Going down to a Samaritan city, Philip proclaimed the Message of the Messiah. When the people heard what he had to say and saw the miracles, the clear signs of God’s action, they hung on his every word. Many who could neither stand nor walk were healed that day. The evil spirits protested loudly as they were sent on their way. And what joy in the city! Previous to Philip’s arrival, a certain Simon had practiced magic in the city, posing as a famous man and dazzling all the Samaritans with his wizardry… He had been around a long time and everyone was more or less in awe of him. But when Philip came to town announcing the news of God’s kingdom and proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, they forgot Simon and were baptized… Even Simon himself believed and was baptized. From that moment he was like Philip’s shadow, so fascinated with all the God-signs and miracles that he wouldn’t leave Philip’s side.
When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God’s Message, they sent Peter and John down to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit…. When Simon saw that the apostles… conferred the Spirit, he pulled out his money, excited, and said, “Sell me your secret! Show me how you did that! How much do you want? Name your price!” Peter said, “To hell with your money! And you along with it. Why, that’s unthinkable—trying to buy God’s gift! You’ll never be part of what God is doing by striking bargains and offering bribes. Change your ways—and now! Ask the Master to forgive you for trying to use God to make money. I can see this is an old habit with you; you reek with money-lust.”
“Oh!” said Simon, “pray for me! Pray to the Master that nothing like that will ever happen to me!” And with that, the apostles were on their way.” Acts 8:4-25, The Message
In Acts 8, a great persecution breaks out, and all of the new disciples to whom Peter had been ministering are forced to flee throughout the Mediterranean Basin. I have always been intrigued by Peter’s character development over the first few chapters of Acts. At the start of the book, he is told by an angel to go preach the Good News to Judea, Samaria, and the Ends of the Earth, but he stubbornly scurries back to Jerusalem where he can be safe among his fellow Hebrews.
When I read the early chapters of Acts, I often find myself identifying with Peter; in this passage you might also identify with Philip. But in a recent Bible Study with a small group of homeless men, it quickly became clear to me that while I had the intention of talking about Peter, they were instead drawn to the sorcerer, Simon.
At the beginning of this story Simon has the whole region in his grasp, but when Philip comes to the city everything is turned upside down. Some commentators explain that Simon is not truly interested in the good news of the Kingdom of God; his belief is a farce. Rather, he follows Philip because he is amazed at his signs and miracles. But if this is true, then why does the text explicitly state that Simon “believed and was baptized?” And if he was genuinely converted, then why is Peter so harsh on him?
I posed this question to those attending my Bible Study, and after a minute of silence Chuck blurted out: “Simon is a drug dealer. He is the one that hangs around here and preys on the weak. He is the man that wants all the attention. We see him every day. For a time, we worshipped him. Peter can’t have that in the church. Simon doesn’t belong.”
For me, personally, this is when everything “clicked.” In this story I often identify as a Philip, the disciple who is never afraid to head into the uncharted territories of Christianity. He walks up to the town sorcerer, challenges him, and then invites him to follow in his footsteps. But how often have I been Peter? The “rock” of the church, who walks away from Simon without giving him a second thought? How often have I been quick to condemn or dismiss? How often have I been unforgiving or too busy?
The men attending my Bible Study were drawn to Simon because they are Simon, the new converts with complicated histories. They have done everything possible to make it on their own, but ultimately they have come to accept the good news of the Kingdom of God. They are childlike Christians: amazed, confused, and in need of guidance. Just like Simon in the presence of Philip, they are astonished by the miracles of the Holy Spirit.
Redemption Housing exists for people like Simon. We believe that returning citizens require support circles to properly break free of crime, addiction, and homelessness. So Barnabas House will offer this support. Instead of abandoning them, we will invite those who are transitioning out of incarceration back into the community.
Nick Lordi is the Board President of Redemption Housing. He is a graduate of Cedarville University (B.A., Pastoral Studies, 2009) and Palmer Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2013). He has been working with Philadelphia’s homeless population since 2010 and draws from his experience as a supervisor of faith-based recovery programming. Nick serves in lay leadership at West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, where he attends with his wife and two young children.