While we’re in the neighborhood
The two and three year cycles also give congregations the opportunity to journey systematically through the entire Bible.
That is not to say that the Lectionary covers every verse of every book of the Bible. Few congregations may get tremendous spiritual uplift from hearing day after day all the details of how to sacrifice goats and other animals, for example. Also, an effort is usually made to start and end a selection of verses so that the selection is able to stand as a unit on its own literarily and thematically. Moreover, on Sundays, the cycle of Gospel readings is the focus and the first reading is usually chosen to link to the Gospel (the second reading generally follows its own cycle).
All of this is very good, of course, but it does mean sometimes that the selected readings skip over or stop short of Scripture verses with special significance.
Thus it is also today: for both the first reading and the second.
So, while today's readings have brought us into the neighborhood of these verses, it might be good to take a quick look.
Today’s first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) links to the mention of the gift of the Spirit in the Gospel, telling of the Apostles travelling to impose hands on those already baptized so that they may receive the Holy Spirit (one might say that this is the first recorded instance of Confirmation as a standalone celebration).
But there is another thread to the narrative in this passage, which today’s selection omits (so as to keep the focus on the special giving of the Spirit to those already baptized): the complex story of a man who will forever be identified with the sin of simony – trying to purchase that which is holy with money.
Here is the full passage (vv. 5-24):
Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city.
But there was a certain man, called Simon,
which beforetime in the same city used sorcery,
and bewitched the people of Samaria,
giving out that himself was some great one:
To whom they all gave heed,
from the least to the greatest, saying,
This man is the great power of God.
And to him they had regard,
because that of long time
he had bewitched them with sorceries.
But when they believed Philip
preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God,
and the name of Jesus Christ,
they were baptized, both men and women.
Then Simon himself believed also:
and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip,
beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
And when Simon saw
that through laying on of the apostles' hands
the Holy Ghost was given,
he offered them money,
Saying, Give me also this power,
that on whomsoever I lay hands,
he may receive the Holy Ghost.
But Peter said unto him,
Thy money perish with thee,
because thou hast thought that the gift of God
may be purchased with money.
Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter:
for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.
Repent therefore of this thy wickedness,
and pray God,
if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.
For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness,
and in the bond of iniquity.
Then answered Simon, and said,
Pray ye to the Lord for me,
that none of these things which ye have spoken
come upon me.
Simony is a perennial temptation in all human cultures. In a sense, it is a form of bribery (trying to buy an advantage that is not to be bought) but compounded with sacrilege.
For the Christian, simony is even more stupid, because we know that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace – it cannot be earned, let alone bought.
In the complexities of the human heart, of course, the matter is usually not as obvious as in the case of Simon. Money is needed by churches for many good works – to help those in need, to build up communities of faith, and to give glory to God - and there are people with money who are generous in helping to provide the resources needed.
Oftentimes, we are not generous enough, but we should always give out of love for God and desire for what is truly good: not for prominence and honor, and never ever thinking we can “buy” our way into heaven.
Today’s second reading (1 Peter 3:15-18) was the focus of my reflection earlier today. It encourages us to be ready to explain our reason for hope and links our suffering for righteousness to the sufferings of Christ who rose from the dead.
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
For Christ also suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.
But the very next verse after this selection is unique, mysterious, and important.
In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison...
This short verse is generally linked to what is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed: He descended into Hell.
Traditionally in English this is referred to as the "Harrowing of Hell", which sounds much worse than it is, for it is the belief that when Christ died, he preached to the souls of the virtuous dead – not just from the time of Noah (which St. Peter focuses on to make a baptismal analogy) but even Adam and Eve themselves – and then liberated them from Hell by the power of his Resurrection.
We see this represented particularly in popular icons of the Resurrection in Eastern Churches such the one given earlier or the one below.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just an isolated event about one man – it is the power of God directed at bringing all of Christ’s faithful from death to life.
Christ is risen.
Indeed he is risen.
And by his grace, so shall all of his faithful people be.