What Money Can’t Buy
This Sunday each year is known in the churches as Baptism of Christ Sunday. The texts appointed for the day, as you’ll notice, refer to Jesus’ baptism, and to baptism in other early Christian communities. Samaria was one of them. The Samaritans weren’t just any neighbors to the Jews of Judea. They were Israelites too, historically. But at some point they had parted ways enormously, and were worshipping God not on what Judeans considered the holy mountain of Jerusalem, or Zion, but some miles away on Mount Gerazim. Sometimes the people we most vehemently dislike are the people who are actually most like us – even family – because they do things differently. Their sin is all the greater. They should know better; they of all people should act differently. They could so easily be us.
Into a very massive chasm of distrust and self-justified revulsion goes Philip, the eager new apostle of the newly risen Messiah. He goes to Samaria – to the people that he is entitled to care for the least. He goes. He preaches. And he converts! He baptizes! It gets back to the apostles at Jerusalem (where people have always worshipped God rightly) that Samaritans – Samaritans?! – are accepting the word of God. This is beyond gob smacking. So the leaders of the apostles are sent to Samaria to help, to report, to confirm the incredible. And they find that it really is true. Peter and John then lay hands on the new Samaritan converts and they receive the Holy Spirit. There is no way to overstate the fact that this whole scenario was never “supposed” to happen.
If the Holy Spirit can choose to descend upon Samaritans, anything really is possible. If the Holy Spirit can choose to descend upon Samaritans, anything really is possible. If there is any one or group in your life who is beyond your human responsibility for caring, imagine that one willingly walking into the light of God. And now what do you do? With all your well-deserved feelings of condemnation for them? And what do you do with the God who apparently said to them, “Welcome!”
The apostles from Jerusalem are not alone in their warm interest in the welfare of the inhabitants of Samaria. Simon Magus is there too. He is a magician, and he’s on tour. He makes his living, like many a wonderful performer today, by taking his talents on the road and cultivating new paying audiences in every city on the circuit down the highway. He has been doing magic in Samaria alongside Philip. They both do amazing acts. They each earn a great following. But that’s all that they have in common, as the writer of Acts makes sure we understand. The Gospel is not magic; it is not human illusion or trickery. It is divine miracles paired with proclamation about the nature of God and the salvation afforded by Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone – including Simon – understands that what Philip has brought to Samaria is superior. Simon knows when he is outdone, and he seems from the text (to me!) to be gracious and enthusiastic about it. I think he doesn’t yet understand what the Gospel is really about, but he’s good-natured, and he’s a regular guy trying to make his living. He sees Philip’s superior product and thinks, “I want what he’s got!” It could take him so much further; earn him so much more. Nothing wrong with wanting to be successful at one’s trade – to do it as artfully and elegantly as possible. When Peter and John arrive and even confer the power of the Holy Spirit on others, Simon knows that this is an ability he wants for himself, and he offers the apostles money to give to him that power as well. Simon doesn’t expect how offended they will be – he can’t know, because he doesn’t understand the Holy Spirit, or the faith of the apostles. Peter gives him a very sharp rebuke – he essentially says, “You and your money can go to hell for thinking you could purchase the gift of God’s spirit!” It reminds me of a certain rebuke that Peter once had hurled right at him, and by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” What a change or rather what a growth in roles for Peter from one who, in ignorance, asks not just an inappropriate, but a Gospel-negating, favor of Jesus to becoming an apostle who now keeps other well-meaning would-be followers somehow on the road to faith. This does not deter Simon; to his credit, Simon understands and believes the reprimand even if he does not yet understand or believe in Jesus. He will immediately ask John and Peter to pray for him in order that this rebuke does not come true. He doesn’t yet understand the Gospel, but he knows enough to respect its power, and he wants to be on the right side of it. From Simon, we get the word “simony” – the buying or selling of church offices. We never hear about him again in the New Testament. I hope that’s because he repented of his simony, and went on his way understanding the true power of the Holy Spirit. King Herod was someone in Simon’s time who also did not believe the Gospel but still could grasp the power of the Holy Spirit. Simon, in his ignorance, encountered the Holy Spirit and wanted to access its power; Herod wanted to thwart it. In the verses that are omitted from our reading from Luke (verses 18 and 19), we learn that Herod had put John the Baptist in prison. In Luke’s gospel, John does not baptize Jesus; he can’t. Herod has put him behind bars because he is so terrified of a power that is clearly greater than his own, and that he knows intuitively can destroy him.
The young – the brand new! – church goes to Samaria and it blows away all the old boundaries. Belief in Jesus is just that, and it doesn’t matter who you are but what you believe. You can be anybody and become a member of Christ’s family, but you can’t believe anything. Behavior and doctrine always adhere to the Gospel, and Simon gets that fact full in the face: he (no one!) can purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. Full stop. The Gospel is not magic, it is not a series of tricks, and the Spirit decides its own course. No one can choose to access its power, especially for money.
The Holy Spirit is pure gift. No one owns it to buy or sell. No human being controls divine power. If we help to channel it in any way, as did John and Peter, it is a “technical assist.” We do not control the Holy Spirit; we only do our best to help the needy to want its company. As we hear in the testimony of John and of Paul… and George and Ringo… “can’t buy me love.” Nope – so many things that we deeply want for ourselves we never can buy – love, happiness, contentment, the Holy Spirit, the heart strangely warmed (as John Wesley said). We can work all our lives to be healthy but there are still diseases for which no amount of money today can provide a cure. What Money Can’t Buy: Deepest well-being. Faith. “Rich in things but poor in soul” as Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote in his great hymn.
Many of the things that we most want for ourselves – and that we are right to want for ourselves – our truest priorities – are what money can’t buy. This is not good news - not comfortable news - for those of us who are good at following rules, who are good at being good. Show me the formula to success for something honorable, faithful, and worthwhile, and I shall do it! Hearts in the right place, we still have no guaranteed access to the things we value most.
From our counterparts, the Samaritans, comes, I think, some good advice: if you want the Holy Spirit, if you want faith, if you want spiritual nurture, put away your wallet and nurture your faith. Place yourself, to the best of your ability, in the Spirit’s path. It’s a fine project for a project without rules; it’s all I can say: just try hard. For all the things we want most desperately but that money can’t buy, we just place ourselves in the way of grace. We live in the ways that might make those things come to us; we live in ways that make it easier, we hope, for the Holy Spirit to gift us. In hopes of the gift of faith, we live prayerfully; we practice spiritual disciplines. In hopes of the gift of love, we practice loving behavior towards others; we cultivate in ourselves as much compassion as possible. In hopes of the gift of contentment, we do those things that have given us deepest meaning, understanding, solace - we focus on the readings, prayers, disciplines, hobbies that set us right with the universe, all as we hope and pray for those numinous gifts of the Spirit that we do not control, the depths of faith, love, contentment that we know enough about to want but must wait to receive. What money can’t buy for Simon or any of us are the blessings that anchor a life: the sense of the Spirit’s presence at our center, the certainly of God’s participation and love at the center of all that we experience – the good and the bad, holiness in the center of all things. May these pure gifts of the Spirit become ours indeed, descend upon us -- gifts for us then to share.
James Boyce, www.workingpreacher.com, January 13, 2013, Acts 8:14-17