Luke writes that the claim is “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here…” It is how the early Christians saw themselves at work in the world. That the name of Jesus is invoked by Paul and Silas is sufficient to cause concern among the civil authorities. And, my friends, that hasn’t changed in two thousand years. The church is the church when it is stirring the pot.
Risky Business, Acts 17; 1st Thessalonians
So, here we are at the third Sunday after Easter. As a place to begin I’ve chosen the seventeenth chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. That requires that we skip over thirteen whole chapters of the activities of the early Church. Those chapters relate many significant events in the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. For our purposes I’m going suggest that when Paul and Silas get to Thessalonica it is the end of the earth. Luke portrays Paul as traveling the Via Egnatia, a major Roman highway connecting the eastern and western parts of the empire. He stops at urban centers along the way, preaching the gospel in the synagogues “as was his custom.”
But this is no back water undeveloped place. First Century Macedonia was a thriving metropolitan area, and Thessalonica was the second largest city in Greece. It had a diverse population that along with the majority of Greeks, or Gentiles, as they are called, included a well established community of Jews
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, 3explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” 4Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. 6When 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, 7and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” 8The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, 9and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.
As the story begins Paul, as is usual, making a beeline for the local synagogue where for three successive Sabbaths he “argues” the cause of Jesus Christ. This comment about arguing sounds a bit more contemporary than it was. Some Christians today have evidently concluded that you can argue people into the Kingdom of God. The Greek word translated as “Argument” means formal reasoning, lecturing, and even preaching. A better translation is that he is “explaining and proving from the Scriptures common to Judaism and Christianity that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you”. In other words, Paul’s argumentation starts with that which his hearers in the Synagogues consider to be an accepted authority — the Scriptures — and then applies it to that which is radically new and difficult to accept — Jesus as the Christ.
The good news that Luke reports is that Paul has some success, and welcomes some synagogue leaders as well as some devout men and women from the community to the faith.
Success comes at a cost. For some in this Roman community the word “messiah” is too provocative. Their accusation is that “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The Acts passage relates that other religious leaders are “jealous” of Paul’s success, and make mischief in the city with the help of some hooligans. The fall guy isn’t Paul or Silas, it’s a local named Jason, with whom, evidently, Paul and Silas had taken up residence. Most likely he was a new convert. Jason gets arrested is dragged by a mob to city authorities.
But here’s the line I want to hold up for us. Luke writes that the claim is “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here…” It is how the early Christians saw themselves at work in the world. That the name of Jesus is invoked by Paul and Silas is sufficient to cause concern among the civil authorities. And, my friends, that hasn’t changed in two thousand years. The church is the church when it is stirring the pot. When it is engaged in turning the world upside down. When the faith community has integrity it has been and continues to be political, you can’t get around it.
Confirming what we hear about in Acts 17 Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians makes reference to persecution of the Thessalonian faith community. In his letter Paul greets the church warmly, recalling its members’ faith, hope, and love, and reminding them of their connection with the missionaries: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7).
When people of faith serve a God who is “living and true”, those with a stake in the status quo, those in power, get uncomfortable. Pope Francis not only chastised governments over their failure to take in the masses fleeing the violence of their home lands he just brought a family of refugees home with him. There is a long list of cities where efforts have been made recently to outlaw the distribution of food to the hungry and homeless. The churches that participate in Family Promise, serving homeless families, for some reason has become a target. Spokane has an ordinance that prohibits people from laying down or sitting in a public spaces, primarily where tourists are likely to see that Spokane has a problem with people who are adrift. We aren’t alone in this. North Carolina’s legislature just went ballistic over who can use public restrooms. One pastor placed on Facebook this conversation: Colleague: “My congregation voted not to hang out a banner saying ‘Torture is a moral issue’ because it is too political.” Me: “Why do they think Jesus died? For their sins?”
The founding of the Thessalonian church took place in a political environment which was challenged by the person of Jesus, clearly alive and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, and unnerving enough in the life and ministry of Paul and Silas to cause fights to break out and authorities to round up the usual suspects (who turned out, often, to be church-type people). The disciples Christ gathered around him continued, in turn, to gather others for connecting us with God and each other…” That’s our example. Like them, we are called in our present political environment, in the name of Jesus, to challenge injustice and oppression, to challenge the use of violence where diplomacy is more effective. It’s easy to get confused by Jesus’ call to cross the line from abstract piety to what is euphemistically called “meddling.” That’s especially true where meddling reflects Paul’s description of the work of the Thessalonians where they became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.
It can be a risky business.