Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Not For Sale"

Text: Acts 8:9-24

Psalm 115:1-8

             I respond to that distinctly-male gene which compels us guys to flip from one channel to the next, to the next, to the next, to the next…… By now, my wife is disgusted and has left the room. I land on a station that catches my attention. It’s a rock concert.

No. Looks like a rock concert. But the tunes are old-timey Christian with a new beat. The camera person pans over the audience of what looks like tens of thousands, moving in for close-ups of people with their hands raised and tears in their eyes. Words appear on the screen about upcoming praise and healing services: El Paso Convention Center on June 29, Baton Rouge Assembly of God on July 13, Sarasota Sports Arena on July 27, Special Healing Tour of Israel from August 18 to 24. I’ve got to stay with this.

            When the singing is over, the auditorium lights go down and the central spotlight focuses on a well-dressed, perfectly-coifed preacher. He first informs the audience that what they are about to see will be truly amazing. They will witness, in his words, “the unleashing of the power of the Holy Spirit.” Somehow, without the use of any particular Biblical passage, the preacher preaches fortwenty minutes or so, the substance of which could have probably been covered in two minutes or less. Nevertheless, I’m locked in.

            Then comes the part of the service for which it looks like everyone has been on the edge of their seats. “Keep your eyes open, ‘cause God is gonna to do a miracle!” A woman is escorted up a ramp and onto the stage escorted by two distinguished-looking gentlemen in double-breasted, silky-looking suits. “Pastor, this woman has been confined to a wheelchair for eleven years due to a muscle disorder.” The preacher instructs her escorts to lift the woman from the chair, then let go of her arms. “Come on darling, walk for me.” The woman takes a few shuffling steps across the stage, then back. Meanwhile, there is a soft drum roll in the background and gasps from the enthralled audience. “How do your legs feel?” the preacher asks. The woman looks surprisingly calm for having just walked for the first time in over a decade. “Pastor, I can feel my legs.” “Did you notice a tingling, a warm sensation starting at your toes and going up your legs.” “Yes, yes! That’s exactly what I felt.” “Okay darling, I want to run across the stage and back.” The preacher holds her hand, and they jog back and forth together. The congregation is half in a frenzy. Finally after this little demonstration, the preacher gives the woman a slap on the forehead and commands: “Be healed in the mighty name of Jesus!” She swoons into the waiting arms of her two escorts who gently lay her on the floor where she remains motionless. My mind is boggled as I hear my wife yell from the other room: “What on earth are you watching?”

            The service continues with perhaps a dozen more of these miraculous healings – from little children with speech impediments, to middle-aged folks with advanced cancers, to elderly people with congestive heart failure. They are all cured on the spot, confirmed by head shots, fainting, and applause. The preacher uses all the right language in interpreting what has just been witnessed: “anointing of the Holy Spirit,” “the healing power of God,” “mighty acts in the precious name of Jesus.” I can’t argue. The words are right and true.

            Finally, the program closes with the preacher sitting in his study (I guess), talking to me one on-one: “You’ve just seen for yourself the healing power available to all of us through the Holy Spirit. If you would like to unleash this power in your own life, we’re happy to offer you our free love gift this month. I’ve written a book which I know is gonna bless you. I’ll send you this free gift for a love offering of only twenty dollars. For fifty dollars, I’ll also send you the companion CD. Send your gift today. And God bless ya.” The closing credits scroll over a few miracle highlights.

            I was amazed. And I can only imagine that there are tens of thousands – maybe more – who are also amazed; not so much by the Holy Spirit, but by the power this preacher seems to hold over the Holy Spirit. They may refrain the words of those in the nation of Samaria who said of a certain Simon the magician: “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” Over the long ages of the Christian faith, tens of thousands – I’m sure many more – have been deceived into believing that the power of God is merely the practicing of magic by men; that the power of God’s Holy Spirit acts at the behest and upon the will of human agency; that Jesus is some sort of domestic genie who can be conjured up to do mighty and miraculous works, served to order. And increasingly, people in these recent generations of mass and televangelism have come to believe that the power of the Holy Spirit – this “magic” – can be bought for the right price. There are many in my line of work who perpetuate this deception. And what’s frightening is that there are many in my line of work who themselves believe the deception.

            “Simon” who we meet in the 8th chapter of Acts was one who bought into the mistaken belief that the power of God’s Spirit was a commodity – a good or service – which could be purchased then conjured up on demand, like movies from our home cable service. Simon witnessed the legitimate power of God working through two faithful disciples, Peter and John. We notice that these apostles of Christ didn’t demand or command the Holy Spirit’s presence. Rather, they prayed, earnestly and humbly, that the Spirit “might” come upon the people who had been baptized with water. When Simon saw God’s response to their prayers, he assumed this power was a dispensable commodity, like whatever magic he had long practiced. So he offered money to John and Peter in hopes of getting a piece of the action: “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”    

            I suspect the answer Simon got was not the answer he was looking for. Peter made it clear to Simon that he was barking up the wrong tree. Peter squarely responds: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!” Then might we say “the heart of the matter:” “You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.” Between the lines of recorded Scripture, Peter is teaching Simon that the Holy Spirit was not available on Simon’s (or anyone’s) terms. The Holy Spirit is given by God on God’s terms. And it is only to a heart right with God that God grants the gift of Holy Spirit. The granting and the working of the Holy Spirit are under God’s control, and none other.

            I must confess that as I hit the button on my remote to flip on to HSN, and an advertisement on those fifty foot garden hoses which shrink down to the size of a fist, I felt resentment toward the many televangelists and holy spiritualists who deceive people both inside and outside the church. Within the church, many Christians of simple and trusting faith – the kind of faith Jesus encouraged – have been misled into believing that the Holy Spirit is a special gift given only to a special few who have a corner on the spiritual market, supposedly possessing some special magic to unleash God’s power – when, how, and for whatever price they please.

            Yes, the Holy Spirit is a special gift – a very special gift. But given to those whose hearts are open and humble; to those who recognize that the Holy Spirit is God’s Holy Spirit, not human magic; to those who understand that the Holy Spirit is a free gift from God to those whom God chooses. Holy Spirit is not for sale.

            Outside the church, many more see the Holy Spirit as a sham and scam perpetrated by money-chasing men and women who bear the name of Christian. The culture at large is then quick to deride and discount all Christians who legitimately use Holy Spirit language and experiences in describing their own faith journeys. And many outside the church will not step inside the church because they stereotype Christians as magic-performing artists of deception who are after their money in the name of Jesus. In all fairness, if one’s only exposure to Christianity is from TV, or churches which perpetuate such a Holy Spirit hoax, that’s probably just what it looks like.

 

In closing, as we use Holy Spirit language and describe Holy Spirit experience in this church, let’s keep these truths in mind:

·         The Holy Spirit is God’s power, not human magic.

·         The Holy Spirit is God’s self-manifestation, not a human commodity.

·         The Holy Spirit and the works of the Spirit are not bought at any price, but are given as free gifts of God’s grace.

·         We don’t unleash the power of the Holy Spirit on demand. Rather, in response to faithful and humble prayer, from a “heart” which is “right before God,” God grants power of the Spirit as God, and God alone, sees fit.

 

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, it is easy to be misled. As we consider spiritual matters which are well beyond our ability to fully grasp, we ask – earnestly and humbly – that through Your Holy Spirit, You would lead us in truth and understanding. May we first and foremost acknowledge that the work of the Holy Spirit is Your work, not ours. Then may we turn our hearts toward You, seeking in simple faith that which You would reveal and work in and through us, Your servant people, and disciples of the One in whose name we pray, even Christ Jesus. Amen.