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Sunday, August 12, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Turning the World Upside Down

“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 34:1–8
Acts 17:1–15

The key figure in public life is the stranger. The stranger is also a central figure in biblical stories of faith, and for good reason. The religious quest, the spiritual pilgrimage, is always taking us into new lands where we are strange to others and they are strange to us.

Parker Palmer

I want to begin this sermon with a recognition that there are some texts in our scripture that have, on the surface, anti-Jewish sentiment. A portion of today’s text could be heard in that way. I think it is quite important to read these texts with the realization that they are time-bound readings and to be very careful to read them with their fullest intent and not with narrow understanding. Thank you!

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Some years ago I had the rare privilege of an up close and personal engagement with the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. As a distinguished alumnus of Macalester College, where I served as chaplain, he came to campus on occasion, usually to be honored by the college. I was quite surprised when I received a call from the office of the President of Macalester stating that Secretary Annan asked to tour the chapel as part of his visit. There was no particular reason for this request except that the chapel was not built until after Kofi Annan graduated. He had not been in the building and wanted to see it.

I greeted him at the door of the chapel on a Saturday morning, him along with his security detail. They had cased the building prior to his arrival. Mr. Annan was genuinely kind to me as I toured him around the outside of the chapel, showing him things like a Torah scroll that was on loan to the college for ninety-nine years—a Czech Torah scroll recovered from a synagogue that was burning in World War II. Secretary Annan was also very interested in the multifaith banners that were mounted on the walls of the chapel, representing the range of the religious and spiritual traditions and backgrounds of our students. He asked what my religious background is. I told him Presbyterian. He smiled, and then he went into the chapel sanctuary. He approached the front of the space with silent reverence, standing as if he was waiting for something to happen.

I remember a look on his face as he stood there—a look of what? Sorrow? Trust? Knowing? Worry? Understanding? And I thought of the world that rested on his shoulders—the whole wide world of it. I wondered if he was looking or listening or seeing something in that little chapel at his alma mater that might turn the world upside down. He must have stood there for five minutes, perhaps praying or perhaps allowing that space to give him space, waiting for something. His security detail seemed antsie for him to move along; they paced in the back of the chapel. About then the college president came to let him know that the next group was waiting for him. Secretary Annan made his way to the back of the chapel to leave but not without stopping to thank me.

That day I was absolutely moved by the experience of intimacy and grace that arose from Kofi Annan’s presence in the chapel. But I was even more moved by watching this man, whose reach was global and whose experience had taken him to the most pernicious issues on the planet. I suspected that his daily vocation as the Secretary General of the United Nations must have been one of continuous stirring, with a world gone mad to a great extent. But there was a calm in the clamor. It seemed that the power and authority that met him that morning in that chapel was beyond words, and I realized in that moment that he was reaching for something in his request to see the chapel. Though it may have been he simply wanted to see it, I had the sense that there was more to the request than simply a sighting. Was he reaching for the authoritative constitution of religious communities? It sent a shock through me, because I realized my vision for my work at that small college was constricted. My reach was into the hearts of students and the campus. Secretary Annan helped me realize that the power and authoritative constitution of the church in which I am ordained has the potential to reach and engage known and unknown worlds.

This summer’s sermon series entitled “The Spirit Revolution” has focused on the founding of the church as recounted in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We have traveled many miles together with Peter and Paul and Silas and Priscilla and Dorcas and others. We have encountered healing, raising from the dead, theology formed out of engaging text and trial, challenges to the Jewish dietary restrictions, and challenges to one’s assumptions about the ordering of society and practice. But it occurs to me that we underestimate the revolutionary power of the church and the upending power of its message, which meets people in the course of their lives, whether in a chapel on a college campus or in the narrative of faith that is awakened when we hear stories of the Christian church throughout the ages.

In the portion from Acts that we read today, Paul and Silas are making their way across Greece when they come to Thessalonica. Thessalonica is sort of an ancient version of Chicago—a commerce center at the crossroads. It is a sophisticated place with an established Jewish and Gentile community. Paul’s custom upon entering a new city was to make his first stop the local synagogue. This was not a kind pastoral call but a time of hard-hitting theological and scriptural engagement. His task was to explain and demonstrate how the apostolic witness of those who came before Paul pointed to Jesus as Messiah; it is based on his suffering, death, and resurrection. The initial response from those who heard Paul was positive, both by Jewish members of the synagogue and by Gentile God-fearers. Many of those who responded were prominent women, perhaps tied to their husbands’ wealth, but it appears they may have been responding to the message independently of their husbands.

It all seems quite reasonable. But then the trouble erupts. It might have had to do with money. Those who were drawn to Paul’s message may have realized that membership and support of the synagogue was no longer absolute; their loyalty shifted. Or it might have had to do with resentment: these outsiders are stirring things up—rabble-rousers, disturbing the peace, undoing what is in place. And the brewing trouble was also theologically driven.

At that moment, the authorities and some thugs went into the city to find Paul and Silas. They charged them with the grievous crime of “turning the world upside down.” The rabble-rousers wound up dragging Jason, someone we haven’t heard of to date in scripture and who doesn’t show up again, out of his house, accusing him of offering hospitality to Paul and Silas. But Jason and other believers were quickly let go on bail as Paul and Silas have moved on to the more receptive territory of Beroea. But the highly charged and deeply compelling message of the apostles continued to hold sway: turn your life around and follow Jesus and life will take on new and untold awakening. Step over into the life of faith and you are taken into community, into the life of faith that addresses every trouble, every strand of worry, every heartbreak, every addiction, every fear that arises in your soul at daybreak or in the dark of night. Join hands, then, children of the faith, says the hymn, “In Christ there is no East or West,” and indeed, this is the simple but world-undoing word of the church for the first and for the twenty-first century.

I think at the core of this text is the message of Acts—that when the church is planted in the world it turns the world upside down, with large, earth-shaking implications. It also has practical, down-to-earth, daily implications about how we order our life together in this congregation, in this city, and in the larger commerce of life in which we engage.

In an essay written in the 1990s, Union Seminary professor Larry Rasmussen provides an interesting perspective. He says, “Our historical season at the end of the second millennium of the Common Era bears an eerie resemblance to the time when Christianity began on the three continents of the Mediterranean basin. Like that time, ours is a ‘Hellenistic’ era—diverse, cosmopolitan, multilingual, multiracial, multicultural, multireligous, fragmented, eclectic, riddled by extremes of all kinds, and more than a little violent.” He goes on,

We often feel dislocated and off-center, just as people did then. . . . Almost everyone worried about moral degradation. . . . What the first Christians offered such an age was not only a common loyalty [to Jesus] but also a certain way of leaning into a turbulent world with their own particular practices. . . . They related all of this to real human needs and—perhaps most important of all—offered a place of high participation to community members from all ranks and with diverse gifts. (Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Practicing Our Faith, p. 129)

Their work arose from a “creative deviance on the front lines” (Rasmussen’s phrase), with the Spirit as the leader, shaping the community as it went along.

So also in our time. The church has a distinct role in our society, and the sum total of this activity results in turning the world upside down. This accusation of the early church as a community that turns the world upside down is a true statement. The movement Jesus launched is one that turns the entire social order we are part of on its head. In its upending role the church is most damning to cultural structures. Some have said that it was the conversion of Constantine that came at a time when the church got cozy with government structures. At that time Christianity took up stability over change, “hierarchy prevailed over egalitarianism, male-held office triumphed over gender equality, power was more centralized than dispersed and social, political and economic privilege lodged with the few rather than the many” (Larry Rasmussen, Practicing Our Faith, p. 127). Yet we see that throughout history, renewal movements have appeared over and over again, hearkening back to the original structures we see in the formation of the early church. Think Martin Luther’s priesthood of all believers and his work of translating the Bible into the language of the people; think Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, and others that renewed the early impulse of congregational life and peace practices; think house churches and liberation communities—black, queer, Latin American, feminist, Asian. There is a radical reordering of life lived out in these movements. And my question is, Are we in another moment of renewal as the global Christian community?

In our time we find the church with the challenge of engaging a culture that, like Secretary Annan’s world, is writ large with challenges. The early church, with its radical obedience to the good news of Jesus Christ, stirred things up, was on the run, had its fights over theology and practice, but is a continuous reminder that the work of God in that time and this is to gather folks in, to feed the hungry and our souls, and we are here to face up to the broken heart of this world—to heal, to cast out demons, to preach and teach and to support the weak and uphold the faint of heart. It is a place of radical equality where in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ. It also listens to the soul of our world, to the soul’s longing in those with whom we share this life. It calls us to listen for the message of hope that addresses fear of the other; to listen to the message of the gospel, the powerful, world-changing, life-bearing truth of God made present in Jesus Christ. Our call is to give or receive a cup of cool water, or a light in the dark, a quiet chapel space where deep encounters occur, for the weary, the shivering, the lost, and even the found, by God, in communities of grace! Amen.