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In verse 6 of Acts 17, the Jews in Thessalonika said of the local Christians, “ These men have caused trouble all over the world.” In the old King James version, the translation is, “These are the men who are turning the world upside-down.” So that’s where the title for this series comes from – the upside-down kingdom, though the phrase was actually coined by Donald Kraybill, who wrote a book called “The Upside down Kingdom” in 1979. In the book, he examines Jesus’ counter-culture message that calls for a way of life that resists the worldly culture of established society and turns social inequities upside down. He shows how Jesus led the way, not by seeking power and prestige but by humbly serving. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at what it means to be part of a kingdom whose ideals and values are so different from those of the world. Even as early as Mary’s song before Jesus’s birth, we get a foreshadowing of how the coming of Jesus is going to turn things over in a dramatic way: rulers will be brought down, and the humble will be exalted…not exactly the way of the world!

But I want to start with this passage in Acts from where our series title comes. Paul is around halfway through his second missionary journey, he’s travelled all the way across Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and has reached Troas on the Aegean Sea. From here, his plan was almost certainly to turn south along the coast towards Ephesus when he had a vision of a man calling him to come over into Macedonia (modern day northern Greece). He saw this as a call to take the gospel to them and so, in company with Silas and Luke, he crossed over the sea and proceeded first to Philippi. Considering they saw this as a call from God, things soon seemed to go wrong for them. There was a young slave girl who had a spirit which seemed to enable her to tell the future, and her owners were making a fair amount of money out of her until Paul cast out the evil spirit from her, much to the annoyance of her owners who were now going to lose their lucrative source of income. So, to get their revenge, they produce some trumped up charges, claiming that Paul and Silas are Jews who are advocating customs which are unlawful for Romans to accept. The magistrate has them flogged and thrown into prison where, at midnight, we find them singing a few contemporary worship songs! That’s a bit of upside-down kingdom behaviour, isn’t it? If I’d been thrown into prison and chained in stocks for crimes I hadn’t committed, would I feel like singing? I don’t think so. As you know, there’s an earthquake, the doors to the cells are flung open, the jailer is about to commit suicide, thinking his prisoners have escaped, but Paul calls out that they’re still here. More upside-down behaviour! I think I’d have scarpered as quickly as possible.

Amazed at the fact that they didn’t run away, the jailer comes to faith in Jesus, cleans up Paul and Silas’s wounds from their beating and takes them home for a meal, after which, if you read the text carefully, Paul and Silas must have asked to be returned to their prison cells. The next morning the magistrate orders their release, possibly realising that the charges were trumped up, but actually not too bothered because they were, after all, only a couple of Jewish preachers. Well, as it turns out, it’s not quite as easy as that because Paul and Silas actually have Roman citizenship, and the magistrate could be in real trouble for having ordered their beating and imprisonment, so Paul insists that the magistrate comes personally to escort them out of the prison. After a brief meeting with fellow believers at Lydia’s house, they leave Philippi and move on the Thessalonika.

Now I remind you of those events at Philippi because they provide a background story to what happens in Thessalonika. When Paul arrives in the city, he does what he’s been doing throughout his missionary journeys and heads for the synagogue where he spent three Sabbath days opening up the scriptures to show how Jesus was the Messiah who died and rose again.

In his first letter to the Corinthians and chapter 9, Paul writes:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law

I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law),

so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became

like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am

under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak

I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so

that by all possible means I might save some.

This is exactly what Paul does here in Thessalonika. In Romans 10, he says that his heart’s desire is that all Israelites should be saved, so he meets them on their grounds, on their holy day, the Sabbath, not on the first day of the week, which was slowly becoming the day when Christians met together. When he moves on the Berea, he does the same there, opening up the scriptures in the synagogue, but when he gets to Athens, he spends some time in the synagogue, but he also goes to the marketplace where he can debate with the Greek thinkers and philosophers and here he doesn’t begin with the scriptures; he uses as a basis for his preaching a pagan statue and a quotation from one of their own poets.

So back to the synagogue in Thessalonika: as a result of Paul’s preaching, some of the Jews, a large number of Greeks and some leading women became believers. Now, by the time Paul had been around preaching for three weeks, I imagine that news of what had happened at Philippi had almost certainly travelled along the coast, and that, coupled with the way in which Paul seemed to be winning converts, made some of the Jews jealous, so they brought together some of the more disreputable members of society (the King James version of the Bible calls them “lewd fellows of the baser sort”) and persuade them to cause a riot which they can then blame on Paul. Paul and Silas have been staying at the home of a believer called Jason, so they storm his house looking for Paul and Silas and when they can’t find them they drag Jason and some of his fellow believers before the city officials and accuse them of welcoming into their home men who have been turning the world upside down.

At Philippi, they’d been imprisoned on trumped up charges; the accusation here is that they are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king called Jesus. This time, of course, their charges are quite right: the citizens of the Roman Empire were expected to recognise the supremacy of the emperor, and they used the phrase “Caesar is Lord”, whereas Paul was now calling on people to recognise that “Jesus is Lord”. You can begin to see why folk would talk about turning the world upside down. The call to recognise Jesus as Lord undermined the very order of society: it was no longer Caesar but Jesus who had the first claim on your loyalty. Peter had hinted at this earlier in Acts when, having been told to stop preaching by the local authorities, he replied that he had to obey God rather than men. The gospel of the kingdom is a revolutionary gospel, which is why it was seen as such a threat to the Roman emperors that they instigated the worst persecution that Christians could experience, never to be equalled until the 20th century, the 1st and the 20th centuries being the worst two centuries in history for Christian persecution.

So fearing for Paul and Silas’s lives, some of the believers smuggle them out of the city that night and they continue to Berea, where they are treated rather better because it says that the Bereans were nobler characters than the Thessalonians. The Thessalonian Jews must have been a pretty rough lot because they actually followed Paul and Silas to Berea and staged riots yet again as a result of which Paul was escorted to Athens where he waited for Silas to come on later.

So we are part of a kingdom which, 2000 years ago, began to turn the world upside down. Why was it so disturbing? Well, for hundreds of years the Jews had known perfectly well how to live. The Torah, the books of the law, had been around in a written form for some seven or eight hundred years, and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees had drawn up their books of rules so that religious life was clearly structured, built round the temple and the synagogue and the annual cycle of rituals and sacrifices. Then along comes Jesus and his followers with a new message of forgiveness and the religious leaders are in danger of losing their grip on power and authority, just as Caesar was no longer going to be Lord to these Christians because they had a higher Lord.

After hundreds of years, the Jews were being told that there was a new way of living, a new way to forgiveness, a new way to worship, no longer any need for circumcision or observance of the law because Jesus had fulfilled the demands of the law on their behalf. But this meant change, and change is never easy.

So what does this have to say to us today?

Well, I believe we are at a critical point in the history of the Christian Church, and it’s one of the reasons for our Vision Day next Saturday. Just for a minute, I want to use your imagination to do something quite difficult. There is a whole generation of people out there who have never in their lives been to a church service: they’ve never prayed, they’ve never sung a hymn, they’ve never heard a sermon. Imagine that’s you, and you walk into Riverside this morning. How do you think you’d react? It’s hard to do because most of us are thoroughly steeped in our faith, but it would actually be incredibly alien to you. When do you stand up or sit down? Why are some people standing whilst others are sitting? What does all the religious language mean? The theme next week is Imagining church for those who don’t go to church.Here at Riverside we have a number of ways in which we’re trying to reach people for whom Sunday worship would be so alien: Messy Church, CreateLincs, Time for Tots, StreetSource are all ways in which we’re turning traditional church upside down to reach others with the love of Jesus. A quotation I read this week said, “The most dangerous statement for the future of the church is ‘We’ve always done things this way’.” We are a growing church – which is in fact a rarity in the URC – but most of our growth is what’s called transfer growth: people who are already Christians joining us from other church or because they’ve moved into the area. If we are to make new disciples – and that’s the Great Commission – we need to get out of our walls and find new ways of reaching people with Jesus’ love. Let’s pray that next weekend will be a springboard to give us new enthusiasm for turning our world upside down.

  • Psalm 119:160

    “All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.”

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