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.”
The English translations of Acts 8:9 and Matthew 2:1 obscure the close relationship between the Greek words that we translate as “practiced sorcery” and “magi.” The Greek word for wise men is the noun, magoi. The Greek word for sorcery is the verb, magueon. The two Greek words share the same root.
Of course, proclaimers should be cautious about deducing too much from that commonality. Among other things, scholars aren’t exactly sure just what either magi or sorcerers did. What’s more, we can’t be sure that Matthew 2’s magi practiced sorcery. Yet the Scriptures’ verbally literate first hearers almost certainly heard echoes of the magi’s work in Acts’ report of Simon’s work.
I suggest that proclaimers who follow the RCL should make a kind of strategic decision about proclaiming this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Those who proclaim it alongside other RCL texts may want to limit their presentation to the suggested verses 14-17. However, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as a “stand-alone” text may want to expand their pericope to include verses 9-25 (the majority of which the RCL otherwise excludes). Since my colleagues have already posted fine commentaries on this website for verses 14-17, I invite readers of this commentary to deal with the broader text.
The Church has sometimes heard in Matthew 2:12’s report that the magi “returned to their country by another route,” not just their itinerary’s details, but also a new course for their lives. So Barbara Brown Taylor, for example, imagines that none of the magi’s old maps even worked after they met and worshiped the young Jesus. T.S. Eliot envisions the magi as “no longer at ease” in their old ways of seeing and treating people and things.
Yet this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds its proclaimers and hearers that the old ways of “returning home” remain stubbornly attractive. God’s people may return home from a figurative encounter with the Christ at Bethlehem’s manger by different routes. But since the “countries” to which we return and naturally call home change little, it takes great grace for even those who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection to stay on a “different way.”
Those old ways stubbornly cling to Acts 8’s Samaritan named Simon. His sorcery, of course, amazes both his powerful and powerless countrymen. In fact, Simon appears to be among the Samaritans who even seem to assume that he’s either a god or one of the gods’ representatives.
Yet as much as Simon’s sorcery amazes the Samaritans, Philip startles them even more. The howling gales of persecution have blown the apostle all the way from Jerusalem to Samaria. There Philip’s proclamation of God’s kingdom and Jesus’ name so amazes the Samaritans that they want to be baptized.
However, to Acts’ original readers, Simon would have been among the least likely candidates among a whole race of unlikely candidates for such baptism. After all, he has two spiritual “strikes against him.” It’s not just that he’s a Samaritan of whose religion Acts’ Jewish hearers would be deeply suspicious and distrustful. Simon’s sorcery is also one of the sins of which the Torah is most critical.
But as Acts’ camera pans the line of people awaiting their baptism, it shows that Simon is in it. This powerful sorcerer seems to recognize genuine power when he sees it. So he doesn’t just believe Philip’s gospel proclamation. Simon isn’t even just baptized by the apostle. He also follows Philip wherever he goes because he’s so astonished by the great miracles and signs he performs.
Yet in among the most mysterious reports in the entire book of Acts, Luke insists that Simon and the other Samaritans’ baptism is somehow incomplete. When, after all, Peter and John arrive from denomination headquarters in Jerusalem, they pray that the Samaritan converts will receive the Holy Spirit “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them: they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (16). In other words, the Samaritans believed and had been baptized. Yet they somehow hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit.
Those who proclaim Acts 8 will want to filter their understanding of this enigmatic report through their own theological perspective. But those searching for a biblically informed understanding of the Samaritans’ incomplete baptism might benefit from my colleague Stan Mast’s reflections on it in his January 19, 2016, CEP Sermon Commentary on it.
He notes that, as next Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reports, Paul claims that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Since the Samaritans have effectively professed that Jesus is Lord, they must already have the Spirit.
However, Mast suggests that though they had the Spirit, they hadn’t yet received it the way Jesus’ followers had on the first Pentecost. Though the Samaritans’ faith showed that the Holy Spirit lived in them, something made the apostles question the completeness of their conversion.
In fact, Simon’s reaction to the gift of the Spirit seems to affirm the Peter and John’s concern. While Luke doesn’t tell us whether the sorcerer received the Holy Spirit when the other Samaritan Christians did, his attempt to buy the ability to give people the Spirit suggests he didn’t. The sorcerer sees the impact of the gift of the Spirit has on his fellow Samaritans. Yet his attempt to purchase the power to make that impact on others implies that the Spirit hasn’t yet impacted him the way that God longs impact God’s adopted children.
Peter’s response to Simon’s “let’s make a deal” is immediate, clear and, we might imagine, quite loud. When the sorcerer reaches for his wallet, the apostle tells him to “Put your money away and get on your knees in repentance! You’ll have no part in this ministry until your bitter and sinful heart’s in the right place.” They’re strong words that provoke a strong reaction in Simon. The sorcerer essentially begs Peter to pray to God on his behalf so that he doesn’t die with his money.
At the end of Simon’s encounter with the apostles, Acts leaves its audience, in some ways, “hanging.” It sends Peter and John to Jerusalem. Philip heads down to Gaza. The Samaritans presumably return to their daily lives while displaying the impact the Holy Spirit has on them. Yet Luke in one sense leaves Simon on his knees, desperate for salvation. There the Scriptures at least figuratively also leave him. They, after all, never mention Simon again.
That makes Simon a kind of relative of all sorts of people who hear the gospel and seem drawn to it, but haven’t yet received the Holy Spirit. They too are on their knees pleading for help they haven’t yet been able to identify. Those who proclaim Acts 8 might explore with their hearers the kinds of people whom we find in similar places.
After all, Peter doesn’t condemn Simon out of hand to eternal misery. He’s clearly angry with the sorcerer. The apostle insists that Simon’s attempt to buy the gift of God shows that he has no part in the apostles’ ministry because his heart remains in the wrong place, corrupted by his sin and sinfulness.
Yet the Peter who followed a Jesus who was patient and persistent with him invites the misguided sorcerer to prayerfully turn away from his sin and toward the living God. Peter basically summons Simon to fully receive God’s grace with his wholehearted faith in Jesus Christ.
Acts moves quickly to expand the scope of the gospel. Peter and John preach the gospel throughout Samaria on their way back to Jerusalem. Philip preaches that same gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch. Yet before Christians hurry on with those apostles to the rest of the world, we never forget the Simon’s around us who still seem to dangle between faith and unbelief, between eternal life and eternal death.
Simon’s mysterious story reminds me of the perhaps equally mysterious story of Emad Jamil Al Swealmeen. He killed himself and wounded his taxi driver when he detonated an improvised explosive device outside the Liverpool Women’s Hospital on November 11, 2021. Police believe he was what Daniel Pipes on the November 21, 2021, Middle East Forum Blog calls “an Islamist and a jihadi.”
Yet Swealmeen’s story is somewhat complicated. When he legally arrived in Britain from Iraq, a retired British army officer took the refugee under his wing after he visited Liverpool’s Cathedral and expressed interest in converting to Christianity. The officer led him through an Alpha Course and into his confirmation in March, 2017.
Many people now believe Al Swealmeen only claimed to convert to Christianity because he believed it would help his asylum claim. However, his mentor is skeptical of that claim. He’d, after all, regularly attended worship services and stayed close to the Christian community for two years before being confirmed.
So was Swealmeen someone who claimed to convert to Christianity just so that he could get British asylum? Or was his conversion somehow, like Simon’s “incomplete”? Such issues are part of the messy business that is ministering to and discipling anyone for whom his or her old life remains attractive.
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