August 14, 2016 “Magic” – Acts 8:9-25

Acts 8:9-25
“Magic”
August 14, 2016 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I haven’t rushed out to buy the new Harry Potter book. I hope I won’t worry or offend anyone by telling you that I and everyone in our family read the other seven books almost immediately after they went one sale. But this one is different. To start with, it’s a script for a play, not a novel. And it’s largely written by a couple co-authors, not by J. K. Rowling herself. Finally, from reviews I’ve read, it appears much of the magic is gone from the story, including the Christian virtues and themes which showed up in the other books.

You might wonder what business Christians have reading magic stories and may be a little worried your pastor’s family likes them. I would argue that when we are clear that it’s pure fantasy, a story told to entertain us and maybe help us see life in new ways, there’s no problem. But you are certainly right that Christians need to be cautious about magic.

A magician, a sorcerer, is at the heart of our text today. In Rowling’s books there is good magic and bad, good magicians and evil ones. Simon looks pretty much like the latter. At best, he is spiritually confused. At worst, many Christians through the centuries have seen Simon “Magus” as a figure of consummate evil, the originator of an heretical cult, and the first one to commit a particular kind of sin.

The setting for Simon’s story is the Samaritan mission of Philip. This is not Philip the apostle, but the second of the seven deacons we met in Acts 6. As I mentioned last week, verse 4 explains how God used the persecution of the first Christians to spread the Gospel. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Fleeing Jerusalem, Philip went to a city in Samaria, a first step beyond a purely Jewish audience for the Good News about Jesus.

Missionaries today will tell you that even now when the Good News comes to a new group of people God validates that mission and message by signs and wonders, miracles in the midst of that new audience. In Samaria, says verse 7, Philip healed people and drove out demons. It was spectacular. “So there was great joy,” we’re told in verse 8. That’s where Simon the magician comes in.

Verses 9 to 11 give his background. Magic was serious business in the ancient world and Simon was an accomplished and respected magician. Like many ancient middle-eastern magicians, he practiced exorcism of demons. He probably had a bag of conjuring tricks by which he kept the people of Samaria amazed, as verse 9 says. They even regarded him as semi-divine, giving him the name, “The Great Power,” which meant something like God’s right-hand man or second lieutenant, the “Grand Vizier” of heaven.

Read between the lines and we would guess Simon had a pretty big head. Throngs of people telling you that you are wonderful is a temptation most of us could not resist. Politicians and preachers and athletes and film stars regularly get caught up in being adored by their fans. You might be old enough to remember Muhammad Ali with his fist in calling himself “The Greatest” or even television star Jackie Gleason who let himself be named “The Great One.” Last year Kanye West, husband of Kim Kardashian, told an audience in Glastonbury, “I am the greatest living rock star on the planet!” Donald Trump has been gaining supporters by telling Americans, and last week specifically pastors, that he will make us great again. You might remember it was one of Satan’s temptations for Jesus.

Even with everyone calling him The Great Power, Simon recognized a greater power when it came along. When Philip worked his miracles and preached Jesus Christ, Simon joined the crowd who believed and were baptized. People had followed Simon, but now verse 13 shows us Simon following Philip. He shadowed him everywhere, astonished at what he was doing. He realized that the deacon’s miracles were the real thing, as opposed to Simon’s own clever tricks.

It’s hard to know what to make of Simon’s conversion. It says clearly that he believed and he was baptized. That’s all it takes to make a Christian, so on the surface it looks like his faith was real. Perhaps it was. Yet Simon was used to having power, to being great. He evidently hoped to do miracles himself, to learn some real magic.

You and I can understand Simon’s motivation. The aim of magic is not much different from our science and technology. In fact, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The purpose of both is to control one’s world, to develop skills, techniques and procedures which allow you to manipulate and manage your environment. When it’s dark, I flip a light switch. When I’m hot I turn on an air-conditioner. When we want to talk to our daughters hundreds of miles away we click on Skype. All of it would look like magic to anyone from two hundred years ago, and the purpose is the same, to control my world.

That’s why magic is just another academic subject in the Harry Potter stories. Harry and his friends study it like you and I study science and math. You take classes in keyboarding and computers and biology. Harry studies charms and divination and potions. The magic taught at Hogwarts is a kind of science or technology of the supernatural, just another technique for controlling reality.

The great temptation then and now is to seek a “magic,” a technique, a knowledge that will keep us in control of our lives and make us great. In the books, Harry Potter is tempted like that, and in the Bible a real-life magician faced that temptation when in verse 14 the apostles came to town.

Peter and John came and prayed for the new Samaritan Christians to receive the Holy Spirit and in verse 17 laid hands on them. And it happened. The Holy Spirit showed up. They may have spoken in tongues as evidence of that gift. Simon was sure he had witnessed the technology of Christian magic. We don’t why the Samaritans believed and were baptized, but did not yet have the Holy Spirit, but clearly Peter and John had the gift to bestow it. Simon wanted that gift, the secret to their magic.

Like professional magicians still do today, Simon offered in verse 18 to buy the secret, to pay Peter and John for the power of laying hands on people so the Spirit would come down. Confronted with superior magical technology, he wanted it for himself, and he was willing to pay for it.

Peter’s rebuke of Simon is harsh. Literally verse 20 says “May you and your silver go to destruction.” We might say, “You and your money can go to hell.” Peter painted a bleak picture of Simon’s soul. His heart was not right before God, he was full of bitterness and captive to sin. His only hope was to repent.

In the first couple centuries of Christianity, the name of Simon became associated with terrible heresy. He was called Simon Magus, which just means “magician.” He was thought to be the founder of Gnosticism. Ask my wife if you want to hear just how bad Gnosticism is. Some gnostics became known as Simoniacs, named after Simon.

It got worse in the middle ages. Simon had a sin named after him, “simony.” As I like to say when I’m teaching about the practice of ordination and laying on of hands, that’s pretty much as bad as it gets. You’ve sunk pretty low when they name a sin after you.

Because Simon offered money to be able to do what apostles did, “simony” was the term given to the practice of buying and selling ministerial offices. Because a priest or bishop was able to make a lot of money selling pardons and requiring offerings even to enter a church, those offices became desirable. Men would pay bribes to be ordained. It was one of the great corruptions of the church. In the Inferno, Dante put those who committed simony in the eighth circle of Hell, just one circle from the bottom.

Simony may seem like an obsolete sin these days. Except for a few megachurch pastors, it’s pretty clear that being ordained is no great financial advantage. It’s hard to imagine anyone bribing someone to become Christian clergy in this day and age. That’s one sin you and I don’t need to worry about. Or do we?

Simon’s desire for spiritual power was not all that different from attitudes you and I may have. He wanted to take control of his life again by purchasing some spiritual technology. We may no longer be tempted to buy magic, but we certainly buy and sell other sorts of power.

It’s gotten a lot thinner, but on Sunday afternoons, I sometimes go through the ads in the Sunday newspaper. I set aside all the clothing ads and Parade magazine and pick out Cabelas and Staples, Big 5 and Best Buy. I thumb the pages and lust after a faster laptop, a new fishing rod, a lighter tent, or the latest running shoes. Money could buy me whatever I need to be in control at my desk or in the outdoors.

It’s the same in parts of life we take even more seriously. Hospitals in our area build new facilities and shell out millions for the latest medical machines. Your doctor’s office keeps upgrading its computer system. You and I want the resources, the insurance plan, to afford whatever technology we need to be healthy. It’s all for sale and if we can buy it, we can take control of our own bodies.

Arthur C. Clarke was right. Technology, magic, they’re not that different. And neither is our own thinking about it all. We still imagine that the power of money can buy us the power of magical control over our lives and circumstances.

On top of our desire for scientific and technological magic, we may not be that far from Simon’s approach to spiritual things. We have been schooled to be good consumers of whatever we need to stay in control. So we may be as deceived as Simon was in thinking we can purchase the power of God.

There’s a risk of something like simony even in giving our offerings each Sunday morning. As good consumers—you and I have been taught, and so we teach our children—we have a right to expect something for our money. So if we bring money to God, we may find ourselves tempted to expect something in return.

Sometimes the church has not been very helpful in teaching us to avoid simony. We may speak as though Christian giving is a kind of spiritual investment, as though there really is a purchase being made, even if it’s only a sense of well-being and blessing.

At NewSpring Church in South Carolina, you get a money-back guarantee. Sign up at that megachurch to tithe, to give ten percent of your income, and after three months if “God doesn’t hold true to his promise of blessings,” you can request your money back, no questions asked.[1] I’m afraid LifeChurch in Oklahoma, which is a Covenant megachurch, may have invented the money-back guarantee on offerings twenty years ago.

Simony doesn’t seem so obsolete. Treating our relationship with God like just another consumer transactions is the spirit of Simon’s sin. Go on-line and browse Christian bestsellers that want to help you find peace, or set good boundaries, or be courageous, or discern God’s will, or live “a simpler, more soulful” life. Ten, fifteen or twenty dollars and you’ve got a new secret to spiritual power in your hands or on your screen.

Simon Peter gave Simon Magus the real answer to any sin, the true spiritual technology, if you will. “Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” This morning in the early service we prayed an old confession of sin that says, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” That’s it, that’s the real magic of Christian faith, to turn from our hearts desire for security and control, and to place our trust, place our lives in the hands of God. That kind of faith comes from Jesus Christ. And it is a free gift. Spiritual power cannot be bought and sold, because it is free.

You and I cannot control spiritual power. It doesn’t work like magic. You cannot pray the right words or follow the proper set of spiritual disciplines or give a certain percentage of your income and then expect all to go well with you, either in this world or the next. No, that’s the way the world’s magic works, the way technology works. Learn the technique and get what you want. But Jesus Christ isn’t a magical force. He’s not technological power. He’s a person. All you can do is place your faith completely in Jesus, follow Him even when it feels like things are out of control, and trust Him to control your life as He deems best.

We don’t hear the end of Simon’s story. Contrary to later legends that have him going on as a wicked sorcerer, he seems remorseful in verse 24. He asked Peter “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” Maybe it was insincere. After all, Peter told Simon to pray, but Simon asks Peter to pray for him. Who knows? Maybe all he wanted was to escape his punishment.

On the other hand, isn’t that often where you and I start out? We sin, we fail God or someone who loves us, and all we want is to escape the penalty, whether that’s being found out or eternal damnation. But let that guilt or fear turn us in the right direction, to Jesus Christ who truly can help us, and it’s not a bad start. Even a wicked magician may find grace when he turns from his magic and trusts the real power of Jesus.

Harry Potter is a good story. Computer science and medicine are useful tools. But magic of all sorts is a temptation for us as Christians. We can trust too much in the magic we perform with silicon chips and keyboards, with scalpels and prescription drugs. We pay out our hard-earned dollars to possess that magic. And if we place too much hope in it all, we may begin to lose our trust in God. Worse, we may begin to treat Jesus as just another kind of magic or technology for sale.

Yet if there was hope for Simon, there is hope for you and me. The Holy Spirit was freely poured out on those Samaritan believers. And our Lord will pour out His Spirit on us when we bow before Him in repentance and faith. That’s the only real magic. And it’s not for sale. It is the gift of God to every repentant and believing heart. May you and I trust again and always in His gracious gift.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Kate Schellnutt, “When Tithing Comes with a Money-Back Guarantee,” Christianity Today web site, June 28, 2016.