Saturday, June 9, 2012

Acts, Chapter 8: Aren't sorcerers just other people's messiahs?

Saul is thoroughly approving of Stephen's death, though he doesn't participate himself because he's too busy watching everyone's clothes. This marks the beginning of a great persecution of Jesus' followers, who scatter throughout Israel. Only the disciples stay in Jerusalem.

The bible is extremely bad at sustaining a single thought, so the next verse is about how a group of men takes Stephen's body and buries it. Then we're immediately back on Saul, who starts going house to house arresting members of the new religion. Then we're told again that they've scattered around Israel. One of them, Philip, ends up in Samaria, where he preaches and, most importantly, drives out unclean spirits. His rival is a man named Simon, whom the bible calls a sorcerer, but whose followers no doubt called a prophet or a messiah, who has bewitched the people. In the end, Philip wins out, and the people start getting baptised, including Simon, who knows when he's been beaten.

When the apostles hear that Samaria has been won, they send Peter and John to pray to the holy ghost to enter into the people there. Apparently if you've been baptised, that's not enough, you also need the holy spirit, though no one seems clear as to what it actually does. Anyway, the apostles lay their hands on the new converts and the holy spirit enters them. Simon sees this and, being a wily charlatan, holds out some money and asks for the same power. Alas, he doesn't know what kind of cult he's dealing with yet, so Peter witheringly tells him that his money is no good because his heart isn't pure, and advises him to repent. Simon asks them to pray to god for his salvation, but we don't know if they did.

In the next scene, the disciples go back to Jerusalem to preach among the Samaritans, and Philip receives a message to go to Gaza. Once there, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is Queen Candace's treasury secretary. This eunuch has been praying in Jerusalem, and is sitting in his chariot reading about Isaiah, which speaks to either the quality of the roads or the quality of the shock absorption technology of the time, but either way it's pretty impressive. The holy spirit tells Philip to go over and join the eunuch in his chariot. So, in the manner of annoyingly friendly seatmates on long journeys everywhere, Philip trots along next to the chariot and asks the eunuch about what he's reading. Now, in this situation I usually look around for a free seat or just tell the person I'm working so please leave me alone, but the eunuch says he doesn't understand the text, and invites Philip to climb into the chariot and explain it to him. Which also keeps happening to me with this blog, actually. The same Protestants who insist that everyone should read the bible for him or herself want to tell me how to read it. As Philip does here, explaining everything from Isaiah to Jesus on what must have felt like the longest road trip ever.

To break up the journey, the eunuch notices a pond and asks Philip if he can baptise him right then and there. Philip agrees. Oddly, once they've finished, the holy ghost snatches Philip away and the eunuch never sees him again, though he went on his way rejoicing (v. 39) which I like to think is at least partly because no one is interrupting his reading, but is unlikely, since he's the idiot who invited Philip into his chariot in the first place.

Philip, meanwhile, has appeared in a place called Azotus, and goes on preaching in all the cities.

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