Buying our Way Inside
Sometimes, “*I believe*,” and “*Lord, I want to be a Christian*,” are not enough. Simple faith runs the risk of being simplistic. A gentle spirit runs the risk of being manipulated. There are times when the Christian life must be undergirded by bedrock convictions – convictions which have been thought out and carefully examined.
In his blog published on July 12, 2007, Andrew C. Thompson, said: The United Methodist Church’s “Open Hearts" slogan is marketing, not theology. He went on to say:
**I have heard church members make comments to the effect that the United Methodist Church is a church where "you can believe anything you want" and where "no one is going to tell you what to believe." The people who say such things intend them as compliments. To them, the "Open Hearts" slogan serves as confirmation of an "anything goes" policy of discipleship.
And consider the permissiveness and consumerism rampant in wider American society. A stranger to the church might hear the "Open Hearts" slogan and conclude that the church that broadcasts such a message isn't too different from the world around it. Or else, he might be attracted to just such a church because he figures that not much is going to be expected of him!
We should get something straight. The "Open Hearts" slogan is not a theological statement about the beliefs of the United Methodist church. It is advertising.
A United Methodist church, like every church, is a community called into existence by Jesus Christ. It has a mission to nurture Christian disciples and faithfully proclaim the gospel. "Open" accurately describes its invitation, but it does not begin to describe the way of life called for by Jesus** (1).
America is a *shop for whatever you want* society. My guess is that all denominations (not just the United Methodists) have to contend with people who want the faith – not just their burgers – their way.
[TEXT] The early church certainly had to contend with people who wanted Christ on their own terms. In the passage we read from Acts 8, the Church has just received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The church in Jerusalem has been growing by leaps and bounds. It has grown so explosively that it has attracted the attention of a certain Saul of Tarsus. It is Saul who got the authority to arrest and execute Stephen. Saul and the persecution he brought are so effective that the Christians leave Jerusalem in droves. Hoping that the persecution against the Christians is local, they leave the area hoping to find a better welcome among strangers.
Now, Philip is one of those who left Jerusalem for safety. He heads for Samaria, not so far away from Jerusalem. There, he is not silent or timid, but begins to preach the Gospel of Jesus. It turns out that a certain magician named Simon, who lives in Samaria, hears Philip preaching and comes to faith in Christ. He is so taken with Philip’s preaching that he begins to follow him around as a kind of disciple.
It was all going very well until the Jerusalem church heard that the Samaritans were coming to faith in Christ. To support Philip’s work, the Christians in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria. There these two apostles learned that they had not received the Holy Spirit, so they laid hands on the believers. They received the Holy Spirit immediately. Simon, the former magician, sees all of this and wants it for himself. He goes to Peter and John; he offers them money and says: "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."
Question: Is Simon, this magician, a bad guy or just stumbling over a misunderstanding?
Now think about this scene:
1. Simon heard Philip’s preaching of Jesus and responded with faith. This is good.
2. Simon has begun to follow Philip as his disciple so that he can learn more and to be close to this great Christian. This too is good.
3. Presumably, he has seen other Samaritan Christians receive the Holy Spirit and perhaps he received the Holy Spirit himself along with the others.
All of this is good. Where this story goes astray is at the point where he offers Peter and John some silver in exchange for the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on others.
[TASK] This morning, let’s think through this moment in the life of the early Church, I hope this will increase our ability to think deeply about our Christian faith. And, thinking about the faith, we too can challenge the places where we are tempted to accept just anything and call it *Christian enough*. We too can challenge the places where we are so open minded that we have nothing to believe.
III. Simon sees a power at work for good in the Holy Spirit and wants to purchase some of it to use himself. But, the apostles reject his offer; the Spirit is not for sale. What Peter and John understand is that the Spirit is a divine gift. It is not a tool which we own and use whenever we like. It is not some power at the beck and call of wizards like Simon (or even Harry Potter). This is where his thinking went astray: the power of God is not ours to hold and own and use as we see fit. The power of God is always in God’s hands. We only “use it” as we open ourselves to serve God and allow this Holy Spirit to work through us.
The power to heal and changes lives, as noble and impressive as that work may be, is subordinate to the greater task of pointing others to the Spirit. Thus, the attempt to buy God's gracious gift is a serious misunderstanding. You see, Simon failed to see who was acting whenever the Holy Spirit moved around them. It is God who moves and acts; we are those who open ourselves to God’s movement. We can never command the Spirit any more than we can command the Almighty.
There are so many places where we too are tempted to misuse and misrepresent the power of the Holy Spirit.
1. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we try to command the Spirit to do magic tricks: like fixing things, or getting “A’s” on our report cards.
2. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we try to use the Holy Spirit to punish our enemies. Remember when Maude used to threaten her ex-husband by saying, “God is going to get you for that, Walter!”
3. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When we baptize our plans and our stands as the only ones which God can bless. For example: We assume that our politics are blessed; but theirs are condemned to disaster.
4. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit when we assume that if God is on our side, then God cannot possibly be on the side of our enemies or even grieve when our enemies suffer. We assume that the only people God can love are people who look just like us.
5. We misrepresent the power of the Spirit: When our stand on the hot cultural topic of the day comes from our selected use of scripture; we assume that no other reading can possibly be on-target. Of course, we have already discounted our opponents' reading of the Bible.
Think it through: we must come to a faith that stands in awe of the God who is great enough to create the Universe without assuming that our poor understanding of this *Great God* is the whole story.
So, Peter challenged Simon. He did not lower the church's standards just to get Simon into the church or to get his money. Instead, he challenged and taught Simon carefully. He is not trying to drive Simon away; he is trying to teach him and to bring him back again stronger than he was before.
**Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.
Peter corrects, but then he points the way to a new direction for Simon. He invites him to change, to repent.
Then, Simon responds:
"**Pray for me to the Lord,
that nothing of what you have said may happen to me**."
Oh, that we might do as well as Peter did when he thought carefully, then spoke lovingly to the young magician, Simon. Somehow we as Christians must learn to do two things at the same time (God's version of multi-tasking):
+Step forward to say, "Here I stand" and at the same time put the "Welcome Mat" out.
+Test our convictions against the scripture and the leading of the Spirit AND at the same time keep the door open.
+Speak clearly what it is we believe AND at the same time speak tenderly to the weary and brokenhearted.
+Cling to all that we have come to understand of the will of God AND at the same time be open to the possibility that God may yet have something new to teach us.
Let us put ourselves in the place of Peter and John. They upheld the standard against which the faith of the new Christians in Samaria was measured. They knew that Christian faith cannot be any old thing a new convert wants it to be. They knew that sometimes even long-time Christians have some unhealthy ideas about faith. Like Peter and John, we must learn to hold to the rich, vibrant Christian faith *AND* at the same time be loving and welcoming to anyone who seems to be going astray. We must learn to speak with clarity and at the same time speak with tenderness. We must also speak, knowing that we too might have something to learn about faith and faithfulness. What they taught this young magician was that the Holy Spirit cannot be bought; it is a gift – a gift of God.
1. Thompson, Andrew C. Blog at www.genxrising.com, "Open Hearts" slogan is marketing, not theology, Jul 12, 2007.
2. “Betty Butterfield visits the Methodists” at YouTube.com