Sunday, July 29, 2012

Upside Down (Acts 17:1-9)

Paul and Silas journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, then came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was Paul’s custom, he entered the synagogue and for three Sabbaths interacted with them on the basis of the scriptures. 3 Through his interpretation of the scriptures, he demonstrated that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He declared, “This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.”  4 Some were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women.
5 But the Jews became jealous and brought along some thugs who were hanging out in the marketplace. They formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They attacked Jason’s house, intending to bring Paul and Silas before the people. 6 When they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city officials. They were shouting, “These people who have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here. 7 What is more, Jason has welcomed them into his home. Every one of them does what is contrary to Caesar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus.”  8 This provoked the crowd and the city officials even more. 9 After Jason and the others posted bail, they released them.
This morning I would like to begin with a basic geography quiz.
1.    True or false: 75-80% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. (True)
2.    How many continents are there on the Earth? (6 or 7)
3.    How many oceans border the United States, and what are they? (3 - Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic)
4.    Who discovered America?
5.    True or false: The Earth is round. (False - at least if you mean perfectly round.) It has an average diameter of 7,922 miles, but the Equatorial diameter is approximately 27 miles greater than the polar diameter, making the actual shape of the Earth an oblong spheroid - flattened slightly at the poles, and bulging slightly at the Equator.

These last three questions help make my point for today, that we sometimes hold something to be true or even common knowledge that is not entirely accurate.  I remember learning that the earth was not round in my college astronomy class and being absolutely blown away by this information.  Since, I dunno, kindergarten, I had always known that the earth was round because we had been taught the story of Christopher Columbus.  Were you taught that most people until the time of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, among other things, he proved that the earth was round?

Come to find out, by the 4th century BCE, 1800 years before Columbus’ famous voyage, it was widely-accepted that the earth was spherical.  The misconception that people at the time of Columbus believed in a flat Earth was listed by the Historical Association (of Britain) as the second most common error in history, and yet how many of us were taught something like that in our schools?

How upsetting and disorienting it can be when we firmly believe something to be true, only to find out that it’s not.  It can turn our world completely upside down.  In the scripture reading we’ve looked at for today, Paul and Silas were accused of turning the world of the religious establishment upside down, by proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, as Savior and Lord.  It would seem when Jesus gets loose in our lives, everything sorta goes topsy-turvy - and that’s actually the good news today. May we pray.

Today’s scripture has us join missionaries Paul and Silas in the middle of one of their journeys.  They have been traveling from city to city in present-day Turkey and Greece, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ along the way.  The message of Jesus is causing quite an uproar everywhere they go, and it seems the crux of the conflict is the age-old tension between what is time-honored, and what is brand new.  The Jewish leaders saw themselves as the guardians of the old message, and they perceived Paul’s Christian gospel to be a brand new threat to all they held dear.

For Paul, however, there should have been no conflict or rivalry between the Jewish message and the Christian message because they were part of the same message!  Rather than the Christian message super ceding the Jewish message, Paul saw the Jewish message and the Christian message like successive chapters in the same story.

We tend to think, as did the Jews in Paul’s day, that being Jewish is one religion and being Christian is another, and that asking Jews to follow Jesus would be asking them to “convert.”  This is what was upsetting to the Jewish leadership - they thought Paul was taking away their following.  In reality, he was inviting them to pick up the next chapter in the story - not to stop being Jewish, but to start following Christ as the most faithful expression of being good Jews.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a baseball player who ends up on first base.  He’s really proud of himself, and he looks around from his new perch and he really likes what he sees.  You’ve got the dugout close by, there’s your buddy the first base coach, beautiful green grass, fans in the stands just a few steps away.  He thinks “First base is awesome!  I’m just gonna camp out here - what could be better than hanging out on first base?  I’m gonna teach the world how to get to first base.  Everyone needs to get to first base, and we’ll all hang out together, and this is as perfect as it’s ever gonna get.”

Now, of course, this baseball player would have missed the point.  Yes, first base is good.  But if all you want to do is hang out there, then you’ve missed the point of the game.  The point is to advance around the bases, to get deeper and deeper involved in the game, if you will, and to eventually make it all the way around and get home.  At some point, you have to move on from first base.  First base wasn’t bad - moving on from first base to second doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you reject everything about first base in favor of second.  Getting to second base presumes everything about first base, you can’t get to second without a stop at first, but to participate most fully in the game, you need to be moving around the bases.

It actually sort of reminds me of John Wesley and the early Methodist movement.  People sometimes think - and we American Methodists are notorious for advancing this myth - that John Wesley left the Church of England to begin Methodism.  In reality, John Wesley remained a clergyman in good standing (well, sortof) his entire life; he never left the Church of England!  It was his intention all along that Methodism would serve as a renewal movement within the established church rather than become its own church.  The Methodist movement presumed everything about the Church of England - whose own tenets were rooted in Scripture and apostolic tradition - as the bedrock upon which its foundations were anchored.

Just as John Wesley was calling the people of his day (and us, too, I might add) to become better Christians, so too were Paul and Silas trying to help the Jews of their day become better Jews by giving their lives to Jesus.  The way of following Jesus was actually the fulfillment of all that had been revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions they had already come to love so deeply.

He was saying, “Hey, if you thought chapter 1 was good - and believe me, it was - just wait until you pick up chapter 2!”  He was inviting them to embrace the ministry of Jesus as resting upon everything that was already established in their Jewish faith - not something new that came out of nowhere, not something that was a threat to what already was.  Paul was pointing to Jesus, and saying “Here is what comes next.  The story of Jesus is part of your story - just have the courage to turn the page and see what comes next, rather than spending all your time rehearsing the chapter you’ve just read.  God is not static or frozen in the past and in need of preservation like some museum piece; God is a living, dynamic God who desires a relationship with each of us, and God is most fully revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”

Religious leaders received this proclamation with cool disdain.  “Take your Jesus and keep going.  Your Jesus is changing everything, and we just can’t have that around here.”

Now, just a sidetrip for a minute: hasn’t it been your experience that an encounter with Jesus DOES change everything?  In fact, if we’ve had a genuine encounter with Jesus and yet nothing has changed in our lives, doesn’t that set off a red flag in your mind?

I was in a coffee shop one time eavesdropping - I mean overhearing - I mean getting useful information for sermon illustrations (yeah, that’s it) - whatever you call it, I was listening to the conversation that was taking place at the table behind me.  Two guys were sitting there, and one was obviously sharing his faith with the other and trying to bring him into the Christian faith.  I don’t doubt the sincerity of his conviction or the intention of his heart, just his sales pitch.  He told the other guy, “You can be a Christian, you can invite Jesus into your life, and nothing else has to change.”

I wanted to turn around and butt in to the conversation - which I am known to do in coffee shops and restaurants and bars and other public places - and say, “Excuse me, but if you invite Jesus into your life, and NOTHING CHANGES, then somehow you didn’t do it right.”

When Jesus gets in your life, EVERYTHING changes.  You DO become a new person.  2 Corinthians 5:17 (CEB): “If anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation.  The old things have gone away, and look! New things have arrived!”  So yes, if you get into Jesus and Jesus gets into you, expect things to change in your life - that’s how it works!

Paul and Silas were accused of turning the world upside down, and guess what - by proclaiming the message of Jesus, that’s exactly what they were doing!  Guilty as charged!  When Jesus gets loose in the human heart, things are going to be different.  They’re supposed to be.  Everything about you will change, and that is how it should be.  Everything will be turned upside down, or at least that’s how it will seem at first.  In reality, Jesus is in the process of turning everything within us right-side up.

Friends, the ministry of Jesus is about getting things within us and within the world turned right-side up.  The church exists to continue that very same ministry - we are the body of Christ, we are the very hands and feet of Jesus in the world - and as Jesus was and is about transforming lives so things are turned around the right way, so too are we in the business of helping people get their lives turned around.

Repent (from the Hebrew "shuve")
Meaning: to turn around and go another way
That’s one of the reasons we talk about “repentance” in church.  Our word “repent” comes from the Hebrew “shuve” which simply means “to turn around and go another way.”  When you’re driving in your car and you’ve got the GPS on and you miss a turn, your GPS will likely say one of two things: “Recalculating” OR “In 500 feet, make a U-turn.”  Your GPS could just as easily say “Repent,” which would be another way of saying, “Turn around.”

Repentance is a two-part process: it involves both “turning away from” sin, and a “turning toward” all the good things God offers in exchange.  Mike Mason, in Champagne for the Soul: Rediscovering God’s Gift of Joy, writes, “Repentance consists of two parts, but many people settle only for the first part.  Repentance means to turn, but many get stuck halfway . . . Indeed, it’s impossible to turn away from greed without turning toward generosity, to put aside lust without taking up love, or to escape bitterness without embracing celebration” (p. 17).

True and complete repentance always involves a change.  We exchange something that is life-draining to ourselves and others for something that is life-giving.  The Psalmist put it this way: “You changed my mourning into dancing.  You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop” (Psalm 30:11, CEB).

The church is in the life transformation business - we are sort of like an exchange center where people can bring the tattered shreds of the life they have tried to make on their own and trade them in for new and glorious garments of joy and praise.  The ministry of Jesus and likewise the ministry of the church is about helping people get their lives turned around, whether in the time of Paul and Silas, John Wesley, or the present day.  I think the motto of the church could easily be the same as the Hokey Pokey Clinic: “A  Place to Turn Your Life Around.” And THAT’S what it’s all about!

It’s one of the reasons we should be honored and pleased that we have groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Insight meeting here at our church through the week.  These groups are all aimed at helping people get their lives turned around.  That’s what we’re about too, so guess what, friends, we are in the same business!  The church is not a museum of religious artifacts; it is a life-transformation station, where those who have a genuine encounter with the life-giving God find their lives upside down and turning around.

I say “turning around” rather than “turned around” because it’s a process.  It may not look like much, but the human will is like a great big lumbering ship out on the ocean, and it can take awhile to get it turned around.  It doesn’t happen in an instant, but it’s a constant process of turning away from sin and turning toward God.  It involves making a turn toward Christ every moment of every day, because given to our own devices, we tend to drift off course.  Jesus is like our true north, and we need to reset the compass of our lives daily if we want to get our wills turned toward his.

True repentance should bring about joy and happiness, not shame and anger.  Mike Mason again: “Many people grow tired of repentance because it doesn’t seem to make them happy.  Yet full repentance is a joyful act in itself.  If we’re not joyful, we haven’t finished repenting.  The sign that we’ve repented well is happiness, as God consumes our sacrifice of sorrow and exchanges it for joy.”

“These men are turning the world upside down.”  “These men are disturbing the peace.”  So read the accusation against Paul and Silas.  So read the accusation against John Wesley.  So read the accusation against Jesus.  How wonderful it would be for the same accusation to be made against us!  I don’t know about you, but if I have a choice between a life that is stable and sorrowful, or one that seems upside down but is joyful, I’m gonna choose joy every time.  What seems upside down is actually right-side up.  Have an encounter with Jesus this week. Hand over your sorrow, and accept his joy in return.

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