A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Leadership Institute, Tampa, Florida on June 22, 2011.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Matthew 5:11-14
“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…” Acts 17:6(b) [NRSV]
I’ve been a Christian since I was eight years old. For most of my lifetime I’ve been in worship almost every Sunday. I don’t just mean being physically present. I mean Sunday School involvement and leadership, personal prayer, youth work, choir membership, ordained service as a deacon and preacher, denominational service in Baptist life, and inter-faith efforts.
But my moral and religious outlook received a lasting challenge when Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor preached about turning the world upside down at Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas almost twenty years ago. For what seems like every day since then, I’ve been impelled by how my life in God as a follower of Jesus affects what happens around me. And now, by the grace of God, I ask you to ponder whether it can be said of you as was said of that new church start in Thessalonica—“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also … They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”
You see, the people who were dragged from Jason’s house in Thessalonica and hauled before local magistrates were somehow considered part of a growing challenge to the status quo. How odd. They were no doubt a small band. Paul and Silas had only been in town for three weeks. But that congregation represented something very powerful and different from the way religion had operated.
In the first place they were an inclusive lot. Their congregation included some members from the local synagogue, some devout Greeks, and a number of women from the upper social class. One gets the idea that this wasn’t a congregation built around what we’d now consider a gated community. That in itself was enough to turn religion on its head.
But Luke’s record tells us what earned some of the members a trip to the courthouse. The Jesus followers in Thessalonica were charged with being part of a movement that challenged the existing order. “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also … They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The inclusivity and diversity of the congregation made the church at Thessalonica noteworthy. But being associated with Jesus made it challenging.
What is it, if anything, about your relationship with God and connection with Jesus that challenges the would-be emperors of your time and place? What’s going on in your living, ministry, preaching, congregation, and in your other involvements in the name of Jesus that arouses concern by people who are part of the existing kingdoms so they may say, “Hey, these people are threatening the way we do things around here. If they aren’t stopped they’ll turn things upside down!?”
Consider the kingdom of militarism. We sing and talk and preach a good game about love and peace and joy. But do you recall a congregation near you that was inspired enough by a vision of God’s love to question our dangerous and deadly addiction to war-making?
If the love of God revealed by the life of Jesus had worked to make Christian people question the empire ambitions of Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust might not have happened. If the love of God had inspired Christian people in the U.S. to be prayerfully prophetic about peace rather than consumed by militaristic zeal and nationalism, there might not have been a war in Southeast Asia or one in Iraq. Prophetic faith by followers of Jesus could have turned the world upside down.
Or consider the kingdom of materialism. Jesus warned about defining life by the abundance of possessions. He cautioned that materialism carries the real threat of producing moral and spiritual bankruptcy. You remember the lesson about a man who lived in relative material comfort while his neighbor languished in sickness and poverty. You recall the woman with the issue of blood who needed healing, but had spent all her money on unsuccessful treatment. When the power of God’s love operated to heal her it turned her world upside down.
If the people of Jesus lived as though his life and the whole healing record in Scripture present a prophetic challenge about the moral imperative of caring for sick people without concern for their ability to make others rich it would turn the health care kingdom upside down. We might even urge our neighbors to support taxes to help rebuild communities devastated by poverty, storms, wildfires, and other hardships. That would turn some worlds upside down.
The love of God revealed in Jesus also challenges the kingdoms of ethnocentrism and classism. Jesus showed up at a Samaritan well in the heat of a day to build community with an outcast woman who became the start of a new movement for God’s love in her community. God’s love works to overturn the ways people are separated and mistreated on account of ethnicity, gender, religion, or social status.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by the love of God and the life of Jesus enough to challenge the evil kingdom of racial injustice. Everywhere King went he was accused of turning the world upside down.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was inspired by God’s love to forgive people who were complicit with apartheid. That movement of forgiveness and reconciliation has produced life-changing differences in South Africa. Jimmy Carter has been urging Christians to pay attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. Mother Teresa implored us to do more than sympathize about poverty, disease, and hunger among people who live with their backs against the wall.
Where are we living to resemble what was said about the new church start at Thessalonica? Where are we living with a sense of God’s love and purpose in ways that challenge the kingdoms of this world? Let me tell you why this matters.
We are followers of Jesus. Vulnerable people should find us standing to protect them from the oppression, neglect, and cruelty of the materialistic kingdom.
We are followers of Jesus. Needy people should find us standing among them, and should find us working to overturn the kingdoms that judge people based on how much they have.
We are followers of Jesus. People who are materially comfortable should find us insisting that those who’ve been blessed with more wealth are morally obligated to contribute more for the benefit of the common good. Yes, that will turn the anti-tax kingdom upside down.
We are followers of Jesus. The lords of empire and war should find us turning over their kingdoms. How can we be followers of the one who said “Blessed are the peacemakers” and somehow never be inspired to say no to war? How can we follow him who said “Blessed are the merciful” and never insist on mercy rather than revenge?
We are followers of Jesus. Marginalized people should find us entering into authentic and loving community with them. They may be immigrants without documentation who are trying to provide for their families. Let us stand with them in the name of Jesus, who became an undocumented immigrant in Egypt. They may be marginalized because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, or their social history. The love of God revealed in Jesus impels us to cast off notions of privilege and enter into their experience.
We are followers of Jesus. So the disciples of status quo will be offended when we shine the light of God’s love in dark places and put the salt of God’s truth to work on rotten realities. Dietrich Bonheoffer was imprisoned and hung. Martin King was stabbed, firebombed, and finally murdered. Jimmy Carter was run out of office. Jesus said we will be unpopular, maligned, and persecuted if we live by God’s love, but that when that happens we are to count ourselves with the blessed of God. This is the reaction we must expect when we challenge the kingdoms of this world with the force of God’s love.
I appeal to you in the name of Jesus to live for God. Wherever you go and whatever you do, act out God’s love. In the name of Jesus live for God in every breath and heartbeat as followers of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to turn the world upside down. Be agents of healing in a hurtful world. Be agents of welcome in a fearful world. Be agents of sacrificial generosity in a miserly world. In the name of Jesus, live, love, suffer, serve, sacrifice, and even die to produce God’s new order of love.
Then let it be said of us what was complained about the sisters and brothers at Thessalonica: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also … They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.