Monday, 25 June 2018

The Holy Spirit—No Purchase Necessary: A Sermon on Acts 8:1b-25

Here’s a sermon I preached yesterday. To be honest, I’m not too happy with it (perfectionism does that to you, I suppose). It doesn’t seem to do that much or to make any particular point. But I preached it anyway. Usually, when I read through the first draft of a sermon, I have a very clear sense if I need substantially to re-write anything or to abandon it altogether and start again. With this one, I didn’t. So, for better or for worse, this is what I inflicted (twice) on my local church yesterday.

John 14:15-21; Acts 8:1b-25

The Holy Spirit! Everyone has an opinion about the Holy Spirit: about who he is and what he does; about where he is and where he isn’t; about who’s got him and who hasn’t. We pray for and look for and hope for the Holy Spirit to fill us anew, to animate us day by day, to empower us for the Christian life we cannot live by ourselves. We look for signs of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and in the wider world around us, examining ourselves for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit ripening in our lives, and for clues as to when the next big move of the Spirit is about to start. And all these things are good for us to pray for and to look for and to hope for . . . and yet . . .

The Holy Spirit is sovereign. The Holy Spirit is not at our disposal. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life.

Simon, the man from Samaria at the centre of today’s reading from Acts, did not know this. Simon practised magic. Acts doesn’t say much about him, but it seems he was claiming to be divine and then ‘proving’ it by freaking the people out with his magic.

But one day, Philip arrived from Jerusalem and began to upstage Simon. Whatever Simon could do, Philip could do better! We don’t know what magic Simon performed to astonish the crowds, but Philip was casting out unclean spirits and healing the paralysed and the lame. And all the time, Philip was talking about Jesus the Messiah—not about himself, as Simon had been doing, but about Jesus. It was in the name of Jesus that Philip performed his ‘magic’, and it was in the name of this same Jesus that the people believed and were baptised—including Simon himself. This Great One, the power of God, who had so impressed the people; this Great One, Simon, now recognised that there was a man of power even greater than he: Jesus Christ.

Eventually the news of these mass conversions in Samaria filtered up to Jerusalem. This was likely to have been surprising to the apostles there: the people of Samaria had bad ancestry, dodgy religious convictions, and even a slightly different version of the Law of Moses. But now the apostles had heard that the people ‘had accepted the word of God’—their word of God!—and they needed to check out what was going on. Was Jesus’s promise now beginning to be fulfilled, his promise that they would be his witnesses not only ‘in Jerusalem’, but also ‘in all Judea and Samaria’? They had to find out.

It turns out, as we already know, that the reports were true: the people of Samaria had accepted the word of God and had been baptised into the name of Jesus. But for some unspecified reason, the people had not received the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Jesus had promised to his followers. Seeing that the faith of the people of Samaria was genuine, Peter and John began to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. And they did.

This is where things get interesting, because Simon evidently sees signs of the Spirit’s presence among the people, and maybe even experienced something himself—something like speaking in tongues, perhaps—and is immediately drawn to the spectacular nature of it all. Does he hear people speaking in languages both known and unknown? Does he see people falling to the floor in ecstatic, Spirit-induced trances? Does he notice people praising God for dealing miraculously with previously unhealed afflictions and ailments? Quite possibly. But with all these strange and otherworldly phenomena going on, Simon’s old desires are awakened . . .

Hey, Peter . . . can I pay in instalments?
Philip could work wonders, which is impressive enough for Simon. But Peter and John—well, Peter and John appear to have control over this power, this so-named Holy Spirit, and Simon wants in on the action. He wants not just the power of the Spirit, or the experience of the Spirit, but the authority to give the Spirit to whomever he pleases—and he’s willing to pay big money to make it happen.

But the Spirit is not Peter’s to give, the Spirit is not John’s to give, and the Spirit certainly is not Simon’s to buy or to give. The Spirit cannot be bought, the Spirit cannot be traded, the Spirit cannot be commodified. The Spirit is not a power we can just switch on or off as occasion demands. The Spirit is the Father’s gift to anyone who follows Jesus and desires to keep his commandments out of love. Thus the Spirit is the Father’s gift to us: the Father’s gift to me, and the Father’s gift to you. The Spirit is already and always at work in us, making us more and more like Jesus as each day goes by. And as we see from today’s Gospel reading, the Father gives the Spirit at the request of Jesus his Son. Jesus knows we need the Spirit for life. But we cannot buy the Spirit. Nor can we earn the Spirit. The Spirit is the Father’s gift—no purchase necessary.

And why is the Spirit given to us? Not to help us get through the day like a shot of caffeine or a can of Red Bull. Nor is the Spirit given to make our faith more exciting or to give us some kind of spiritual high. No, the Spirit is given so that we may know for sure that the risen Jesus is with us all the time, no matter the situation, no matter our mood. The Spirit is given to stand alongside us, to work within us, to transform us inside and out so that more and more we resemble Jesus. The Spirit is given to enable us to live out our baptism promises in faithful obedience, to witness to our Lord whose resurrection is the promise and guarantee of the age to come. The Spirit is given to each of us to make us part of the one body of Christ and to draw us to the Father through Christ when we pray. This is why the Spirit is given, and this is why we are who we are in Christ.

All this, I hope, encourages you. But what I’ve said about the Spirit today also means we need constantly to reassess our desires as far as the Spirit is concerned. It is good to pray for and look for and hope for the Spirit to move powerfully among us—but why do we want this? Why do we want to see the Spirit move in our lives or in our nation? Is it because we genuinely desire God’s kingdom to come? Or do we simply crave some excitement and adventure in our Christian lives? It’s all too easy to be drawn to the spectacular as Simon was, to be seduced by power and authority—even the power and authority of God himself. But while the God we worship certainly can do, and has done and will do, spectacular and powerful things, this isn’t really his stock-in-trade. Instead, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ tends to achieve extraordinary things through ordinary, everyday things: things like bread and wine and water; things like the death of a thirtysomething Jewish carpenter; things like Philip moving forty miles or so down the road from Jerusalem to Samaria; things like our own lives, which, for all their ordinariness, are used nonetheless by the Holy Spirit to give the world glimpses of the age to come promised in Christ.

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