"______ the Great!"

By Ben Baumann

Raise your hand if you have a Facebook account. Just about everyone does. Peter Rollins, giving an illustration on the topic of identity, said once that a Facebook profile is a tool that can allow us to create a false identity that we can present to others. They see pictures of us, but only the best ones; they see our favorite movies and books but only the ones we know they won’t get offended by. But eventually we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re the false identity we create. It’s a load to unpack to be sure but the idea is that we can lose ourselves in a false identity. Juxtapose this with an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous where one has to give up the false identity that says “I can quit whenever I want” in order to find who they really are meant to be. I think God wants us to be who we are, a beloved child of God, so that we are free to love and serve others.

Acts 8 contains the story about a man who goes by the name of, and I’m not kidding, “Simon the Great!” Simon is known as a sorcerer or magician in his homeland of Samaria.  His abilities and charisma actually led people to refer to him as “the Great Power of God.”  Simon was more than willing to take that on as his persona and own it as his identity.

During Simon's time there was a great persecution of the early church, and this was forcing believers into places like Samaria.   In this passage, we see Philip, an apostle, arrive and begin to proclaim, heal, and love – you know, Jesus stuff. (A side note: I wonder if some of these people who listened were influenced by the Samaritan woman that Jesus had spoken to at the well.) Well, many listened, saw and believed – you know, people stuff. They wanted in on this new life, this new resurrection. Perhaps, remembering this Jesus of Nazareth who had been one of the few Jews willing to visit them and love on them, caused this gospel to be more real for them. Jesus was, after all, one of those people secure in his identity.

Into this scene steps our boy “Simon the Great!” (By the way if you are not rolling your Rs on “grrrrrreat” then you’re really missing out!) Simon the Great, like everyone else around him, likes what he hears and sees, and he wants in on it. He follows Philip around. He’s really been impacted here. It's one of those stake-in-the-ground faith moments for him. For the first time, he sees a different identity for himself and it’s what he’s wanted all along. What a great end to this story, right? Well...we may stop telling the story, but as the folk-indie-rock band Dawes so perfectly states, “Stories Don’t End.”

The thing about Samaria is that “those people” moved into the neighborhood when the Jews were in exile, and they never left. Jews didn’t trust a thing about Samaritans.  The natural question becomes, How can any of the new Jesus followers of Jewish descent trust that “those people's” experiences are as genuine as their own? This was a significant cultural issue and a very real question for the early leaders of the Way to handle. Philip, Peter, and John want to convey to everyone around them that this is legit, so when Peter and John arrive, they lay hands on the Samaritan believers to show that, yes, they’re as much followers of the Way as the Jews; there’s no doubt about it.

Simon is intrigued by what he sees and his old identity peeks out when he witnesses the power of Peter and John. He wants it. Maybe he misses his evening magic shows in Vegas (more likely the Dells!)  Maybe he is noticing that all of the people who used to regard him as “great” suddenly don’t seem to care any longer, that Philip is where it’s really at. Or maybe he, like I do sometimes, thinks that he can live both lives together, Simon the Great --- est Church Leader!  Even though Simon had already believed and was baptized, he was still caught up in his old false identity of Simon the Great! Simon shows his hand when he asks how much it would cost for him to buy this ability. Peter rebukes, Simon begs to be spared of Peter’s rebuke, and we are told no more.

The truth is that we are all probably more like Simon the Great than we would like to admit, and it can be easy to pursue the false self. But to be secure in our true identity, we can’t carry a false one around with us too; or we may find ourselves pursuing who we think we want to be at the expense of who we really are. And who we really are is a beloved child of God. Now go love and serve.