Sunday, August 18, 2013

New Tricks (Acts 8:4-25)

The story of Simon the Magician gave us a couple of things. One is the word "simony," which means the paying for positions and influence in the church. Today we sometimes call that "designated giving."

Another is a good way of dividing unexplainable events between miracles and tricks. Modern science and investigation give us more tools of understanding the world than we have ever had before. This means we rarely if ever run into things that we have to ascribe to supernatural agency -- but sometimes we still do encounter events for which we can't offer a rational explanation. Even people who believe that every event has a rational explanation may not be able to come up with one in some cases. They still believe there is one, but they concede we don't have the means to find out what it is.

Are those events miracles? Well, supernaturalism isn't the only qualification for something being a miracle. It may not even be the most important one. Let's look at Simon Magus -- Simon the Magician -- and see if I can explain what I mean.

Before hearing Philip preach, Simon had gained a lot of fame on his own for his magic. Now, we don't know if Luke wrote about actual magic, as in something of a supernatural origin, or what we call magic today, which is mostly illusion. Magicians today perform sleight-of-hand or illusions. They do things that, if we could catch them at it, we would know exactly how their apparent magical art happened. So our job is to catch them at it, and their job is to keep us from catching them. Just from Luke's account, we don't know which Simon was. We just know that he used his skills, whether supernatural or otherwise, to draw attention and fame to himself.

But then he hears Philip and understands there is a real power greater than he is. He believes the gospel message. And when Peter comes to bring the gift of the Holy Spirit on the new community of believers, he offers the apostles money if they will give him the gift of being able to do what they do. Peter immediately rebukes him, strongly. If Simon still believes that the work of God goes to those with the ability to pay for it or acquire it, instead of to everyone who needs it, then he has a lot to learn. Simon seems to realize this and asks Peter to pray for him, so he can understand his mistake.

We don't know why Simon wanted to be able to grant the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since he had been famous, he may have thought the gift would be a good way to stay in the public eye. Or he might have seen what a blessing it was and wanted to give that blessing to as many people as he could. We may lean towards the first one, since his offer of money makes us think of him as a kind of villain of the story, but we have no firm evidence either way.

We certainly can see that he doesn't understand the way this new life operates. His life as a magician focused on his tricks. And whenever a magician does a trick, those watching focus on who? The magician, of course. What a clever fellow! What a great trick she did! How did that coin get there?

But the miracle or signs that Jesus does in the gospels and the apostles do in Acts do not point at the person who does them -- remember how often Jesus tries to deflect fame and notoriety and offer credit to God alone. The apostles are clear that they do any of their great deeds of power only through the presence of Christ and for no purpose other than to glorify and point people to him. You can make it a brief little saying, if you like: "A trick points to the trickster. Miracles point to God."

Simon, for whatever reason, is not yet focused on pointing to God and relying totally and completely on God. He might not even intend any insult to Peter when he offers money, but just think that since that's the way things usually happened in life, that's how he would receive the power he sought.

Now, we might not look at things the way Simon did, but we can see ourselves a step or two back from him, can't we? Instead of offering money to a church or individual directly and expecting something in return -- the kind of transactional relationship that dominates most every other aspect of life -- we may give with the understanding that our gifts will be used by the church to meet its needs. And we think nothing of it...until the time comes when we think our giving of gifts or time or service entitles us to something. "My family have been members of this church for 50 years and I think we deserve a little consideration." "We gave pretty generously to that building campaign, so I think we're entitled to have the wing named after Aunt Hortense." (My apologies to anyone who actually has an Aunt Hortense who would never think of acting this way.)

Like Simon's tricks, it turns out our giving was not about God or about offering the fruits of our harvest to him. It was not about serving Jesus by serving his people. It was about us and what consideration it bought us when the time came for God to do a favor for us. It was not thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son and his grace.

See, we are entitled to something in return for our giving and our time and our presence. Every Christian is, every Christian who gives to the body of Christ with the idea what he or she gives is a sign of thanks to God for his gifts. We are entitled to two words, in fact. But they may not be what you think. The two words which we are entitled to hear?

"You're welcome."

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