May 3rd | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Acts 17:1-9
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The world has been more than a little “upside down” in the last several weeks. We have been somewhat forced to live a life that is “upside down” - a little disoriented - a little muddled and perplexing. For the most part, we have adapted far better than we might believe. Still, with the promise of reopening and a resumption of something more familiar, we are getting anxious to get back to a more well-known pattern.
For people who have a natural abhorrence to change, we really do deserve a pat-on-the-back. We have learned to do things in new ways. We are not as adverse to wearing a mask when we go out - and who would have thought you would ever see the day when you could wear a mask into a bank and no one pays you the least attention. We are using the 6-feet social distancing standard. We have the cleanest hands we have ever had. There are even signs that we are being more courteous than we were before. There are more people walking in my neighborhood since self-isolation went into effect than there ever were before. We have done a remarkable job in adapting to our new reality.
We have discovered new things in this “upside-down” world. I have started baking bread. I blame part of this new habit on the binge watching of “The Great British Baking Show” that has taken place at our house. I bake it, but I don’t eat it. So, I made some bread the other day and sent a loaf over to the neighbors. Carter is my 3-year old neighbor. He likes bread and he likes my bread. Carter is my new favorite neighbor. He sent me a thank-you note, transcribed by his mother, in which he complimented me by telling me that I am, “very good at bread.” He’s getting another loaf this afternoon.
We know that the central character of the New Testament is Jesus Christ. If there is someone who comes in second, it is the Apostle Paul. Paul was, in many ways, the church’s first theologian. Trained as a rabbi, steeped in the scriptures and the traditions of Judaism, articulate, persistent, Paul was the catalyst for the early church’s inclusion of Gentiles into what was, for all practical purposes, a sect within Judaism.
Luke tells us that Paul, and his traveling companion and colleague, Silas, are in Thessalonika. True to his modus operandi, Paul went to the synagogue where, on the sabbath, he entered into the discussion of the Torah. But, being Paul, his portion of the discussion would always seem to find its way around to a conversation about Jesus. Some of the Jews and some of the Gentiles who were practicing monotheism, were persuaded and a church was formed in Thessalonica.
But some members of the synagogue were outraged. Forming a partnership with some of those in the city who were naturally inclined toward public demonstration and trouble-making, the city was in an uproar. They stormed into the home of Jason - about whom we know nothing - and Jason was arrested, presumably for harboring and housing some of those who had become followers of Jesus.
When Jason was hauled before the city authorities - in cooperation with the Empire - they leveled a charge against him and all those who were following Jesus. Luke tells us that they said, “These people who have been turning the world upside-down have come here also.” “These people” included Paul, Silas, Jason, and anyone else who had the audacity to follow Jesus.” They had been “turning the world upside-down.”
Let’s be clear: it was not about political or military power. Paul and Silas and those early followers had none. It was not about the power of wealth because Paul and Silas and those early church members were among the poor. As a real threat to the power of the Empire, those early Christians posed no serious threat by the standards of the day.
But the power of ideas - the power of trust - the power of a formidable confidence grounded in faith - was more than threatening. In a time when power was flexed and misused for the benefit of a few, the message of the early church was “love one another.” In a time when the gaining and protection of wealth was central to the political dynamic, the message of the early church was sharing with each other as any had need. In a time when classes were pitted against one another, when violence and oppression were everyday occurrences, when corrupt leaders were worshiped as gods - the message of the early church was “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
It doesn’t sound like much of a threat, does it? A few religious kooks following a day-worker from Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Empire. Doesn’t sound like much of an overthrow of the Empire’s way of life, does it?
And yet, those who were in authority in Thessalonica saw something that disturbed them. Perhaps they were psychic, or at least prescient, but they saw that the power of the church’s message - the power of the kergyma - would initiate such change and transformation that it sent shivers down their spines.
These people - these Christians - have been turning the world upside-down.
Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that Luke would put such a statement in the second volume of his work. Luke tells us, in the Acts of the Apostles, “These people who have been turning the world upside-down have come here also.” These people are “turning the world upside-down.”
Luke understands that Jesus was sent, in no small part, to “turn the world upside-down.” It is Luke alone who gives us the words of Mary’s song:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-52)
Mary sings of a world that God is turning “upside-down.” God sends Jesus into the world to overthrow the systems of power and oppression. God sends Jesus to knock down the powerful and raise up the powerless. God sends Jesus to send those with more than they need away, while providing for those who struggle just to get by.
Jesus’ mission was to “turn the world upside-down.”
And Jesus calls his followers to do exactly the same thing. Jesus calls us to be his followers, and that means we are called to practice love, work for justice and fairness, support those who are wronged, feed those who hunger, clothe those who are naked, heal those who are sick, befriend those who are locked away and forgotten, and work for peace among all people. If you think that Jesus came only to rescue sinners from their sin, and that once you are “saved” you have a clear path, you are terribly mistaken. If you think that once your salvation is assured that you are not responsible for anything else, you have never fully read the scriptures.
We are called and commissioned to “turn the world upside-down.” That is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ will do. Authentically living the gospel means a complete and total re-prioritization of life. It means a complete shift in values and morals. It means seeing yourself as inextricably connected to the poor, the abused, the forgotten, and the maligned. It means using what God has entrusted to you for the benefit of others. Living the gospel means raising your voice when lies are accepted as truth. Living the gospel means taking action when injustice is enshrined in laws and when inequity is labeled as “progress.” Being a Christian means “turning the world upside-down.”
There is a certain honor in being called “one who is turning the world upside-down.” There is something amazingly authentic about that charge. Jesus was charged with doing that. Paul and Silas and Jason were charged with doing that. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox were charged with doing that. Maggie Kuhn, Dorothy Day, Phyllis Trible, Katie Geneva Cannon, and Letty Russell and so many more women and womanist theologians were charged with doing that.
And what about us? Is that who we are? That’s some pretty fine company to be traveling in.
What do you say? Let’s turn the world upside-down.
For now and evermore. Amen.