Hello!  My name is Colin Sedgwick, and for 40 years I have been a Baptist minister.  I have also done a fair bit of writing for various papers and periodicals, both Christian and secular.  My wife is a teacher and I have two large sons.  I hope you might find something interesting in my blog – I aim to provide regular Bible-based thoughts with a short prayer at the end. Perhaps you can use them to “top up” your own Bible-study and sermon-listening.

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The sad man on the bus

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 1 Thessalonians 5:14

“Be patient with me. I have dementia.”

So read the lapel-badge worn by the man getting off the bus. It rather stopped me in my tracks – not something I had seen before. I certainly wouldn’t have pushed past him as I got on, badge or no badge; but it ensured that I gave him a little extra time and space.

I thought, “How sad”, and felt a real pang of sympathy for both the man himself and the woman who seemed to have hold of his arm, presumably his wife.

A Bible-verse flashed into my mind: “Comfort the feeble-minded”. I’m not sure “feeble-minded” would be a politically correct expression today, so I would avoid using it; but I must admit that it struck me at the moment as quite fitting. But when I went looking for the verse I couldn’t find it.

But then in1Thessalonians 5:14 I found this… “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone”. Bible-translators have obviously decided that “encourage the disheartened” is a better translation than “comfort the feeble-minded”, and no doubt they are right.

Whatever, the point stands. That little trio of injunctions – “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” – are all to do with compassion, kindness and sensitivity. And it shows that Paul expected the early church to have members who needed such support.

I once heard somebody comment, perhaps a little mockingly, on the number of people in a particular church who might be described as having “special needs”, or being troubled with “mental health issues”. And somebody in the group immediately responded: “Any church that doesn’t have a good quota of such people doesn’t deserve to be called a church”.

That, surely, is right. If people in particular need of support, understanding and encouragement don’t find these things in the church, well, where will they find them? Aren’t they exactly the kind of people Jesus chose to spend much of his time with? We are told, for example, that he was criticised by the religious authorities for mixing with “tax-collectors and sinners” – real “low-lifes” – to which he memorably replied, in effect, “Don’t you understand that I’m a doctor? What sort of doctor mixes only with healthy people?” (Mark 2:13-17).

Our western society has been described as a throw-away society. Once a thing has become surplus to requirements we simply toss it in the rubbish-bin. I read recently about articles of clothing, some of them quite expensive, which people expect to wear just once or perhaps twice, at a pinch. And as for the plastic we throw away without thinking…

Sadly, the throw-away mentality can extend to people. We joke about someone having been “round the block a time or two”, or being “past their use-by date”, or ready to be “put out to grass”. We mean no harm; indeed, it might be meant quite affectionately, and the person on the receiving end laughs good-humouredly. But it speaks volumes.

And it isn’t only to do with age; it can be people of all ages. Some people have naturally robust, confident temperaments, and we instinctively defer to them. But others are naturally timid and lacking in self-confidence. Perhaps they were unloved as children (just imagine that!), or bullied and brow-beaten at school. Perhaps they have been scarred by a traumatic experience. Perhaps they have been crushed by a failure or disappointment.

We might say, “But surely faith in Christ changes things?” And yes, of course it does. But even a powerful conversion experience and a solid faith don’t automatically render us immune from some of the curses of our modern world: things like depression, anxiety, burn-out and low self-esteem.

I recently heard a challenging sermon when the speaker focussed on the gentleness of Jesus as predicted by the prophet Isaiah: “He will not quarrel or cry out; no-one will hear his voice in the streets…” And then these beautiful words: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:19-20, quoting Isaiah 42:2-3).

Yes! Jesus is in the business of mending the bruised reed, not snapping it and tossing it in the bin; of re-igniting the stuttering candle, not pressing his thumb on it.

A question to test ourselves with: Do we instinctively turn away from the “bruised reeds” we come across – the “non-entities” and “low-achievers” – and give our attention only to those who are outwardly impressive and attractive?

May God forgive us if we do! – for we are being disloyal to the spirit of the one we profess to call “Lord”.

(Oh, and let’s never forget: it may not be long before it’s me, or you, wearing the sad badge of that man getting off the bus…)

Lord Jesus, thank you that you never stood aloof from even the least impressive of people, but loved and cared for them. Please help me to be like you. Amen.

The man who startled Jesus

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly”… Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. Matthew 8:5-13

Last time we thought about the story of the centurion’s servant, and the puzzle of why Matthew and Luke tell the same story but with significant differences. My suggestion was that we should relax, accept that that’s just the way it is, and not waste time trying to harmonise the two accounts – presumably God is more concerned that we should learn from the basic facts of the story than that we should succeed in dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s of precisely what happened.

So – what are the basic facts of the story? What lessons can we draw?

It revolves around one of the most attractive figures we meet in the Gospels. You sometimes hear it said of someone, “I can’t speak too highly of him/her” – and those words would fit the centurion perfectly. Let me simply share how he challenges me.

For one thing, he is genuinely humble.

Though not himself a Jew, he is perfectly ready to appeal to this upstart Jewish teacher, Jesus. I don’t know what his superiors in the Roman army might have thought of that! – but it clearly doesn’t bother him. He knows his need, and is not too proud to reach out to the one person who can meet that need. Isn’t humility a beautiful thing?

So… How humble am I?

Second, he has the sensitivity to gently decline Jesus’ offer to come to his home: “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof…” Perhaps he was aware that for many Jews it would be very difficult to enter the home of a gentile, so he is keen to spare Jesus that difficulty (not, of course, that Jesus would have minded).

So… How sensitive am I to the feelings and convictions of others?

Third, he is kind and compassionate. Though the desperately sick man is merely a servant, a person of no account in the Roman world (a “living tool”), the centurion is prepared to go to all this trouble on his behalf. Luke’s account spells it out; he “valued his servant highly”. No hard taskmaster, this!

So… How kind and compassionate am I?

Fourth, his compassion isn’t just talk. Even the Jewish delegation which approaches Jesus on his behalf speaks of him in glowing terms: “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5).

This unknown soldier is not only friendly-disposed towards the Jews but has, it seems, actually financed the building of a synagogue! Of how many non-Jews could that be said, I wonder!

Talk is easy, isn’t it? Fine words are – well, just that, fine. But what matters is what we do (and, of course, that isn’t only about money). During a trip to Texas some years ago we picked up the scathing criticism of useless big-mouths who are “all hat and no cattle”. That criticism couldn’t be levelled at the centurion.

So… Do my actions match my words?

Fifth, and most striking of all, his faith is wonderfully strong and simple.

“Look, Jesus,” he says (in effect), “I’m a soldier. I know about authority structures. I know how to obey orders, and I know how to give them too. And when I give an order, I know it will be obeyed. A word is enough – if I say ‘Go’, that’s it, he goes. Well, your authority is infinitely greater than mine, and your word is infinitely more powerful. So… Say the word, and my servant will be healed…” (Luke 7:6-7).

Whereupon, Luke tells us, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd… he said, ‘I have not found such great faith even in Israel’” (Luke 7:9).

That word “was amazed” could equally well be translated “marvelled” or “wondered”. Often in the Gospels we read about Jesus causing people around him to marvel. But this is something else! For a moment, Jesus himself is startled, taken completely by surprise.

How feeble and shallow is my faith in comparison with that! Oh for a childlike simplicity of faith that stops even Jesus in his tracks!

So what happens? We are told with a minimum of fuss: “Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would’. And his servant was healed at that moment” (Matthew 8:13).

What can we say? All I can think of is this…

Thanks be to God for this lovely man, this anonymous centurion. And thanks be to God for Jesus, who met his need – and who will one day meet the needs of everyone who reaches out to him in simple, humble, childlike faith.

Lord God, grant me the kind of faith that makes even Jesus start with amazement. Amen.

Spot the difference…

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly”… Matthew 8:5-6

Jesus… entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was ill and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant… Luke 7:1-3

Do you notice anything in particular about the two quotations above, one from Matthew and one from Luke?

It’s clear that they are telling the same story, about a Roman soldier who is desperate to get Jesus to come and heal his servant. But for some reason there are significant differences in the details of the story. (You need really to read the whole accounts given in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10.)

In Matthew’s account the centurion approaches Jesus personally, and Jesus heals the servant without coming to the house. In Luke’s account the centurion approaches Jesus through a delegation of “some elders of the Jews” and the same thing happens: the servant is healed at a distance. But Jesus and the centurion never meet.

There are other passages in the Gospels where a similar thing happens – the story is basically the same, but some of the details are different, if not contradictory.

Two obvious questions arise…

First, why does this happen? And second, is it something that should trouble us, given our belief in the inspiration of the Bible?

(1) Why does this happen?

To answer this we need to put another question first: how in fact did the four Gospels come to be written in the first place?

This is something which most of us never stop to think about. And why should we? After all, we have the Gospels, and that’s what matters. If we give it any thought at all, we probably imagine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each sitting down, praying, and proceeding to record all the things God led them to set down in writing.

But it wasn’t quite like that! Luke himself tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that “many people have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us…” (Luke 1:1).

In other words, in those earliest days after the resurrection, various people wrote down accounts of incidents in the life of Jesus, and of his words. When the Gospel-writers set about composing their books, they presumably had access to some of these accounts and worked them into their Gospels (all, of course, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit).

It’s worth remembering that Luke wasn’t one of the twelve, so he will probably not have personally witnessed the events he records: he depended on those who were “eye-witnesses and servants of the word”, people who “handed down” the stories (Luke 1:2).

Is this what happened with the episode of the centurion’s servant? The basic story is much the same, but the differences are quite substantial. Was Matthew working from one document and Luke from another?

When historians today write their books they take great care to make sure that they have got everything just right. Anything that might seem like a contradiction or inconsistency will be pounced on mercilessly by their critics. And quite right too.

But of course it just wasn’t like that in the ancient world. Everything depended on eye-witness reports and personal memory – no recording devices, cameras, even short-hand. And as we know, two people giving eye-witness reports of the same incident – a car accident, for example, or a political event – will produce accounts which do not tally completely.

So, if this helps explain why this happens…

(2) Is this something that should trouble us?

Surely not. We should not expect the Bible to be something it never claims to be. It’s true that Luke, in those opening verses of his Gospel, insists that he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3); but the fact remains that the New Testament  belongs to a particular time, place and culture – so a polished, scrupulously researched, modern-style historical record was never a possibility.

It’s worth saying too, of course, that many of the seeming inconsistencies in the Bible can be resolved without too much difficulty. But where that is not the case, it’s a waste of time and energy to tie ourselves in knots trying to find some solution. (I read about a man who, desperate to harmonise the Gospel-accounts of Peter’s denial of Jesus, ended up concluding that the cock must have crowed six times.)

The message is simple… Let the Bible be – the Bible! Let it be what it is – a big, baggy, immensely varied collection of ancient documents which God has given as a gift to his church.

We are not to try and pin it down, like a butterfly in a glass case, or to strap it into a strait-jacket of our own devising.

No… Let it breathe! Let it sing! Let it fly! Let it teach and comfort, let it challenge and rebuke, let it puzzle and inspire. But let it not reduce us to fretting about things which have perplexed the church for two thousand years, and which it’s a waste of time to agonise over.

The Bible is what it is. Let’s get used to it – and be thankful!

(Perhaps next time we’ll come back to the centurion’s servant and see what really matters about the story…)

Father, thank you for your written word, the Bible. Help me day by day to take it seriously as I read and digest it. May it shape my thinking and inspire my living. And may it lead me, little by little, to become more like your living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Amen.

How to grow as a Christian

The next section [of the wall] was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors. Nehemiah 3:5

On the face of it, Nehemiah 3 is about as dull and irrelevant a Bible passage as you could wish not to find.

The people of Judah, back from captivity in Babylon, have at last got round to the job of rebuilding the ruined walls of Jerusalem. Spurred on by their governor, Nehemiah, they have come to see that this is an urgent task, and in this chapter we are given a lot of detail about who exactly built each section of the wall.

Dull? Perhaps. But in another way it’s quite a heart-warming chapter, because it gives us a picture of co-operation: groups of people with their sleeves rolled up working side by side.

Except, that is, for one jarring note… In verse 5 we read that a particular section of the wall was “repaired by the men of Tekoa”, only then to be told “but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work”. How sad is that!

What was wrong with these nobles of Tekoa? Were they just lazy? Or was this kind of manual work below their dignity? It’s hard to think of any other explanation. All we know is that they go down in history as petty-minded and, frankly, rather contemptible.

In church life, do you know people who are like the nobles of Tekoa? More to the point, are you – am I – one yourself? People who “don’t put their shoulders to the work”?

I think Nehemiah 3 in general, and verse 5 in particular, has two simple lessons we today need to get hold of.

First, all worthwhile church work involves whole-hearted co-operation.

Jesus gathered around him a group of followers – he didn’t walk the hillsides of Galilee alone. Paul’s letters show that he had a strong circle of friends and companions in his missionary work – no lone wolf, he. And if you want to know what the early churches were like, just riffle through Romans 16 (another “dull” chapter, basically just a string of names) and get a feel of the energy and commitment of those people. (Look out for the number of times we read about people “working hard”.)

Here’s a blindingly obvious fact that we tend to overlook: God has seen fit to gather his people into working communities. They are called “churches”, and within them we belong to one another and are answerable to one another.

A statement  which, I must confess, irritates me every time I hear it is: “I am a Christian, but I have no time for organised religion”. I want to shout, “Well, what sort of ‘religion’ do you want then? Disorganised religion? DIY religion? Personal religion that makes no demands?  Religion that means you don’t have to put your shoulder to the work? Pah!” (I don’t, of course.)

Jesus didn’t found the church for fun, or on a whim. He didn’t found it so that we could look at it and say “Thanks, Jesus, for founding the church, but I think I’ll not bother with it if you don’t mind”. He does mind. The church, where we worship and serve together, and where we love and care for one another, is vital to God’s plans and purposes.

Just as the people of Judah in Nehemiah’s day were required to get stuck in to the work God had for them, so today are we. Is this something we need to do some serious thinking about? Is it time to shoulder a bit of responsibility?

Second, the person who opts out of the work also opts out of the blessing.

Here’s the good news. It is in working together that we grow and mature as Christians, and through which we experience joy and fulfilment.

I picture those mean-spirited nobles of Tekoa looking down their noses at the men (and some women – see verse 12) toiling away near them. What, I assume, they didn’t see was the comradeship that must have existed among those people – the way they encouraged one another when somebody looked tired or helped them out when they needed something.

I don’t know if what we call “banter” had a place in Hebrew culture, but I do hope so. In my experience it certainly does when Christians are working together – and it is one of the delights of Christian fellowship.

Anyone who has co-operated with others – perhaps in a special prayer session or some door-to-door evangelism, perhaps in doing the washing up or setting out chairs, perhaps in running an event or teaching a class – will know what simple, innocent  joy it can yield. I hope that includes you.

In fact, on reflection I feel rather sorry for those mean-spirited “nobles of Tekoa”, don’t you?

The message, then? Thank God for the church – and get stuck whole-heartedly into its work and ministry. You won’t regret it.

Thank you, Father, for the joy and satisfaction of working together with my fellow-Christians. Please help me to be clear about exactly where you want me to “put my shoulder to the work”. Amen.

All the lonely people

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How can we sing the Lord’s songs while in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1-4

I used to know a young man who was Anglo-Indian: his father Indian, his mother English. He had lived long periods of his life in both countries. “But,” he said, “I’m never quite sure where I really belong. When I’m in India I feel an outsider, even though I was born there. And when I’m in England I sense that people view me as a foreigner.”

I find that hard to imagine. I have been extraordinarily fortunate – in seventy-plus years I have only ever lived permanently in four towns or cities, and that includes my student years. I have only ever had half-a-dozen homes; indeed, the word “home” is so obvious to me that I never really think about it. Thoroughly comfortable in my own skin, I know who I am and where I belong.

Homesickness? – yes, I have experienced that, but only during my first week as a student a mere fifty miles from home (no mobile phones in those days!), and briefly on a kibbutz in Galilee and on other short travels. So it takes a real effort of imagination to relate to someone like my Anglo-Indian friend.

Millions of people in our world are “displaced” as a result of war, injustice or sheer hopelessness at their present circumstances and future prospects. Many are genuine refugees, fleeing to the unknown for fear of the cruelties that might be done to them if they stay where they are. Often they end up in dreary camps, wretched hostels, grim holding centres.

Others, of course, have made a choice to move around the world in search of a better life, even though it may not be strictly necessary. But what right have we to judge them until we have walked in their shoes?

The people in Psalm 137 are displaced people.

It’s about 600 years before Jesus, and the powerful, cruel Babylonians – the bully-boys of the time – have taken over their beautiful and historic city of Jerusalem (or “Zion” as it was also known). They have been rounded up like cattle and dumped in camps “by the rivers of Babylon”, far, far from home.

They aren’t just homesick: despair would describe it better. Will they ever see their homeland again? Their captors make things worse by taunting them: “Come on, you like singing, don’t you? – give us one of your precious Zion songs!” But they just can’t do it – “There on the poplars we hung our harps.”

Living in Britain, I am conscious of living in one of the world’s most multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious countries. I have spent most of my life in London, which sucks in people from every part of the world. How privileged I am – and of course it’s absolutely no credit to me.

Even if your experience is very different from mine, here’s a question for all of us: do we ever stop to think what it must be like for people far from home when, say, they walk into one our churches?

Yes, many may be there by choice rather than by coercion. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t lonely and sad. Lonely people don’t tend to walk around with a placard round their neck declaring “I’m a stranger a long way from home – will you talk to me?” or “You can’t imagine how much it would mean to me if you were to invite me into your home for a meal or a coffee.”

No, of course not. They come with a smile. But who can guess what might be behind that smile? – what heartache, what sheer misery.

And it’s not only people from far-off places. No, somebody may have turned up who is from Barnsley or Barnstable or Biggleswade, come to your city for work or study. Hey, it could be somebody who lives just round the corner coming along for the first time. What is it like for them?

Another question: Do I instinctively turn my face away from unknown faces, quite regardless of colour (“Oh, someone else will talk to them, and I really am very shy…”), or do I make a point of seeking them out and extending to them the love of Jesus?

Remember the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you did not invite me in” (Matthew 25:43). Let’s be in no doubt: that handshake, that friendly word of greeting, yes possibly that invitation to our home, may be one of the best things we will ever do.

Father, give me eyes to see the loneliness of the stranger, and compassion to befriend them. Amen.

Simon the magician and the gospel of Jesus (2)

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God”… When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money…  Acts 8:9-18

Last time we thought about the revival that broke out in Samaria under the preaching of Philip the evangelist, and focussed on the strange figure of Simon the magician. I set out to suggest four thoughts, but ran out of space after two.

To recap…

The first thought was that, in spite of Simon’s sin and Peter’s shocked response, we needn’t doubt that Simon’s conversion was genuine. New converts still have a long way to go! And then, second, we noticed the warning this story gives us about the poison that money can be when it is wrongly used. Are our finances firmly under the lordship of Christ?

And now, thirdly, we can’t help noticing the blistering ferocity of Peter’s attack on Simon.

One commentary suggests that his words “May your money perish with you!” could be translated fairly literally as “To hell with you and your money!” He goes on to say, “I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin”.

This is no-holds-barred stuff. We might be tempted to feel that perhaps Peter is a little over-zealous, and that a gentler rebuke might have been more appropriate. Simon, after all, is floundering in a sea where he’s completely out of his depth.

But who are we to judge? – especially given that Peter’s words had an immediate effect: “Simon answered, ‘Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me’”. There are times to be pretty “in-yer-face”!

In various places the New Testament speaks about the need for “admonition” in the Christian life. In Colossians 3:16, for example: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another…”

It’s a rather old-fashioned word, which basically means encouraging someone, though perhaps with a hint of correction and rebuke: there are times when a word of admonition might be described as “a loving telling-off”.

But Peter’s treatment of Simon is far stronger than that. Why? Because the stakes were so much higher; Peter feared for Simon’s very soul, so blunt words were called for.

The point to get hold of is that there are times we need to confront our fellow-Christians frankly if we see them losing their way. We must do this humbly, of course, and very aware that we too are far from perfect; but it might be an action that changes somebody’s life for ever. I have a vivid memory of it being done to me by a lovely Christian friend. I didn’t enjoy it – in fact I quite resented it. But on reflection I realised that it was an act of love, and I benefitted from it.

It’s easy to take the “oh no, it’s none of my business” attitude and turn a blind eye. But that can simply be an excuse for cowardice and a failure of true friendship. Like it or not, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

Is there someone in your life who badly needs a word of admonition from you?

Fourth, we mustn’t miss what seems to be a genuine expression of regret from Simon in verse 24: “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” Simon has heard Peter’s word about forgiveness: “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you…” (verse 22).

It’s as if Peter is throwing Simon a lifeline – and Simon is eagerly grabbing hold of it.

And so we are reminded that God loves to forgive those who are truly sorry.

Is that a message you need? Perhaps you are living with a painfully guilty conscience over something you have done – and rightly so. But never doubt that God loves you, and that there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:1-10). Why not bring joy to God’s heart today?

So… Simon the magician disappears from the pages of the Bible. And, as I said last time, we are left dangling, wondering what became of him.

Once you start down this track, all sorts of other unfinished stories from the Bible spring to mind, and we could speculate endlessly.

What about the woman to whom Jesus spoke at the well in Sychar (John 4)? Did she and her fellow-townspeople become full followers of Jesus? Or the rich young ruler who “went away sad” because he couldn’t obey Jesus’ command (Mark 10:17-25)? Did he later have a change of heart? Or the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2-11)? Did she indeed “go… and leave her life of sin”? What became of Zacchaeus (Luke 19)?

God hasn’t seen fit to tell us – but there is a good reason for that.

For what really matters, of course, is not “What happened to these people?” but “What will happen to me? How will my story end?”

Mmm. Challenging questions!

Lord God, thank you that your word gives us many accounts of people who were confronted by the gospel. As I reflect on them, help me not to get lost in pointless speculation, but to apply to myself  the challenges they present. Amen.

Simon the magician and the gospel of Jesus (1)

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God”… When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money…  Acts 8:9-18

If you read novels you will know the frustration you feel when the book ends but doesn’t make clear exactly what happened. You are left dangling. Did the woman get her man? Did the soldier survive the war or get killed? Did the police eventually find the culprit?

For two or three hundred pages you have lived with the characters, you have got to know them, you have developed sympathy, or perhaps animosity, towards them – so you want to know! No doubt the author has good reasons for leaving loose ends – but it can be exasperating.

I feel this about Simon the Magician, a little of whose story is told by Luke in Acts 8.

Very briefly…

In religious terms Simon is Mr Big in Samaria. In the eyes of the people, “both high and low”, he is “the Great Power of God”; everybody follows him “because he had amazed them with his sorcery”. In a word, he is a jumped up religious charlatan.

Then along comes someone new: Philip the evangelist. Philip preaches the good news of Jesus, and people in their hundreds turn to him and get baptised in the name of Jesus. The converts include Simon: he too “believed and was baptised”.

All good!

But then, following the arrival of the apostles Peter and John, Simon gets something badly wrong. He is so bedazzled by what they are able to do – imparting the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands – that he offers them money in exchange for the same ability. (This is the origin of what the early church called the sin of “simony” – trying to gain influence or power in the church by giving money.)

Peter will have nothing to do with this: “May your money perish with you!” he tells him; “your heart is not right before God”. Simon immediately asks them to pray for him – he seems to be truly sorry for what he has done.

And… that’s it. Simon drops from the scene, and the Bible never mentions him again. We are left dangling, wondering what became of him. Wouldn’t it be great to know!

The later church wasn’t slow to finish the story of Simon, with various legends about him, but they all go way beyond what the Bible says. So what can we glean from what is actually written? I suggest four thoughts…

First, I don’t think there is any reason to doubt that Simon was truly converted. He “believed and was baptised”, and showed himself enthusiastic in that “he followed Philip everywhere”. In this respect he was no different from all those other Samaritan converts.

But can this be so, given Peter’s later ferocious condemnation of him?

Yes, I think it can. As we know to this day, new converts still have much to learn, and often carry over into their new life in Christ all sorts of wrong ideas and even wrong practices. (And, of course, that doesn’t only apply to new converts!) Even a dramatic conversion doesn’t mean instant holiness, and certainly not perfection.

All of us who have baptised people, or seen them receive Christ, know the disappointment when it later turns out that they were never truly converted at all, or at best are very shallow converts. The fact is that Philip the evangelist, a Spirit-filled Christian, saw fit to baptise Simon. (I find that encouraging when I feel that perhaps I made a mistake in baptising someone.)

Second, Simon’s sin gives us a serious warning about religion and money getting mixed up.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with money as such; it is neutral. But it can be horribly destructive when religious leaders – and others – start to use it in wrong ways. There are plenty of examples around today – you think particularly, perhaps, of those “prosperity” preachers and televangelists who, it sometimes seems, line their own pockets by fleecing their hearers.

I don’t believe that pastors and teachers should be expected to live in abject poverty – “the labourer is worthy of his hire”, says Paul in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, echoing Jesus in Luke 10:7. I wonder in fact if some churches should be ashamed of the salary they expect their pastor and family to live on.

But… well, let’s just put it like this: money can spell great danger, even in very “spiritual” circles. Beware!

In more general terms, it’s no bad thing to ask ourselves the question: am I being unfaithful to God in the way I organise my finances? Is he truly the Lord of my money? Remember the word of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:25).

Oh, I’ve run out of space. Please join me again next time…

Lord, you blessed the preaching of Philip the evangelist in Samaria, so much that revival broke out and overcame the powers of darkness. Do the same today in our towns and cities! And please help me to keep well clear of the corrupting power of money. Amen.