Religious Magic

One of greatest forms of entertainment today is provided by good magicians.  Anytime any magician performs anywhere I want to be a part of the audience.  I love to see modern day illusionists reenact the escape artist routines made famous by Harry Houdinni.  I love to watch the sleight of hand skills of David Blane.  I still remember the night that David Cooperfield fooled his audience into believing that he had caused the Statue of Liberty to disappear into thin air.  Like most people, whenever I see one of these magicians at work, I always ask myself the same question: “How did he do that?”  This was the same question asked by a man name Simon (read Acts 8:1a-25) as he witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of the apostles.

The story begins with the early believers suffering under the persecution brought against them by Saul—the man whom the authorities had commissioned to destroy the church.  Saul was good at his job.  So terrible was the persecution that the church literally found itself struggling to stay alive against the onslaught.  Many were put to death—still others were forced into exile.  Indeed, literally thousands of early believers were forced to flee their homes or face execution. 

Despite this oppression, however, the church still experienced tremendous growth.  You see as the early believers were scattered across Palestine they preached the gospel wherever they went.  Saul intended to destroy the church—but in a sense his actions only served to advance the gospel.   Today’s story tells us how the Holy Spirit led Philip to proclaim the gospel in Samaria. 

In Samaria lived a man named Simon—a magician—a man who amazed the people of Samaria with his wizardry.  The crowds watched Simon performed his tricks and they asked: “How did he do that?”   For his part, Simon had an answer.  He boasted that he was someone special.  He claimed to possess divine power.  He even changed his name to “Simon the Great, Sorcerer Supreme.”  In wasn’t long before the people of Samaria began to believe this magician to be a god.

As Philip arrived on the scene, however, Simon’s career took a downturn.  Everyone stopped calling him great.  They stopped paying to see his work.  His tricks and illusions no longer attracted a crowd.  I find it encouraging to note that the people ceased to be amazed by magic after having the opportunity to see miracles.  For a time people might be seduced by magic, they may be fooled by illusion and the power of entertainment—but they still have the capacity to respond to the real thing when it comes along. 

Philip was the real thing. Philip didn’t call himself great; he said that God was great.  Philip didn’t work magic—rather he was a vehicle through which God worked miracles.  When Philip used his hands it was not to pull a rabbit out of his hat.  Instead he touched blind eyes so they could see; deaf ears so they could hear; broken bodies so they could walk.  Philip didn’t try to use of the power of the Holy Spirit to earn fame and fortune.  On the contrary, Philip surrendered himself to the Spirit’s leadership so that his life could become an expression of God’s grace.

Please note that the focus of Philip’s ministry wasn’t the working of miracles.  His focus was the proclamation of the gospel—and it was this proclamation that made the difference in Samaria.  In response to Philip’s preaching the text says that many Samaritans “believed the gospel” and were “baptized.”  Simon “believed” and was “baptized,” but it is clear that he was not responding to the message but the miracles.  After his baptism Simon continued to follow Philip—astonished by the signs and miracles.  He kept watching and asking, “How did he do that?”

Philip was soon joined by Peter and John—representatives of the mother church in Jerusalem.  The two Apostles’ commend Philip for his work.  Next they laid hands on the Samaritan converts, praying that they would receive the Holy Spirit.  Their prayer was answered.  The Samaritans received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Simon could no longer contain himself.  Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to discover the secret behind the apostle’s power.  It was time to try a different approach.  Thinking Peter to be a great sorcerer, Simon called him aside and asked, “Hey Peter, how much can I pay you for that Holy Spirit trick?” 

Peter’s response is rather fierce.  “You and your money can go to hell!”  That’s what he said.  “You and your money can go to hell because you thought you could buy the gracious gift of God with money.  You have no part in the ministry of this church.  Repent because I see that your heart is full of jealousy and wickedness.”

Frustrated by Peter’s response, Simon sarcastically says, “You pray for me, Peter.  Maybe then nothing will happen to me.” Then Simon departs from the pages of the scripture.

In the Books of Acts, Simon is a somewhat minor character.  Over the centuries, however, Simon has become rather important.  You see Simon’s personality continue to reappear in the church over and over again.  In fact, I got a mailing from Simon not too long ago.

This time Simon was going by the name “Rev. Ewing” and he was kind enough to send me a “Green Bible Prayer Clothe.”  Reverend Ewing said if I placed it under my pillow for two nights (and then return it to him with a monetary donation, of course) that God will give me the desires of my heart. Unsigned testimonials are included from people who claim to have received numerous blessings from the use of the prayer clothe.

Reverend Ewing is not talking about miracles, but magic.  He is talking about the manipulation of the power of God for personal gain—and that’s how Simon looked at the Holy Spirit.  He thought the Holy Spirit to be nothing more than some impersonal force at work in the universe that he could tap into by using the right formula, phrases, or magic words.  “What can I pay you for the magic word?”  Simon asks.  “What can I pay you to have control of the Holy Spirit?”

“Take you money and go to hell!”  That’s what Peter tells Simon!  The Holy Spirit is not magic—the Holy Spirit is God.  You cannot purchase, control or manipulate God.  God is sovereign!  God acts as God sees fit.  Miracles are God’s gracious and loving deeds on our behalf.  They cannot be earned, controlled, or manipulated.  The miracles of God can only be responded to through acts of thanksgiving and praise. 

There are lots of magicians on TV, the radio, and the internet, trying to sell us a bill of goods in the name of God.  Many of them confess to be Christians.  Others affirm other sorts of “spirituality.” 

A local bookstore is closing where I live.  The “metaphysical” section (witchcraft, new age spirituality, etc.) is located on the opposite shelf from the world religions section (Christianity, Hinduism, Muslim, Judaism, etc.).  It is sort of surreal to watch the jockeying for position from people struggling to get a good closeout buy on “religious magic.”  One fellow was reading a book titled:  “A Course in Miracles.”  The gal across from her had a book of “Tarot Cards.”   Others were near, trying to find just the right book to control the Divine, to put God in their debt. 

Listen, if I can say an incantation that puts a god in my debt – that’s not a god worth following.  If I can use the right phrase (praying “in Jesus name”) and bind god in such a way that my prayers MUST be answered, then this god is not worth my time.  If I can sleep with a “green bible prayer clothe” under my pillow, or send some cash to a televangelist, as a seed that will produce a harvest of blessings in my life – then we are not talking about Almighty God, we are talking about religious magic.

Let me be clear:  I believe in God.  I believe God loves me and in for me (and for you).  I believe God is LOVE, full of grace and compassion.  I believe that often that love might be expressed in ways that seem miraculous to my ways of thinking.  That said, all of this is NOT a result of ANYTHING I say, believe, confess, or do.  It’s all about the nature and character of Almighty God.

Anything else is “religious magic,” “sleight-of-hand,” or “an illusion.”

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