05/02/21 “Easter People: Philip and Simon”

Acts 8:4-19

“Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Machiavelli first wrote that in the 16th century. Winston Churchill quoted it after WWII. President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel made it popular during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. But, Emmanuel also offered this additional observation: “A crisis is an opportunity to do things you thought you couldn’t do before.”

We usually think of a crisis as a traumatic time—an emergency—and it certainly can be that. But more broadly, a crisis is a “crucial or decisive situation” or a “turning point.” You could say that the Book of Acts is made up of a series of crises faced by the new-born Christian Church and how, by the power of God, the first Easter people didn’t let their crises go to waste.

The immediate crisis the Church was facing in our passage was the aftermath of Stephen’s execution by stoning. Last week, we left Stephen and Philip and five other men after they had been chosen to manage the Church’s food program in Jerusalem. Stephen was also a powerful preacher and healer, so much so that the religious authorities instigated a plot against him. Based on lies and baseless accusations, they brought Stephen before the council. His take-no-prisoners speech about the council’s refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah enraged them. They dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death, while a Pharisee named Saul watched with approval.

“That day,” Luke tells us, “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem.” This wasn’t persecution by the Romans. This was persecution by some of their fellow Jews who were determined to root out these upstarts who were, in their opinion, blaspheming heretics. Saul, who would come to be known as Paul, was particularly zealous in ravaging the church. The apostles remained in Jerusalem, but the rest of the disciples scattered.

Jesus had told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. So far, their efforts had been limited to Jerusalem. But, the crisis of Stephen’s death and the ensuing persecution was a turning point for the Church. I would never say that God caused Stephen to die in order for the gospel to leave the city limits of Jerusalem. But, the crisis did force the Church to take steps it might not have taken on its own, or had even yet thought about taking. God made sure that the opportunity presented by the crisis of Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution wasn’t wasted. The disciples who were forced to scatter began to carry the good news to all the places Jesus had said they would, and it became clear that God was with them as they did.

Philip headed for Samaria. This would not have been an easy choice to make. There was a long history of animosity between Samaritans and Jews. Both thought they were God’s chosen people. Both thought their mountain was God’s holy mountain—the only place where God resided and where God could be faithfully worshiped. A Christian missionary there would have to overcome a lot of hostility.

Philip, like Stephen, proved to be an effective witness and healer. But, in this case, the people listened eagerly to Philip’s proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They believed him and were baptized. Among these new Christians was a man named Simon. Simon had been practicing magic for a long time in the city, and he was so admired that he was called Simon the Great. The people had listened just as eagerly to him and been just as amazed as they now were by Philip.

But, there was something different about Philip. He wasn’t just doing magic tricks—trying to harness both earthly and divine forces for his own benefit. His healings were signs that he was acting on behalf of someone greater than himself. His signs and wonders pointed towards Jesus and to the message of repentance and forgiveness and inclusion in the kingdom of God for the Samaritan people.

You might think that this would lead to another crisis, with Simon rousing a crowd against Philip. But, instead, Simon himself believed and became one of the early Easter people. He was baptized. He followed Philip everywhere, amazed like everyone else at the signs and miracles that Philip performed.

When the Church in Jerusalem heard about the conversions in Samaria, they sent Peter and John to see what was going on. This was another crisis point—a turning point, a time of discerning and decision. How would the Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem Church react to these former adversaries who had been baptized into Christ’s body? How did the Samaritans fit into God’s plan for the world? Would Peter and John reject them because they didn’t think the Samaritans were part of the true Israel? Or did they recognize that God was working in new ways, aiding the disciples in their Christ-given mission to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations?

This was a crisis for the infant church—a time of deciding how to respond to these decidedly unusual and unexpected developments. In that crucial moment, Peter and John responded by praying for the new believers and laying hands on them. The newly baptized believers received the Holy Spirit and were received into the fellowship.

But Simon must have hung back, observing. He saw what happened when the apostles laid their hands on the new believers—that they were filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. He wanted that power, too—not the power of the Holy Spirit but the power he thought the apostles had. But he didn’t understand what kind of power it truly was. He didn’t understand from where or from whom it came. He saw it as political power that would give him authority over people. He saw the apostles as having a position to sell rather than a divine commission to carry out. So, he did what seemed reasonable according to his thinking: he offered to buy what he thought the apostles could sell.

This was a serious miscalculation on Simon’s part—an error that earned him a terrible reputation in church history. So why should we include him among the Easter people? I think Simon is not so different from us, or at least from many people we know. Luke tells us that Simon believed the gospel as a result of Philip’s proclamation and signs. We have no reason to doubt Simon’s sincerity. But his understanding was incomplete. He thought he could bargain for what he didn’t understand was a gift. How many of us, even knowing what we know, have tried to make bargains with God, essentially offering to buy with our time, our offerings, or our talents what God offers as a gift? How many times have we come before God when our hearts weren’t in the right place?

Grace is hard to get our heads around. In a world where we hear over and over again that there’s no free lunch, we may fall prey to the temptation to bargain with God as Simon did with Peter. We are Easter people by virtue of our accepting Jesus as our risen Lord, and so was Simon. But, that doesn’t mean that our understanding is perfect or that our hearts are always in the right place.

Simon was at a crisis point, and his personal crisis presents a crisis for Peter and the Church he led. The Church has seen and affirmed God’s work in the Samaritans, but what about someone who claims to be a believer and yet is in such grave error in his thinking? Peter responded to Simon with these words: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”

We could read Peter’s words as a scathing rebuke. We could also read them as telling the truth in love. We could read them as a rejection of Simon or as an invitation to a new life in Christ—an invitation that Christ extends to each of us, wherever we are in our faith journey. By the power of the Spirit given to him, Peter sees what’s in Simon’s heart, just as Christ sees what’s in ours. Whether gently or forcefully, Peter invites Simon to repent and pray for forgiveness. We, too, are offered that invitation every day.

Simon now has a decision to make. He can reject Peter’s words, or he can continue on in his faith journey toward greater understanding. He can go back to practicing the magic that could bring a crowd to its feet, or he can choose the grace that will bring him to his knees.  He could go on seeking power over others, or he can submit his life to the power of God.

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to Simon after that day. He does tell us that Simon asked Peter to pray for him, that the dire consequences Peter spoke of wouldn’t happen. As the centuries passed, early theologians painted a more and more horrible picture of Simon as an opponent of Peter’s, a heretic who preached a different gospel, even as Satan himself. But I like to think that God didn’t allow Simon’s crisis go to waste, any more than God wastes ours.

Paul told the Romans that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” I think this is Paul’s way of saying that God doesn’t waste any opportunity offered by a good crisis. When we reach a personal moment of decision, God can use it to draw us closer and deepen our faith. When a congregation or the Church as a whole reaches a crucial moment, God can use it to help us discern where and what we are to be in the world. When we reach a turning point either as individuals or as the community of faith, when we face a time that demands discernment and decision-making, God can help us see opportunities to do things we didn’t think we could do before. The only question is, how will we respond to the opportunities that God reveals?

The Book of Acts is full of crises. Really, the entire Gospel is full of crises—times when individuals encountered God in Jesus and had to make a decision, times when it looked like all was lost but something new began to grow, times when what seemed impossible became reality. God has never wasted an opportunity offered by a good crisis, including the crisis in upper room, the crisis in the garden, or the crisis on the cross. God didn’t waste the opportunity offered when a group of dejected women went to the tomb or when the disciples gathered on a hillside. God didn’t waste the crisis of Stephen’s death, or the delayed coming of the Spirit in Samaria, or Simon’s lack of understanding. God has never wasted a crisis in the past, and God won’t waste an opportunity to work through the crises of the present. Just as God was working through each crisis of the early church, God works in ours today, opening our eyes to possibilities we never thought we could do before. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young