Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
Now a certain man named Simon had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 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. 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. 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.
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him, "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." Simon answered, "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me."
Here's what this sermon is not about. It's not about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. A lot of ink and tears have been spilt on that topic and not all of it very helpfully. If you want to talk with me privately about that question then please feel free. Today what I want to look at is Simon the magician.
There's also been a lot written about Simon Magus – he appears to have been quite a figure, either historically or mythically, in the early church landscape and a favourite Church Father whipping boy for all things heretical. The specific sin of 'Simony' – paying for positions of influence in the church – was named after him. I don't want to trace down all those paths either, even though some of them are quite interesting. Really, what I want to ponder on briefly is the problem of what happens when spirituality is part of the consumer marketplace.
In the days of the Apostles, as today, the new Christian religion was not the only religious option on the block, especially as the disciples scattered away from Jerusalem into the surrounding countryside that wasn't so dominated by Jewish orthodoxy. We read in this story that in Samaria, a magician called Simon had been amazing the people and gathering quite a following by doing magical signs. They listened to what he had to say because of the things that he did – and we're not told what they are.
Then along comes Philip, also doing amazing signs, specifically freeing people from possession (whatever that really means), and curing paralysed people. The crowd's attention shifts, and people are baptized in the name of Jesus, including Simon himself. And then, when the apostles lay hands on people for them to receive the Spirit, Simon sees a moment for himself – an opportunity, perhaps, to become someone significant in this movement – and offers Peter and John money to have that power of transmission for himself.
I can sympathise with Simon. Formerly the big man in the town...'the power of God that is called Great', he has been won over by the message of the gospel and the miracles that Philip was doing, and now he's a nobody...simply one of those who has been baptised. Possibly, it's been kindly suggested to him that his magic is not all that appropriate to being a disciple of Jesus, or possibly having spent time hanging around with Philip he's been brought face to face with a power that transcends his own practice and he wants to learn more about it. Having always been someone who exercises power, it must have seemed natural to him to want to align himself with the most obviously powerful people in this Christian movement – the apostles Peter and John who imparted the Spirit to people through the laying on of hands. And why would he not want to apply himself to being someone who is used by God in this way?
Peter, however, lays down the smack. In reading this, I try to take the text at face value, and trust that Peter can in fact see the heart of Simon, and see its bitterness and lust for power, and can judge that he needs to be rebuked rather than encouraged. Otherwise we have here a serious case of petulance on Peter's part, of the kind that church leaders seem uniquely capable of. However, even if Simon's heart were genuine, he has made a serious mistake in thinking that he can buy God's gift of the Spirit with money.
Unfortunately, it's a mistake that doesn't seem to be too far away from our own cultural context, and the kinds of mechanisms that are daily at play to equate spirituality with consumption. We too live in a world with multiple expressions of spirituality...a variety of Christianities for a start, but then also a wide range of other religious traditions and new forms of spirituality. And many of them seem to be competing for people's attention and buy-in...quite literally. It seems to be too easy for someone with an eye on the market and human folly or human longing or both, to create desire for a particular spiritual product. And even churches are encouraged to be aware of their 'brand', their way of communicating to the marketplace, in the quest, crudely, for more bums on seats (or should I say 'souls saved for Jesus'?)
In the midst of all this, how do we locate authentic spirituality...what are the hallmarks of a genuine expression of God in the world today? Which for us as Christians isn't just a question of choosing a church, or a particular niche flavour of Christian expression. Because if we really believe that God's Spirit is active in the world beyond the church, then it is also for us to discern and partner with wherever God is at work, whether that's with Christians or in a shared practice with people who don't wear that label, but have a similar vision and ethic.
So, what can we learn from the story of Simon the magician, about the difference between greed and the gospel?
Firstly, I think there are three pitfalls – indications that all is not right with a particular movement or expression of spirituality. These are
1. 'It's about me' – when attention and glory are mostly drawn to a charismatic person or leader, or when spirituality is about getting what we want.
2. 'It's about getting rich' – when the motive behind the production of resources or the offering of teaching is about increasing the wealth of those involved.
3. 'You need to be rich or clever to join our game' – otherwise known as spiritual materialism or elitism.
I'll ponder briefly on each of these in turn.
'It's about me' – There's a curious little episode in chapter 14 of Acts, when Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra, and the crowds are so impressed with them that they shout out 'the gods have come down to us in human form!' and bring oxen and garlands to them, call them Zeus and Hermes, and try to sacrifice to them. But Barnabas and Saul, rather than enjoying the first real positive fame they've had, instead 'tear their clothes' and rush into the crowd shouting 'no no, we're mortals just like you...turn from these things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth...' One wonders if Simon Magus would have had the same response. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of instances in today's spiritual landscape where the messenger becomes the message, and where the fame and prestige of certain teachers and leaders gets in the way of people walking their own spiritual journey. I don't have any problem with people being honoured for their gifts and contribution, or recognised for their leadership or wisdom. But when the person themselves seems to buy in to the hype, and when the promotion of a mortal human outweighs the attention given to the eternal dimension of what is happening, then there is cause to be suspicious.
There's also another dimension to 'it's all about me' which is the question of who a person's spirituality benefits. There is much that is deeply individualistic and selfish about some new forms of spirituality which are about personal well-being, success, attracting one's deepest desires, personal healing, and personal agency, or even being perceived as a spiritual person. The Spirit of Christ didn't come into the lives of the disciples just so that they could fulfil their own potential and be happy. The Spirit of God was about forming a new community, and empowering acts of healing and justice for the suffering. A question I would ask about any form of spiritual practice is 'who does this serve?' - is it about the gratification of the practitioner, or is the practitioner a vehicle through whom God acts to touch others?
'It's about getting rich' – again, I'll say from the outset that I have no problem with people being paid, and paid decently, for working in a spiritual capacity, or for earning from the books they write or the teaching that they offer. But that is a different thing from engaging in spiritual practice out of a desire for wealth. People have spiritual longing, and many are willing to pay stupid amounts of money for a magic bullet that will lift them out of life's struggles, and help them find meaning. Too many people are willing to exploit this tendency with spiritual trinkets that are really just expressions of slick advertising. This is not just the realm of televangelists and marketers of magic vials of holy water. We see a desire for financial gain affecting the practices of churches, where the leadership are conspicuously wealthy, on the back of the offerings of congregation members who have barely enough to live on. This is directly contrary to what we saw earlier in Acts, where the coming of the Spirit to the disciples prompted a distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor...not the other way around.
'You need to be rich or clever to join our game' – Simon offered Peter money in order to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. Let's just suppose for a moment that this is how things worked – that the power of the apostles to lay hands on people to receive the Spirit was something that could be bought or sold. What would that say about the eternal, transcendent God...to become a commodity in the human marketplace? And as is always the case in human society, the wealthy would become the purveyors of all power – not just social and economic power, but spiritual power. The point about Peter and the other apostles is that they were ordinary, uneducated men...fishermen in many cases...who had given up all they had to follow Jesus. They wouldn't have been able to buy their way into the new community of Jesus' Spirit if money or superior intellect had been required. And yet, so often in our culture it seems to be the case that access to spiritual resources is a middle class phenomenon. We go on retreats, buy books, bells and icons, attend workshops and pay for spiritual direction – none of which I have a problem with – all of which I would encourage. But I think we need to always be careful not to make a spiritual necessity out of anything that you have to pay for. Because the assumption encoded in that sense of necessity is that spirituality is for the rich. Or, in some cases, the intelligent. I am equally wary of any spiritual system where vast learning, or special insight, is necessary in order to become a practitioner. Which is not to say I am against vast learning, not at all. But that if the benefits and effects of a spiritual path are not accessible to a disciple of limited intellectual capacity then I am cautious. I think that Jean Vanier and the L'Arche communities have much to remind us of in this regard.
So, those are three cautions. By contrast, to me, the marks of a genuine movement of God are
that Christ's Spirit is recognised as the source and sustainer of whatever good emerges,
that there will always be the characteristic of a vision of justice for the poor, and reaching out in compassion to meet human need,
that leaders and followers alike are dedicated to the downward path, knowing that spirituality is not about status or success but renunciation of all that we are tempted to cling to for our own security,
and that it's available to all...no special tricks, talents, or props.
Yes, there is a cost in following an authentic spiritual path, but it is not the kind of cost you can purchase by getting out your wallet. It is the cost of daily devotion to the One who said, 'take up your cross and follow me.'