An Upside-Down Kingdom

In Acts 17, Paul and Silas were preaching about Jesus in Thessalonica and they were having some degree of success, so some of the Jews got angry and they formed a mob to drag them out and deal with them.  Verse 6 tells us, “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…”  (Acts 17:6).

            What an interesting way to describe these Christians – “men who have turned the world upside down.”

            It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it, that anyone could make such an impact on the world that people would say, “They’ve turned this world upside down.”  I mean, there are people – even Christians — who live their whole life and the world hardly even notices them.  But here were some Christians of whom the world said, “They have turned us upside-down.” 

            Now, I’m not absolutely certain of what they meant by that, but I do think that ought to be a description of every Christian.  Because we are disciples of Christ.  We follow Jesus, a man who turned this world upside-down.  Let me explain what I mean by that.

            Jesus said that when heaven comes to earth, everything will get turned upside-down.  In Matthew 19, Jesus said to [his apostles], ‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:28-30)

            In the age to come, things are going to get flipped.  Many of those who are on top right now will find themselves on the bottom in the age to come, and many of those on the bottom right now will find themselves on top.  We see this in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, where, after dying, the rich man is in torment, but the poor man Lazarus is in paradise.

            And Abraham says to the rich man, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Luke 16:25).  Which is simply to say –The first will be last, and the last will be first.

            And so, it’s not surprising that as Jesus taught us about how we are to bring God’s kingdom to earth right here, right now, we need to start looking at things upside-down.

            For example, in Matthew 20, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:25-27).

            In the Sermon on the Mount, we see everything turned upside-down.  The world says, “An eye for an eye.”  Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek.”  The world says, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

            But nowhere is this upside-down thinking any more evident than in the Beatitudes.  Oscar Romero, who was assassinated for preaching the gospel in El Salvador, once made the statement, “Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down…”

            And it’s true.  The world says, “Think highly of yourself.”  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The world says, “Your happiness is all that matters.” Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  The world says, “Show them who’s the boss.”  Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.”  Christ elevates people that the world doesn’t think are important.

            And if you were reading the Beatitudes for the first time, you might think Jesus was either crazy or cruel.  You see, in the first century, there was this common assumption that if you were blessed by God, your life would look a certain way.  And if you didn’t have the favor of God, your life would look a different way.  And so, if you were healthy and wealthy, it was assumed that you were right with God, and if you were poor or sick, then it was assumed that you had done something to anger God.  

            That was the theology of Job’s friends, we see it in the apostles when they asked Jesus about the man who had been born blind in John 9, and it’s still a common way of thinking about God today.  Turn on most television evangelists, and you will hear them say that if you follow Jesus you should have a full bank account and no health problems.

            Our society, and sometimes even our religion, says blessed are those who have a lot; blessed are the strong; blessed are the powerful.  But Jesus turned things upside-down.

            Jesus told the poor, the meek, the persecuted that their reward will be great in heaven. We tend to read that and think it means only that we will receive a reward after our earthly life is over.  But to a Jew, heaven was much more than just something that happens after you die.  Heaven is where things are as God intends.

            And so, in God’s kingdom, these people who are lowly are never seen as second class.  In fact, just the opposite. They are blessed right now.  But that wasn’t just something that Jesus taught.  For the rest of his ministry, Jesus practiced what he preached, or as someone has put it, he “partied what he preached”.

            You see, Jesus wasn’t crucified by the religious leaders because he was a nice guy.  He was killed for saying that God’s blessings belong to the least of these, and then he spent his entire life living out that reality.  In Luke 15:2, “the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”

            In fact, Jesus made it a point to reach out to every category of person who had been shunned by the elite of society, by the religious leaders and the experts in the Law.  Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners, with prostitutes and lepers, and people of other races and poor people, men, women, and children.

            And, in doing so, Jesus threw open the doors of God’s kingdom as wide as possible. He made it clear that everyone, everywhere, is invited to be a part of God’s kingdom.

            There’s a story in Luke 14 where Jesus went to a banquet and he saw the way everyone was competing for the seats closest to the place of honor.   You see, in that day, where you sat determined everything about your banquet experience.  From how much you got to eat to how other people viewed you as a person. The culture that Jesus was born into, was what is called an honor/shame culture.

            And the most important thing for a person to obtain in that day was honor, and the worst thing that could happen was for you to bring shame upon yourself and your family.  And so, at a banquet, guests would situate themselves in relation to the person with the most prestige.   Because the closer you were to that important person, the more honor was granted to you.

            But Jesus was opposed to such a system.  He didn’t just warn his followers about pursuing seats of honor: He condemned the entire system!  And he wants to know, are we going to be like everyone else and be drawn to the people that everyone else says are important?  

            And don’t tell me that we’re not tempted to do that.  If you go on vacation and catch a flight to California, and find yourself sitting next to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson or Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman, I guarantee you can’t wait to put that on your Facebook page, to tell all your friends.   Because we like sitting next to someone who’s important.

            But right after Jesus gave his disciples a new way of thinking about the seating chart at a banquet, Jesus talked about changing up our guest list as well.

            Jesus said in Luke 14, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

            Jesus said that we should invite people who have so little standing in society, and so little money and influence, that they can’t possibly help you advance our cause, our reputation, our career, or our bank account.  According to Jesus, the people we should invite should include the lame, the blind, and the poor.  And he says that wherever we throw a party that includes them, we will find the blessing of God.

            And did you notice what Jesus said at the end?  “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  This is the reason Jesus gave for doing things differently — God will repay us at the resurrection.  And, on that day, God will give us honor. 

            You see, every single one of us wants to be honored by others, to be recognized by others, to be approved by others, even if we don’t realize it.  And we will try to get that approval from everyone we can.  We may work 80-hour weeks to build a career that others will admire.  We try to get approval from our family or friends.  We compare our achievements and our character to that of other people, hoping that in the last day, God will grade on a curve.  We chase after honor and recognition without realizing that the deepest hunger of our souls is to be recognized and honored by God.

            And if you don’t think you have this problem, then consider this question — If you could get recognized by others without having to do much, or get no credit at all for pouring your life into doing the right thing, which would you choose?

            And when I’m honest with myself, I catch myself wanting to be known as a servant more than I want to serve.  I want to be known as a kind and generous person more than I want to be kind and generous.  We often want to be recognized for doing the right thing more than we want to be bothered with doing the right thing.

            Jesus said that the resurrection is the key to how we can let go of that tendency. Because God is watching and one day, when heaven come down to earth, God will set this world right.  And, on that day, he will expose what we’ve done in our lives (both the good and the bad).  And Jesus knows that we will never feel the greatest sense of accomplishment until the day when we hear those words, “Well done!” from the One who made us.  

            Most of what Jesus said doesn’t make any sense apart from the resurrection.  Blessed are the meek?  Blessed are the poor? Those statements don’t make any sense unless there is a day when God will give honor to people like that.

            Which is one of the reasons that I think Jesus talked so much about the resurrection.  Resurrection isn’t just some abstract doctrine.  Resurrection means that the way things are right now is not the way they always will be.

            Someone has suggested that the reason the Sadducees, the most wealthy and powerful Jewish sect of Jesus’s day, didn’t believe in the resurrection, was because people who find themselves on top don’t like the idea of God turning the world upside down. And that’s exactly what the resurrection will do.

            But Jesus wants us to bring God’s future into the present, to bring heaven here to this earth right now. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  With every banquet that Jesus attended, with every party that Jesus threw, he reminds us that God sees how those who are privileged try to protect their honor and compete against others.  He sees how we chase honor at the expense of the well-being of others, and Jesus makes it clear that, one day, God is going to do something about it.

            Jesus isn’t telling us not to be ambitious, but he does call into question the direction of our ambition.  Because Jesus said there will be a day of resurrection where everything is turned upside down.  And, in that moment, when it becomes apparent what Jesus’s values are and how our values compare to that, which seat do you suppose is going to be the best one to be seating in?  If God’s kingdom is coming here to this earth, which seat do you really want to pursue in this life?

            Jesus made it clear, that in God’s kingdom, those who have little are blessed.  Those who are unemployed are blessed.  So are those who are anxious, the mentally ill, the unpopular.  Blessed is the person with a disability, the person who has very little in the way of worldly goods.  If you feel like you’re on the bottom, then take comfort in knowing that the kingdom of God is a place where things get turned upside-down.

            But I’ve got to be honest with you.  The church hasn’t always done a good job of living that out.              It has often been noted that Sunday-morning church assemblies are the most segregated times of the week in America, and churches aren’t just segregated along ethnic and racial lines. We separate ourselves by socio-economics, by political parties, by minor theological distinctions.  We look down on churches who worship differently or have different methods for serving God and their neighbors.

            And none of this is new.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul gave those Christians some practical advice on everything from how to deal with disagreements to their sexual morality. But then he got to the real heart of their problem.  And it was a problem similar to the banquet seating-chart issue.  But it was affecting how they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper

            In I Corinthians 11, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 

            “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)

            Paul says, “Your church gatherings are doing more harm than good!” which is one of the harshest things that Paul ever said to anyone.  He even gets a bit sarcastic when he says, “Of course there need to be divisions among you!  How else would we know who God approves of?”

            Far too often, we’ve been in assemblies that bear the name of Jesus, but which behave exactly the way Jesus warned us not to. We divide up the world in ways that reinforce the status quo and current divisions among people.  All the while, we forget that Jesus spent his time with all the “other” people and if we’re not spending time with those people, we severely limit the time we spend with Jesus.

            I heard about a man who was serving in a Christian ministry for prostitutes. This ministry tried to help people get out of an industry that is very difficult to escape.  He wrote about sitting in a circle that included former and current prostitutes, and he asked them why they thought Jesus was so intentional about reaching out to prostitutes.

            There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the women said, in broken English, “[Other people have] someone to look down on.  Not us.  Our families, they feel shame of us.  No mother nowhere looks at her little girl and says, ‘Honey, when you grow up I want you be good prostitute.’…Believe me, we know how people feel about us.  People call us names: whore, slut, hooker, harlot.  We feel it too.  We are at the bottom.  And sometimes when you are at the low, you cry for help.  So when Jesus comes, we respond.  Maybe Jesus meant that.”

            In most churches, we focus on the broad majority of people, and we try to develop a strategy to attract as many like-minded people as possible.  But doing that will always leave some people out.  It leaves out those people on the margins who don’t fit in with everyone else.

            But for Jesus, those people on the margins were at the very center of his ministry.  The guests who were invited to a Jesus party were those who had been excluded by everyone else.  And with Jesus, they ate and drank and celebrated the grace of God, which is open to all and rejected only by the people who think they can find their way to God by some other means.

            And so, Jesus’ people gather every week to celebrate God’s grace, which has been given generously to all who are on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  As we gather, we invite others to join us.  But we need to make sure that we invite the same kind of people that Jesus invited.

            In the kingdom of God, the door of God’s grace is opened so wide that no one is excluded. That’s why we call it good news.  In God’s kingdom, the only people who are excluded are those who think they have better things to do.

            And so, in Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet in Luke 14, the people who had better things to do were the important, busy, in-demand people.  In other words, the ones who chose not to be included were successful, popular, and admired. Which ought to make us all stop and think.

            Several years ago, there was a church that ran the follow article in their church bulletin:

            “All are welcome here.  But we extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, those who are skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

            “We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our preacher who can’t carry a note in a bucket.  We welcome you here if you just woke up or just got out of jail.  We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s baptism.

            “We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, and junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.  We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion.”

            “If you blew all your offering money last night at the dog track, tough luck for us.  You’re still welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

            “We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.  We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts…in short, we welcome you!”

            There’s something about that welcome that is so open-armed that you feel like they really meant it. They worked hard to imagine all the different places that people come from when they approach God, including those people who may not feel like they fit in anywhere.  They wanted to make sure everyone knows that God is not surprised or put off by anyone’s way of life.  The kingdom is open to all.

            But reading an invitation like me makes me think.  It makes me question whether I have welcomed those who don’t seem to fit anywhere, or whether I’m more content to invite people who are just like me.

            Someday, heaven will come down to earth and everything will get turned upside-down.  But, our prayer is that God’s kingdom will come, right here, right now.  Our prayer is that we may live in a way that the world views us as upside-down.  So that perhaps one day, people will talk about Cruciform the same way they talked about Paul and Silas — “These are the people who have turned the city of Spring Lake upside down.”

            “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

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