A Sermon for Covenant
“It’s Our Business to Be Subversives”
November 18, 2012
Acts 17: 1-9; 19:23-41; Phil. 3:17-4:1
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
The formation of this sermon has been long in coming. It was being conceived, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, over the course of the last few years, intensifying over the course of 2012 and reaching its tipping point this month. Its places of gestation have ranged from blogs to editorials to news articles to comment sections on websites of different stripes and to the content of and response to the flood of campaign commercials, claims, counter-claims and robo-calls.
It seems that the public has created its own interesting definition of Jesus and His church. Depending upon where the viewer is positioned, Jesus is primarily concerned about matters of marriage, sexuality, economic policies and fighting terrorism at home and abroad. Others see a Jesus who loves everyone just as they are, is never ugly or hateful or intolerant toward anything other than those who are hateful and intolerant as the viewer defines hatred and intolerance. In this portrait the church should be more like their version of Jesus, loving and tolerating everyone, feeding the hungry, taking care of the poor, and otherwise keeping its collective noses out of the way people choose to live. Religion and church are privatized, simply one condiment or menu item among many in our cosmopolitan, pluralistic smorgasbord. If Jesus can make me feel better about myself, help me solve my issues, make my children behave, play therapist, and otherwise stay out of the way, life will be fine. This Jesus is everyone’s friend who would never do anything that would disturb us from living life as we see fit.
Yet is this the same picture of Jesus and the church that we find in the New Testament? How in the world could someone who loved everyone, helped everyone, tolerated everyone end up naked and bleeding on a Roman cross? Why would the practice of his friends and followers telling everyone they could about this Jesus result in entire cities being thrown into turmoil while those who were sharing the news about Jesus are threatened, mobbed, jailed, beaten, and sometimes killed? The pieces don’t quite seem to fit- in fact it seems like we’re piecing together parts from very different puzzles.
If we were to take a word association quiz and asked for our response to the word “church”, answers might range from peaceful to boring, friendly to cold, welcoming to narrow-minded, and its members as anything from simple, kind, pious, contemplative people to deluded, intolerant hypocrites. Yet I wonder if anyone would look at the church of Jesus and first think of words like “un-American”, “dangerous”, or “subversive”. But in the stories we’re looking at today, that’s precisely what the church becomes when it is faithfully proclaiming and living the story of Jesus.
When we read of Paul and his companions coming to Thessalonica and Ephesus, we’re told that the content of their preaching was: 1) It was necessary for Christ to die and rise from the dead, and 2) the Kingdom of God and the Way. And the result was turmoil in Thessalonica and a riot in Ephesus. Why did the people respond this way?
The Thessalonians claimed that Paul and his co-workers had caused trouble all over the world, that they were acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees and claiming that there was another king named Jesus – all because Paul was preaching, and some were believing, that it was necessary for Christ to die and rise from the dead. Why was there such a negative reaction? Because the message of the cross, and that the cross was necessary, rips apart the way we see ourselves and the lives we have carefully crafted; it questions the values and priorities we have adopted and even challenges the foundations of what we have chosen to call reality.
Paul’s message tells us a truth that the world would suppress or deny, a truth that is still a stumbling block and scandal, even within some church circles. That truth is that we are NOT all right, that, as Paul told the Philippians, apart from Christ we are people who worship our appetites, take pride in things that should shame us and have our minds focused on earthly things. In biblical language, we’re told that we are worshipping idols of our own making, and Paul’s message takes dead aim at the vested interests of our culture and our unapologetic cult of the individual ego. The message that Christ HAD to die tells the truth about the unredeemed human heart, it explodes our illusions and exposes reality so that we might finally be healed and transformed. It confronts us with the foundational reality that there IS another king – that it is not our selves or our culture or our way of life or “American dream” that is the ultimate authority, but rather that the Jesus we crucified and God resurrected is actually the true and rightful Lord, both of the heart and of the world.
That’s why we read about Demetrius and the riot in the theatre of Ephesus. Demetrius realized that the message about Jesus was a threat to life as he knew it. He could see people being healed, a power that could not be imitated or borrowed, a reality that was leading people to confess their evil and repent, often at great personal cost. He realized that the message of the Kingdom of God and the call to follow Jesus in the Way was subversive, would undermine everything. As he says to his co-workers, allowing this message to spread will destroy us financially, people will change their minds about us and our understanding of what’s real; our beliefs and way of life will be discredited and we will look like liars and fools. In short this claim that the crucified resurrected Jesus is the true king threatens everything: our economic prosperity, our reputations, our national pride, our place in the world. It did, and still does.
And so the riot begins, and as Luke describes the scene, the theatre in Ephesus is crammed with thousands of furious shouting people reduced to mindlessly, frantically shouting their slogans of belief: Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! From a short distance away they seem like upset children with fingers buried in their ears, believing that high volume can validate their faith — that if we can shout these Way-followers down, if we listen only to those who think and believe like us, our way of life will survive. Even those in charge who quiet the mob and dismiss the assembly do so by appealing to popular opinion, reaffirming what “everybody knows”, as if truth is something determined by majority vote and the voice of people is always the voice of God.
The riot serves to remind us that every culture and society has at its core a set of beliefs, of stories and myths about its origins, power, image, and destiny. These in turn determine that society’s worldview, its social structures, and what is considered “proper” or “loyal” thinking and behavior. And one way that we can recognize that a society has invested itself in something other than truth is when that society’s response to a calm, clear presentation of the Gospel is to shout louder, to reinforce the myths they have overinvested in.
But as for those who are followers of Christ— Paul tells us in Philippians that we are not like those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. We are not to be like those who worship and are driven by their appetites, by what they want, so that whatever I want is something I now urgently have to have. We are not like those who believe that our tastes and preferences, whether active or passive, functional or dysfunctional, dynamic or contemplative are things God will conform to. Instead, we are those who seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, its vision, knowing that our God provides for our needs.
We are not like those who glory in what we should be ashamed of. Mark Twain once commented that Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to. But it is possible to be so darkened in our thinking, so accommodating in our sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, of truth and falsehood that, like those people Paul describes in Romans 1, we move from being horrified about an attitude or behavior to tolerating it to accepting it to defending it to actually encouraging and applauding it. When Christ-followers are accused, like Paul in Thessalonica, of “turning the world upside-down”, it needs to be realized that it is the way of Christ that actually turns an upside world with its reversed moral values right side up again. We are in fact subversives working to make things right. We are in the position of being the only truth-tellers in a world of liars; and in such a position the world will believe that we are lying because we are contradicting everything they believe. Don’t be surprised by this when it happens.
We are not like those whose minds are set on earthly things, invested in the myth of our self-sufficiency, focused on the acquisition of material gain, as if things are the most important things. We do not allow ourselves to be thrilled and entranced by those that the world considers powerful, great, or worthy of celebrity. Instead we are those who, in Jesus’ words, invest in treasures in heaven which cannot be stolen or victimized by rot or destruction. We are not like those whose destiny is not blessing, but destruction.
And why is this so? It is because our citizenship, that is our identity, our focus, our loyalty, is in heaven, is that of the kingdom of God. Our focus is on the Christ who alone has rightful power and authority. Our destiny, which began to be realized the day we recognized that He, rather than we, is Lord and King, is transformation. Our hope, confidence and joy is that when our King comes, we will be like Him in everything. And in this Paul says we are to stand firm – in the eyes of the unbelieving world deserving only of contempt and ridicule, but in the eyes of the true King, faithful, grateful servants.
When the Nazis occupied France, some Frenchmen surrendered and submitted to the ways of the invaders. Some even collaborated with those who came to conquer and enslave them. Yet there were those known as the Underground, as the Resistance who gave all they had and were to undermine and subvert the enemies who would silence, corrupt, and destroy all they held as precious and true. As we approach the Sunday of Christ the King and begin our watching in Advent, let us be like them. For in a world enslaved to sin and death, our business, our mission as followers of the Way is subversive. Let us carry out our mission faithfully. Amen.