Title: A material Spirit
Date: Jan 10, 2010
Texts: Acts 8:14-17
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
“They can beg and they can plead / But they can’t see the light, that’s right / ‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash / Is always Mister Right, ‘cause we are / Living in a material world / And I am a material girl / You know that we are living in a material world / And I am a material girl.”
That’s Madonna’s song from the ‘80s, “Material Girl.” Some things never change—maybe they just get worse. I got this letter in the mail the other day. I’ll start by reading the envelope: “Dear Jesus, we pray that you will bless someone in this home spiritually, physically, and financially. St. Matthew 18:19… And please dear Jesus, bless the hands that open this faith letter that can change these lives, and we ask thee to give them the desires of their hearts.”
They want me to send them information so I can have a Golden Prosperity Faith Cross, and my prayers answered.
I’ve seen a letter like this once before. Last year sometime, I think it was in the spring, I was sitting on a rocking chair with Ms. Caroline—everyone calls her Ms. Broom because she’s frequently seen in the early morning, out on the sidewalk in front of her house, with her broom, sweeping away any dirt that might have gathered from the night before.
I was sitting with Ms. Broom, out on her porch in Walltown, and she started asking me if I thought God answered prayers. I said yes, of course—I’m a pastor, after all. Then she told me about this letter she got from some church in Texas. The letter promised her that God would answer one of her prayer requests if she wrote it down on this special piece of paper shaped like a cross and put it in her bible, and if she laid her hand on her bible every night and prayed for that request. Oh, there was one more thing. She would need to write her name and her prayer request on an enclosed card and mail it back to the church in Texas with $15 so they can pray as well.
I asked her for the card where she wrote down the prayer request, and I told her that I would take it and pray for that request and she could just keep the $15 and spend it on groceries or something. I asked her if she thought I could pray just as well as those people in Texas. She thought I could. So she let me take the card, and I prayed, and I was mad. I was mad at these people who wanted to use Ms. Broom’s faith in Jesus to make money. I was mad that there are Christians out there who turn God into a tool to make money off of poor people in Walltown—Ms. Broom told me that she gets these kinds of letters all the time, and so do her neighbors. I don’t know how people in Texas figure out where poor people live in Durham, but they do.
So, I was a little surprised to get this letter. I didn’t think I was poor. Now, there are plenty of reasons why this stuff is bad, really bad, disgusting even. There is plenty here that makes me want to run away from being tagged as a “Christian”—I don’t want people to associate me with this trash. But there’s also something else. There’s something here that makes me wonder.
Let’s go back to that wise sage of our time, Madonna. She’s somewhat right: we are living in a material world, and we are material people. But there are good and bad ways to care about our materialness, our material world and our material desires. I’ll start with good materialism. It’s there in our passage from Acts. Through the work of Philip, the people of Samaria accepted the word of God. Philip “preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12). And many were baptized. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about people being baptized in Samaria without their oversight, they sent Peter and John to check in on this new movement (v. 14). And here’s where we find the good materialism. Verse 17: “Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Notice how the Spirit comes through the hands, through the flesh, through bodily contact. Some people like to separate body and spirit, material and spiritual, what we do with our bodies and what we do with our thoughts—but that’s not what happens in this story. The Holy Spirit goes to the people of Samaria with Peter and John, all the way from Jerusalem. The Spirit travels with people; the Spirit happens in human contact, a material point of contact, the laying on of hands, a touch.
This touch is the affirmation of fellowship, of solidarity. The laying on of hands is the communication of the Spirit, which makes possible their communion, their fellowship, in the same body of Christ. Now the same Holy Spirit circulates through the church in Jerusalem and this new church in Samaria. They are all wrapped up in the same movement of God. These two different groups become part of the same movement through something done with human hands, with bodies that travel, with the material of this world. The Holy Spirit comes through human contact. The Spirit flows through material, fleshy stuff like our hands.
The spiritual fellowship and solidarity that happens when Peter and John lay their hands on the Samaritans was probably difficult for John. I imagine he had a hard time letting the Holy Spirit unite him with these Samaritans. It wasn’t too long before this trip with Peter that John made a similar trip with Jesus. In Luke chapter 9, Jesus and the disciples needed travel through Samaria, but the people there refused to let Jesus and his band of followers pass through. So, in retaliation, John and James asked Jesus if it would be OK to kill off all the inhospitable people: “Lord,” they asked, “do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Lk. 9:54). Jesus rebuked John and James, made a detour around Samaria, and let the people be. And now, some years later, John finds himself with the Samaritans—but this time he has to call them sisters and brothers. His enemies become part of the family, through the spread of the gospel. And now John unites himself to them through the Holy Spirit, as he lays his hands on them.
This is the good materialism of Christianity. It’s about flesh and blood, material bodies, and the way we are drawn together through the Holy Spirit. It’s about people with different stories and different ways of seeing the world getting mixed up together. For Christians, the presence of the Holy Spirit is experienced with our bodies, with our hands, as we greet one another in the name of Christ, as we lay hands on each other and pray, as we pass each other the peace of Christ, as we serve bread and wine to one another at the Lord’s Table.
Christianity is about our hands; it’s about what we do with them—our work, our play, our relationships. And with all of this, with the work of our hands, with our friendships, with our worship services, comes the Holy Spirit—in the material of it all. To go back to Madonna, we are living in a material world and we are all material girls…and boys. And we can’t separate our material lives from our spiritual lives. It all happens together, with the same hands, in the same bodies, with the same material. We take our work seriously, we take our relationships seriously, we take what we do with our hands seriously, because all of this stuff, this bodily life, is what the Holy Spirit flows through.
That’s good materialism—it’s the way we care about our material existence because it’s all part of God’s creation, and God’s Spirit comes to us through it as we pass the Spirit along through the same material life. And that’s what struck me about this crazy letter I received on Friday. These people take material seriously—even if they misunderstand it at the same time. They offer a golden cross, a “2-1/4 by 1-1/2 inch beautiful, blessed Prosperity Cross.” And they say: “You may wear it, carry it or keep it in your wallet as your point of faith contact with your Heavenly Father for His spiritual, physical, emotional and financial blessings (III John 2, Philippians 4:19, Galatians 6:7, Deuteronomy 8:18, Malachi 3:10, 11).”
So, obviously they are wrong to turn a golden cross into a magical charm to get what we want. But, as cheesy as it sounds, there is something to their language of material things being a “point of faith contact.” I like that language. That seems to be what happens in our story from Acts when John and Peter lay hands on the Samaritan church. There’s a point of contact, which ushers in the Holy Spirit.
I think that’s how we are to see all of our lives. As we go about our day, we are always being drawn into relationships, into points of contact with other people; and what if we welcomed all these moments as places where the Holy Spirit happens in our lives and in their lives, in whoever you touch—whoever you talk to, whoever you stand beside.
For the people who sent me that letter, they talk about faith in a God who wants to give me lots of money and good health. That seems to be a bad form of materialism—a perversion of what God is all about, of what God does in fact provide us. God does give us wealth, God does want us to prosper—but God’s provision looks very different than what they talk about in this letter. God provides us with a wealth of friendships, with sisters and brothers, with a spiritual family that is made up of real, physical people. The material of this world, the material of our lives, is the same stuff that the Holy Spirit is building into the kingdom of God. God gives us people to depend on, and to depend on us. God gives us messy relationships like God gave to John—those people he couldn’t stand, the Samaritans, people he wanted to destroy. And that’s what God gives us—a wealth of people, a spiritual family, a bunch of relationships that circulate the eternal life of the Holy Spirit in our bodies, through our hands, in the present, right now. Every person we encounter comes with a question: will you receive her or him as a spiritual gift, and will you let the Holy Spirit mix your lives together and form the kingdom of God?
On Friday when I checked the mail, I got two letters. I already told you about the first. But I also brought the other one. It’s addressed to all of us here at Chapel Hill Mennonite. This letter testifies to a very different kind of materialism—to use the language from the other letter, this one bears witness to a kind of “point of faith contact.” It’s a letter that shows us what the kingdom of God is all about—and that is our connection to real people, which is the material through which the Holy Spirit circulates. It’s a letter from the Huebners. For those of you who don’t know them, they worshipped with our church last year. Now they’ve moved back to Canada. I’ll close by reading a bit of the letter; it’s written by Rachel on behalf of the whole family:
Dear…friends at CHMF… It’s hard to believe that it has been 8 months since we left you all… By now we are feeling at home in Winnipeg again. But memories of Durham are fresh. The kids often get a far off glazed look in their eyes and say, “Do you remember when…” as if Durham was in another lifetime. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful memories…. We love hearing from everyone and greatly appreciate each email, even if we don’t promptly respond. You are all precious to us. Peace to you, Love Rachel (for the Huebners…Chris, Miriam, Jonah, + Marcus).