Sermons That Work

Those Who Turn the World Upside Down, Easter 5 (A) – 2005

April 24, 2005

The dramatic, fast-moving pace set by St. Paul once he made the decision to respond to God’s summons to enter Macedonia continues with this visit to Thessalonica (Thessaloniki in Greek). Someone must have told Paul the story of the city: how it used to be called Therma, and how Cassandros, a general in Alexander’s army, became king and renamed the city in honor of his wife, a half-sister of Alexander. And someone among the devout people he met, maybe Jason himself, must have told Paul about the suffering in the heart of this beautiful city situated as it is in a gulf that has the protection of Mount Olympus in the west and the beloved mountain of the city, Hortiatis, in the northeast. The residences and shops line the deep, natural port and rise gradually toward lovely hills. But in the heart of Thessaloniki there was much suffering. The general, Cassandros, emptied 26 surrounding villages and towns in order to populate the new metropolis, with all the troubles such forced relocations cause to the inhabitants; he wanted a larger city than the old, humble Therma and this was accomplished through the suffering of thousands of poor people. And Thessaloniki herself, his sad wife, was killed by one of her own sons. So the city, which by Roman times in the first century was a glorious place of palaces and public buildings, a province of the Roman Empire, has had a history of suffering which continued into World War II. Archeological evidence shows that by the time of St. Paul it had been inhabited continuously for a thousand years, and other evidence goes back 6,000 years.

Because the city had a long history of culture with Greek as its language and was strategically located on the Via Egnatia, which stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, it was the perfect place for establishing a church for the spread of the Gospel. St. Paul, a uniquely urban missionary, chose his cities with care. In Thessaloniki he found receptive listeners in the synagogue, and many devout women. St. Luke uses the word theophovoumenoi, God fearers, to describe many who heard Paul. It is possible that they had been attracted by the God of the Hebrews and were observing some of the high standards required by this God in their lives, but had not undergone the required changes demanded by Jewish law in order to become full members of the synagogue. The ground seemed fertile for the reception of the Good News of Christ. (The Greek Orthodox Church today claims Thessaloniki as “the golden gateway” for the spread of Christianity to Europe.)

What is significant about Paul’s stay in Thessaloniki is how peacefully it started and how dangerously it ended. The province of Macedonia was committed to emperor worship. So when Paul was accused of “proclaiming another king whose name is Jesus,” the authorities became worried and did not want to take a chance with someone who was threatening the hold of the emperor in their city. The best phrase in all this passage described so vividly by Luke is this: “These people who have been turning the world upside down. . .” Paul, the peaceful follower of Jesus Christ did exactly that—he turned the world upside down. Therein lies the victory that makes all the suffering worthwhile. And make no mistake: the Christians of Thessaloniki started suffering earlier than the rest, before the persecution of Christians became fashionable among Romans. The world was being turned upside down: the people who accepted the Good News of Jesus Christ were changing from “malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander,” as the writer of today’s Epistle puts it, into people who were becoming “living stones” in the edifice of the faith which was to change the world.

The metaphor of the stones in 1Peter brings to mind the great suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who always refer to themselves as “the living stones.” The suffering of Christians started early in the history of Christianity and continues in many parts of the world today. Misery in many parts of the globe makes us deeply troubled if not for ourselves then for others who are undergoing such terrors as war, dislocation, genocide, natural disasters that utterly destroy their livelihoods and families, while we in this country contend with hypocrisy, lies, loss of jobs, and an utter disregard for the poor and the powerless. It is sometimes very difficult to remember that we are in Eastertide.

But Jesus tells us in St. John’s Gospel, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is the part of the Gospel that deals no longer with the earthly Jesus but with the glorified Christ after his resurrection and ascension. The writer of the Gospel of St. John, probably a disciple of the great apostle, is writing during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, near the end of the first century when persecution of Christians had become vicious and was being encouraged through most of the Roman Empire. So the writer wants to remind his readers of the promises of Jesus. And the message that comes through loud and clear in these chapters of the Great Discourse is that we are not abandoned, that we are not alone, and that the God of Jesus Christ is like the Jesus the disciples have known and loved. This is the most important, the life-giving message of this passage: that God is like the Jesus they have known so intimately—filled with love, mercy, and justice. The Gospel reaffirms here in the strongest imagery that the Jesus of history is the Christ of God and eternity.

So let us look around us. Suffering is not all bad—this conclusion is brought out by the courage of the people of Thessaloniki and the courage and endurance of St. Paul and of countless people in the world today who suffer and still believe in God. What is bad and evil is believing in a false Jesus by not recognizing the qualities of the Jesus of the Gospels and by misunderstanding the character of God. Whenever an act smacks of injustice toward the poor, violence towards the enemy, vengeance and hatred towards those who disagree with us, then we better recognize that this cannot come from those who have gone through the “way” which is “the truth and the life,” no matter how loudly they claim that they are Christians.

The world was turned upside down by Paul and his co-workers for good, not for evil. The suffering that followed was not a punishment from God but the inevitable reaction of people who wanted to worship men rather than God. We don’t live in a very different world, after all. We still mistake evil for good; we still follow people who call out “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of him who sent Jesus to live and die for us.

If Jesus indeed is who he claims to be in this passage, then we better look closely at his life, his works, and his words and determine what it means for us to carry his name—to be called Christians, for his sake and for the sake of a suffering world.

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Christopher Sikkema


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