Upside Down, Proper 24 (A) – 1996
October 13, 1996
The portion of this scripture must be read in conjunction with the section of Acts 17 where Paul’s work in the city is first mentioned. Paul and Silas had left Philippi where they had established a church, and where they had had such dramatic encounters in jail and in the agora, the marketplace, and had continued on the Via Egnatia (which still cuts through the city of Thessaloniki, is called by the same name, and once upon a time connected the Byzantium with Rome) and arrived in Thessaloniki.
Read from Acts 17:6-7
“When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities shouting, these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests,”
These are the same Christian men who will later keep in touch with the believers in Thessaloniki through affectionate letters. They are the ones who are turning the world upside down. Their accusers, who cannot find Paul nor Silas, drag their followers and their host Jason before the politarchs, the magistrates of Thessaloniki. “The men who are turning the world upside down,” they yell, thinking it is an insult. But this is one of the best compliments to be given to Christians. We are not put here to conform to the world but to make the world uncomfortable about its values as Jesus and Paul did.
It is this discomfort, the fear that the old order is passing, that Luke sensed in the Thessaloniki of the middle of the first century. It is remarkable that though Philippi and Thessaloniki are about 60 miles apart, the fame of the Christian missionaries had spread to the second city even before Paul and Silas got there. The news of what had happened in Philippi was startling enough to have overcome the distance and the difficulty of travel. Remember, there was no instantaneous dissemination of news those days. Yet, the good news of the gospel and what happened to those who accepted it was so powerful that it had transcended the distance and reached the people of Thessaloniki.
Another point that has always been striking and unforgettable (and it is surprising that there are not commentaries on this issue) is the description of those who believed in the new message Paul was bringing to the European world. Listen to the words from Acts:
“Some of them, (this refers to the members of the synagogue) were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”
This description is repeated when Paul and Silas go to Bereia immediately afterwards. “Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.”
“Where did these devout people come from?” This is the first time that the Christian gospel is being preached to them and yet they are so ready to receive it. Was it the presence of the Jews among them, and their message of the One God that had influenced them to be devout? Was their devotion due to the highest expectations of the religion of the ancient Greeks as taught within the high philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? It is a good question, and the answer points to one conclusion: God has always revealed the nature of the Godhead to the people. And they understand it according to the lights given to them at that time.
Compare this to the portion of Isaiah we heard today. God is speaking about Cyrus, remember, a pagan, a non- Israelite:
“For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me. So that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me.”
It is fascinating that these words are spoken about a person who is not an Israelite. God, throughout the centuries, has called people by name even though these people do not know him.
Somehow it gives a great comfort to read this; great comfort and hope to read about the many devout women who responded to Paul’s message about Jesus. Even since I was a child I have imagined the earth as a fertile ground ready to receive the word of God which is sown everywhere. The assurance that we are called by name says to me that God has not abandoned God’s people.
This explains so much about what is happening in Africa today. Our Anglican bishops, priests and missionaries tell us that the people of Africa are coming to the faith by the thousands. They are responding to a message of hope in a world that must look to them hopeless. Most of them are displaced from their homes, living in appalling conditions. The missionary Marc Nikkel who has given himself to the people of Sudan tells that the Sudanese Anglicans are people of the sweetest spirit and that the church there has created thousands of new hymns in the midst of their plight as refugees and exiles from their ancestral homes.
Those of us who have had the great privilege of visiting other lands, in the so-called Third World countries, come back full of stories of the faith we encounter among people who barely have enough to eat, who lack clean water and who have no assurance that their children will survive childhood diseases. We come back energized by their faith and their conviction that God is good. In the same manner, Paul praises the people of Thessaloniki for their faith, steadfastness and their hospitality. Twenty centuries later the same words echo about those who are hearing the gospel and responding throughout the globe. Thanks be to God.
The next important message of this epistle deals with eschatology, the end of time, the last days. The early Christians, initially Paul among them, believed that Jesus was coming soon, within their lifetime, to take them to be with him through eternity. The believers in Thessaloniki were troubled that Christians who lived among them were dying. What did this mean? Did not the Lord promise that they would not taste death?
Paul deals with this later in the epistle, telling them that, yes, they were to expect the coming of Jesus but the timetable was not assured. When the church is persecuted and when earthly life is full of pain, there is a longing in the Christian for the life that is to come.
I remember vividly the prayers I heard during prayer meetings in Thessaloniki during World War II. There was an occupation on the land, there was starvation among the people and great poverty. Most of the prayers ended with a longing that Christ would return soon to take us where there would be no more tears and suffering. And I remember that I did not hear similar prayers when I came to the states. I realized then that when life here is good and easy we don’t long for heaven. The longing for heaven, with all that word implies, is vivid among those whose earthly life is very difficult. That doesn’t mean that the people are escapist or that they don’t care about justice and peace on earth. It simply means that their suffering is unbearable and faith in something beyond is essential to their survival. The wonderful Spirituals that emerged from the African-American experience of slavery remind us today of that strong longing among people who knew suffering.
We can learn a great deal from that kind of longing, I think. We must do all in our power to bring justice to a hurting world so that the kingdom begins here. “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But we must never become so comfortable that we forget that this is not the beginning and end of all life, and that we were created for eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The early Christians held on to that hope in the midst of untold persecution. We know now that Christians are being openly persecuted in Nigeria and more subtly in many other places. We must never become so comfortable here that we forget them.
And lastly, I hear these words as an antidote to despair and loss of hope. The believers in ancient Thessaloniki expected the Lord to return to take them to glory so they would stop suffering and dying. But that did not happen. They all tasted death. And yet, 20 centuries later, millions upon millions of Christians still derive hope from these letters and know that death is not the end. Like the Christians before us we believe that Christ overcame death, and Sunday after Sunday we remember his death and resurrection at the Eucharist. May this same hope sustain us today as it sustained the Thessalonians Saint Paul loved with a holy love. Amen.
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