Turning the World Upside Down
Turning the world upside down. This was the charge against the early Christians who were spreading the Good News about Jesus all across the Greek speaking world of the Roman Empire. The Christian message of a crucified God was utter nonsense to some, and to others it challenged the very assumptions on which their society was built.
But sometimes counter-intuitive ideas work. When the monastic movement was starting during the middle ages, who would’ve thought that the threefold vows of “chastity, poverty and obedience” would attract converts? I mean, you even have towering figures in Christian history the likes of St. Augustine, who is famous for the prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but do it tomorrow.” Well, Augustine did get his priorities straight eventually and the monastic movement was a huge success for centuries, shaping western culture like few institutions.
Today we focus on the quite dramatic expansion of early Christianity north from Judea, to the Greek town of Thessalonica. In the book of Acts, we read about the Apostle Paul and his companion, Silas, who were the first to reach this town. There, they went to the local synagogue where Paul, appealing to the Holy Scriptures, attempted to persuade the folks there that Jesus Christ was the true Messiah. Some were persuaded, but some of the Jews living there and local ruffians forged a mob that threatened the health and well-being of Paul and Silas and some poor guy named Jason. “People like Paul and other Christians are ‘turning the world upside down,’” they said. And, in truth, they were.
How so? There were two convictions that Paul and the Christians made the centerpiece of their message. First of all, as we see in Acts 17, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the savior of the world and true King of all.
Now, just think about this basic message. The Jews in Thessalonica certainly had their reasons to object to Paul’s message. They had different ideas of what the Messiah should be, for one, but, second, they were jealous of the Christians’ success in the Mediterranean world.
But the audience for Paul in Thessalonica was not the Jews, it was the gentiles, who were the vast majority there. Shaped deeply by Greek and Roman culture, they had other reasons to object to Jesus. For starters, it turns out the locals there were big into Greek and Roman mythology – as well as their more regional mythology – which means they had many gods and many idols. Coincidentally, none of them included a man from Nazareth, so they had their own reasons to turn on Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas discovered how Greek polytheism worked before they arrived in Thessalonica, in a city called Lystra, where the people there thought Paul and Silas were gods! So, you see how their message could easily get lost.
Now, if there was any other god who would join the pantheon of gods in these Greek cities, it was one person, and one person alone: Caesar. Caesar, it was well known, was not only the emperor in a political sense. Many in the Roman Empire, including Caesar himself, believed he was a savior, even a god, who ruled over all of life – social, political, religious.
So, Paul walks up and argues there is only one God, one Messiah, one king. It’s not Zeus, Apollo, Hermes or Caesar. It’s Jesus. Can you say, “turn the world upside down?” The opponents of Paul and Silas said that, “They are acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” Ah yes, the same sort of conundrum Pilate found himself in when dealing with Jesus. Is this king in some way posing to be above Caesar? Paul’s answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Indeed, for the Christian community in Thessalonica started by Paul, Jesus had already become an alternative emperor, a true and living King.
Obviously, for someone listening to Paul preaching, it could actually be dangerous for that person to believe such things about Jesus!
In case that wasn’t a bold enough claim, let’s move to the second point, which turns the world upside down even more.
As it says in Acts, Paul set forth an argument from the scriptures “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead.” And in Paul’s own letters, which make up much of the New Testament, the heart of his message is that Christ was not only crucified but had to be crucified.
But why was crucifixion necessary? We already know what many in the Greek world thought about this: “If Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one of God, the King of the Jews, then how on earth was he crucified?” The generally accepted Messianic expectation in the first century was for a human kingly figure who would bring deliverance – political, economic, and spiritual deliverance – to the Jewish people. And through them peace, prosperity, and righteousness would come to all humanity. And at some point after all this, he would die. And then there was Jesus, who died before his reign as king.
As Edward Pillar has noted, and I quote:
“Death in this culture was the very symbol of all that was wrong with the world, the irrefutable evidence of the alienation of creation and humanity from God. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was a reminder of this: the powerful demonstrating their power over the weak. It was like a regular public service announcement: The Empire is in charge.”
So, the very one crucified in weakness and humiliation, put in his place by the Roman Empire as emphatically as is possible…is now the king over Caesar and the one who saves the human race? Come again?
Yes, he is, and precisely because he died.
And because he was weak and humiliated, alone and in agony.
For in taking the full brunt of a worst-case scenario of death and alienation, and then being raised by the power of the Holy Spirit, everything changes. Life rose up victorious. Weakness, humiliation, loneliness, agony and death did not win. And cannot win.
Know what else did not win? The exercise of power that inflicts violence and oppression on others. Jesus’ resurrection speaks of the ability of another—and greater—power to usurp the imperial authority of the Roman Empire and call into question their domination of the affairs of nations, communities, and individuals. Jesus and his followers turned the world upside down by proclaiming a different king altogether, a different kind of allegiance, a higher authority.
But why did Jesus have to die this way? Why didn’t God have lightning bolts come from Jesus’ fingertips to destroy his accusers? That’s the way the world works; those are the movies we love, where the good guys strike down the bad guys!
Because to defeat power that controls, intimidates and inflicts violence on people, the ultimate and final answer is not to summon a greater power to inflict greater violence on your opponent – even if it is justified. That only wins the battle, not the war. Jesus’ response to the awful things they were doing to him was not retaliation, it was this: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” What they were doing could not be de-clawed forever without dying and rising, and allowing a greater power than death to win: the life that comes from God.
And allowing a greater power than hate and fear to win: love and forgiveness.
They don’t know what they’re doing. What a great observation of humanity in its brokenness. Few people out there in this world are trying to destroy others or the world around them, but yet, often they – we – don’t know what we’re doing. We’re not in control, can’t see beyond our blind passions or unquestioned assumptions. And the collateral damage is huge.
Finally, God said, “we’ve got to start over.” And so, Jesus.
There is a power at work in the resurrection that is more powerful than any earthly ruler or any dark forces that we experience that threaten to swallow us up – nope, not going to happen. Jesus went there and affirmed once and for all that life rises up victorious in the midst of the worst garbage and godforsaken moments we endure and perhaps force on others. There is a power at work, the power of life – of faith, hope and love – and we are invited to live within this power, the power of Jesus’ story. No, it doesn’t mean pain and heartache go away. It doesn’t mean that at all. It does mean those things do not have the final say. That is God’s promise.
When I consider the guts and courage of those early Christians, I am just in awe. The disciples who were so uncomprehending about Jesus’ mission and fate, were the same ones who stepped up as leaders in the early Church. They knew that the good news of Jesus was transforming lives and communities and entire nations. But they and their followers also knew that their message was often an affront in many ways to the local cultures. Finding themselves in hostile waters, they befell the same fate that Jesus had, but they knew the world didn’t defeat them. They knew that nothing could separate them from the love and life of God through Christ.
Like the early Christians that changed human history, do we have clarity about what we believe? That our life is in Christ crucified – and that means allegiance to an entirely different kind of power than what the world believes in? Sometimes we are too fuzzy on what believe. Maybe because we don’t distinguish our beliefs clearly enough from what our world believes. Christians who conflate Christianity with capitalism or American nationalism or all manner of progressive politics. Here the line between Christianity and world gets extremely blurred.
Are we still turning the world upside down? Do you believe it was “necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead?”