“The World Turned Upside Down,” Acts 17: 1-9

On October 17, 1781 a single drummer appeared on the walls of the city of Yorktown in Virginia. Inside the city were over 7000 British soldiers and German mercenaries, comprising almost all of the forces Britain had left in America. The city had been under siege by American and French soldiers under the command of George Washington and Rochambeau since September 28, almost a month. After the drummer got the attention of the American forces long enough for their bombardment of the walls to stop he was replaced by a British officer who unfurled a white flag, surrendering the city and the army inside of it to Washington. If you know your history you know that this was the last major land battle of the American Revolution (if you’re from around here or upstate South Carolina you know that the Yankee history books ignore the fact that if not for victories at Cowpens and King’s Mountain then the British army wouldn’t have been in Virginia and none of it would have happened, but I suppose that’s beside the point). Two days later the British surrender of the city officially took place. Now war was a little more…dignified maybe is the word at this time, not when it got down to actual people fighting but in terms of the way war was done there was more formality to it. If you’ve seen The Patriot you’ve seen this in action, battles at this time involved the two armies lining up and taking turns firing at each other, in the movie a big deal gets made about how Mel Gibson’s group is not playing by those rules with their guerilla attacks and things like that. Surrenders were also very formal affairs. The defeated army was traditionally allowed to march out with their flags flying and bayonets fixed on their muskets, with the band playing a song native to the victors as a sing of mutual respect. Washington denied the British those rights at Yorktown. Don’t worry, they started it. A year earlier, when Charleston fell to the British, the American troops had not been allowed to follow the usual tradition because the British considered them rebels as opposed to a foreign army on equal footing, so here Washington returned the favor. British flags were furled, their weapons remained on their shoulders, and they were forced to march out to a British song. Tradition holds that what they chose was a drinking song called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

Interestingly enough, that was a Christmas song. It was written in the 1640’s when Puritan Christians controlled the British Parliament and outlawed any Christmas celebrations outside of church. The argued that Christmas wasn’t a happen occasion: man was so sinful that God had to send his son to die because we couldn’t do what’s right – nothing happy about that, so nothing festive was allowed: no decorations, no carols, no festivals, nothing except solemn church services.

In Greek, what we see in Acts 17:6 where the mob accuses Paul and Silas of “causing trouble” says directly “turning the world upside down.” Its similar to the language used to describe Jesus overturning the tables in John, there’s a violent connotation to it, it isn’t a casual disruption, Paul and Silas are being accused of causing major damage to the status quo.

This passage is often used as an outline of how Paul’s missionary trips worked. He doesn’t end up in Thessalonica by accident, he’s tactical in what cities he journeys to. Thessalonica was a district capital of Macedonia, it was where the province’s governor lived, and it was the largest port in the region, meaning it was a center of trade and also brought in a diverse group of people. Trade brought in folks of different ethnicities and faiths, and we know that because there is a synagogue in the city. Now that’s important, because Paul always begins his time in a new city by visiting the synagogue. He goes there first and speaks to fellow Jews. This is generally a hit or miss approach, as we see here he gets some converts and also gets opposition, at which point he moves on to gentiles and usually gets a better response. The negative reaction to Paul varies from place to place, here in Thessalonica it pretty intense, so much so that the local authorities end up getting involved.

The mob that comes together and accuses Paul and Silas has two main arguments against them. The first is that one we’ve already mentioned: they’re causing trouble, they’re turning the world upside down, they’re messing with the way things are and the way everyone is comfortable with things being. It is interesting to me where that argument comes from; it isn’t initially Roman officials who have an issue what Paul is doing, we’ve discussed before I think that Rome really didn’t care what you did or who you worshipped as long as you paid your taxes, it isn’t Rome that has a problem with Paul, it is his fellow Jews. It’s the Jews who don’t want things disrupted, who have apparently gotten comfortable with the way things are. That brings up the second accusation, which it maybe more of an expansion: they’re saying there is another king than Caesar, they’re declaring Jesus to be king.

The Jewish opponents of Christianity in the New Testament always become really good Roman citizens when Christians start to threaten the status quo. When Pilate mockingly asks the crowd if they really want their “king” to be killed they scream out that they have no king but Caesar. Here we see it again, this declaration that they’re offended someone would claim to serve a different Lord than the emperor. Theoretically they already serve a different Lord. Theoretically they have another king. God is supposed to be their king, God’s authority is what they’re supposed to bow to, these Jewish folks living outside of the Holy Land might not have been as adamant about self-rule ad those in Israel but all of them would have claimed that they hoped and longed for the day when God took control and came and ruled. But when that gets presented to them they push back against it, they reject the message that God’s reign has begun. When push comes to shove they’re happy enough with the way things are that they don’t want to risk it.

That’s a dangerous place to be. Benjamin Mays, who was a minister and civil rights leader said this, “the tragedy of life is often not in our failure but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much but in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability but rather in our living below our capability.” These folks had gotten so accustomed to the way things were, they were so comfortable with the status quo that they missed what God was doing. They were willing to pray for God to reign over the world but when they saw that the way that happened might mess up their situations they started to push back. A life of faith is a life of transformation, not of complacency. If our eyes are fixed on the things above then we can’t be satisfied with the way things are here. The real flaw we see in these people is that they want to be able to put their faith in a box. They want to be able to worship and pray and put on a good show on Sunday (Saturday for them but you get the point) and then leave it in the background the rest of the week. They want Caesar and God to be Lord. One of the things we often focus on at Christmas is the titles of Jesus (Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Prince of Peace), one of the interesting things you’ll find if you study those is that those were all titles given to the emperor as well. Christians were making a statement, if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not and if Caesar is not Lord then the way we live and interact with the world changes. If Jesus is Lord he can’t just be Lord on Sundays, he guides everything we do.

Paul and Silas have a reputation. When the mob goes to the officials and mention these men who have been causing trouble they know who they’re talking about. In the eyes of the folks in charge it might not have been a good reputation but the things that Paul and Silas were doing because of their faith were what they were known for. What are we known for? What is our reputation. Are we following Christ so fully that it is how we’re defined? Are we living our faith every day in a way that people see it?

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