A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Acts 8:9-24 (MSG)
It’s my first sermon in January 2022 and I’ve called it ‘Old Habits’. I know what you’re thinking – it’s another New Year’s resolutions sermon. That would be ok, but it’s not that (ok, maybe a little, kinda, but not really). It’s really going to be a sermon about discipleship – which is the ultimate good habit!
But right there, right off the bat, there’s an interesting assumption built in. That assumption is that old habits are bad, and need to be changed. I’d like to challenge that assumption – because not all old habits are bad! Some old habits are the very stuff that makes you the wonderful person you are! Beautiful old habits like openness, kindness, thoughtfulness, care and compassion for your loved ones, your friends, and even for ‘others’. Deep and spiritual old habits like being part of a community of faith, worshipping together, praying together, loving one another. These positive old habits are what makes us us.
But then there are the other ones. Those old habits that we wish we could shake but we haven’t found the strength, or the will, or the timing’s been off, or life prevents us from shaking them. (Those are often the stuff of New Year’s resolutions!) But those old habits are the ones we know about – and too often beat ourselves up about. Can God help us with those? Can the Way of Jesus help us navigate our way out of those bad old habits? Of course! If we choose to allow the Spirit to do its thing. But of course that requires us doing something we are extremely reticent to do – to surrender, to unclench our grip on that thing, and to drop our guard, and open our hands and hearts and say, “Ok God – I lay it down. Help me not pick it back up again!”
All that stuff makes for great resolutions, and maybe even a great sermon – trust God, let God, and God will help you make your life better. Ok, but that’s a very modern-western-worldly self-help way to look at religion. I mean, it’s good in that it helps us try to be better versions of ourselves, but that’s not entirely what being a follower of Christ is about, and it’s not what today’s scripture passage is actually about.
The prescribed reading in the lectionary here is just Acts 8 verses 14-17. It’s a lovely little pericope that points to the theological difference between being baptized in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s a good reading, because it’s a challenge for us as a mainline church. We dutifully do the ‘baptism in the name of Jesus’ part – but we’ve always shied away from the Holy Spirit parts. It’s too unpredictable, and makes one susceptible to outbursts of energy, or joy, or enthusiasm for Jesus, or emotionality, or spiritual giddiness – and we just can’t have that in our staid-stoic-stiff-upper-lip-don’t-let-them-see-you-wobble churches! (Insert eye roll here!)
Those four verses underline that it’s not enough to just say the words, or do the rituals, or go through the motions. It’s suggesting that the fullness and awesomeness of God’s presence, and power, and love are found in an openness to and receiving of the Holy Spirit. So that’s a pretty on-point message for the mainline church. But I could preach that anytime (and I have, as you know). Ironically, the reading being so short kind of does what it warns us not to do – it makes a good point but misses out on a bigger and more personal point.
That’s a frequent critique I have about the common lectionary. It tends to favour broad theological ideas, and concepts aimed at ‘the church’ as a corporate body – as an ‘us’, while tending to downplay or neglect passages that zero-in more on personal spiritual transformation. ‘We’ language is good, but I always think it gives us an out – as in ‘we the church’ can do or be whatever, but ‘me the person’ doesn’t really have to, ‘cuz buddy over there is. As you well know, I tend to favour personal spiritual transformation stuff – so I’ve added in the rest of the story of Acts 8.
The fuller reading introduces us to a fascinating character named Simon (no, not that Simon who became Peter – another Simon). This Simon is something of a con-man.
But before we get into Simon let’s set the context.
The previous chapter, Acts 7, tells the story of the stoning of the apostle Stephen, an event which set off a furious round of persecution of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, which sent all but a few to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. However, as they scattered they would tell the story of Jesus and their own transformations wherever they were.
(As an aside, persecution tends to promote courageous action and determination. If you want a movement to dwindle you shouldn’t persecute it – you should let it get comfy and lazy and lose its focus. Hmm, you know, like the mainline church. But I digress!)
Back to the story. In a Samaritan town, the apostle Philip had begun preaching and teaching, and amazing things were happening. People were flocking to the Way of Jesus, including our new friend Simon. Now, before Philip arrived and did his Jesus thing, Simon was the big show. Here’s Acts 8:9-13
9-11 Previous to Philip’s arrival, a certain Simon had practiced magic in the city, posing as a famous man and dazzling all the Samaritans with his wizardry. He had them all, from little children to old men, eating out of his hand. They all thought he had supernatural powers, and called him “the Great Wizard.” He had been around a long time and everyone was more or less in awe of him.
12-13 But when Philip came to town announcing the news of God’s kingdom and proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, they forgot Simon and were baptized, becoming believers right and left!
Now – you’d think that Simon would become the bad guy and fight against Philip for stealing his thunder, but the story takes a wonderfully surprising twist! Verse 13 –
Even Simon himself believed and was baptized. From that moment he was like Philip’s shadow, so fascinated with all the God-signs and miracles that he wouldn’t leave Philip’s side.
Simon was transformed from deceiver to believer! Everything in this story says that his transformation was real, and true, sincere. Then trouble comes – but it doesn’t look like trouble. Apostles Paul and John are sent to support Philip’s awesome work and when they arrive they lay hands on people and people receive the power of the Holy Spirit – and it deepens and energizes these new followers in remarkable and profound ways. That’s the end of the lectionary reading. But wait, there’s more!
Acts 8:18-19 – When Simon saw that the apostles by merely laying on hands conferred the Spirit, he pulled out his money, excited, and said, “Sell me your secret! Show me how you did that! How much do you want? Name your price!”
[facepalm] Oh, Simon!
Verses 20-23 – Peter said, “To hell with your money! And you along with it. (Ouch!) Why, that’s unthinkable—trying to buy God’s gift! You’ll never be part of what God is doing by striking bargains and offering bribes. Change your ways—and now! Ask the Master to forgive you for trying to use God to make money. (Funny how some literalist TV preachers seem to miss that verse!)
And then Peter finishes: I can see this is an old habit with you; you reek with money-lust.”
And then we get Simon’s reply – a reply that shows that he really does get it, even though he royally screwed up. Acts 8:24 – “Oh!” said Simon, “pray for me! Pray to the Master that nothing like that will ever happen to me!”
Simon receives the good news and baptism with enthusiasm, and sincerely wants to do better. He was doing everything right, and had left his old ways, his old habits, behind.
But then, when he least expects it, his ‘old habits’ burst through and undo him. He probably didn’t even realize it was happening until it happened. And, rightly, he needed to be held accountable. BUT, here’s the wonderful lesson of faith. He has a terrible relapse into his old habits – but he doesn’t just quit! He yields, surrenders, prays, and tries again.
I don’t know why this isn’t one of the most famous scripture passages in the whole bible! It’s wonderful! It’s the epitome of a faith-infused life. Getting religion, finding Jesus, tuning-in, becoming spiritual, getting saved, call it whatever you like, that life-changing turn from the path you were on to the path of Jesus, is wonderful beyond words – but it is NOT an automatic my-life-is-now-perfect card. And being called out for a misstep once you’re on the path is NOT a reason to give up and walk away. Accountability is good.
Our old habits have a tendency to pop up and embarrass the hell out of us from time to time. We think we’re beyond it – and then it rears its ugly head. The truth is, we’re never actually transformed – we’re always transforming! We’re never finished – we are ever-deepening. God’s not done with us yet! Thank God. Old habits are real. And the hard ones are the ones we aren’t even aware we have.
I hate to break it to you, but you’re human! Royal screw ups are bound to happen. The line of perfect people is infinitesimally short – and I’m confident in saying that none of us are in it! So what can we do? We can be like Simon. That’s the most important thing about this whole story – Simon is just like you and me! I am Simon! You are Simon! And what did Simon do when he messed up, when his old habits knee-capped him? He prayed. He acknowledged his mistake, he prayed for forgiveness, and he prayed that he would never do that again. He replaced his old habit with a wonderful new habit – prayer.
I don’t know what undesirable old habits may be lurking in your life (or mine, for that matter). I only know that the good ones I will continue to cherish and nurture – the bad ones that I’m aware of I’ll keep working on, with the Spirit’s help – and the ones that leap out and make me fall flat on my face ‘cuz I didn’t see them coming? Well, for those I’ll acknowledge my mistake, pray for forgiveness, and pray that I’ll do and be better. Thankfully, for many of us on The Way, prayer is already an old habit. Even more thankfully, it’s a hard habit to break.
If you’ve made resolutions this New Year’s, I wish you well. I hope they meet the needs that created them. And if you’re looking for help with some old habits that you’d rather not have, or don’t know you have, then I hope you’ll ponder the story of Simon, who learned the best habit of all – prayer.