The Acts’ 17 story sadly mirrors todays’ headlines. Imagine, a crowd fired up by their reactionary preachers. They rally in the Thessalonian square to defend traditional values. They shout down new ideas. The people turn violent and attack Jason’s house. They hope to bring Paul and Silas to justice before the people. Unable to find Paul or Silas, they drag Jason and some others before the city officials. They were shouting. They attack, shout, and drag an innocent person through the streets.
Has an angry crowd spewed it’s hate at you? Do you worry about taking a walk or a jog? Have strangers, classmates, or kinfolks mocked your accent, skin-tone, or sexuality? Do you think about what could happen if you held your partner’s hand in church or on the bus? My whiteness, my maleness, my heterosexuality, my education, and my relative affluence insulate me from such evil, injust, and inhumane indignities. I am relieved when the police arrive. Johnny Reb has pulled my car from a snowy ditch and helped me change a flat tire. I have not personally experienced violent threats or had a gun pulled on me, but that does not mean the systemic racism that killed Ahmaud Arbery is not deeply embedded in our culture. In American, we define so much by personal hunches, opinions, and experience. We may name our experiences as our kings! We love to listen to our own feedback loop. We resist data and ideas outside our self-interest. Funny thing is, Christ calls us to die to self interest. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, then our personal experiences matter much less. Love learns the stranger’s story. Did not Christ lay aside all privilege?
Our crucified Lord knows the capacity of church-going folks to join Golgotha’s lynch mob. God weeps with the Arberys. Ahmaud’s blood cries up from the ground. Acts 17 reminds us how preachers and politicians can conjure up violence in the name of traditional values. It is filled with systemic evil. Jason is assaulted and dragged into court. The lynch mob is not punished. Jason must pay bail. So we mourn, but we must raise our voices in solidarity with our black sisters, immigrant brothers, and queer siblings.
But there is hope hidden in the mob’s rant! “These people who have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here… Every one of them does what is contrary to Caesar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus.”
It seems to me many American Christians have made someone else king. Do we cling to Constitutional rights while ignoring Jesus’ Manifesto found in Matthew 5-7? Do we understand life through Jesus’ Preamble: “Blessed are the modest, the meek, the merciful, the mourning, the hungry, the just, the peacemakers, the pure, and the persecuted.” Do we feast on spiritual Kool-Aid and chocolate milk and ignore the tougher vegetables: Give light. Do good things. Anger, name calling, and unforgiveness bubble up from hell. Do not relaitate. Love enemies. Give away your shirt! Do not store up treasures on earth. You can’t serve God and wealth. Avoid showy faith. Forgive. Is Jesus just a title or our lifestyle? Is Jesus turning our worlds upside down?
If Jesus is crowned your king, then you need to take off that red hat and not be defined by that blue shirt. Do not worship false gods. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany during the rise of national socialism there. Bonhoeffer warned of the runaway patriotic fervor that gripped a hungry broken Germany. In a sermon entitled “Gideon,” Bonheoffer preached, “In the church we have only one altar. And that is the altar of the most high, the Only One, the Lord to whom alone is due honor and adoration; the Creator, before whom all creatures must kneel, before whom the most powerful but is nothing but dust. We have no auxiliary altars for the adoration of the Furor. The worship of God, not the Furor, happens here at the altar of the church. Anyone who wants anything else may stay away; they cannot stay with us in the house of God. Anyone who requires an altar for themselves or anything else mocks God, and God is not mocked.” We can have no savior but Jesus, whose platform is the Sermon on Mount.
And King Jesus will turn your world upside down. The churches Paul planted crowned one king: Jesus. “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also… They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”. For this challenge to the widely accepted and economically prosperous system, the crowd dragged Jason to court. Paul escaped with his life. Jesus said, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.” (Matthew 10:23) As a lightning rod, or outside agitator, Paul flees to Athens to wait for Silas and Timothy to catch up.
Can our waiting to reopen be a spiritual practice? Will we just pass the time or do some deep learning? What will Paul do as he waits for his friends to re-join him? What will we do with this “in between time”? What will we learn? What broken busy patterns will we lay aside after the pandemic? Will Christ turn our world upside down as we shelter in place?
While waiting, Paul began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue and whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. Paul will walk around Athens reading up on the idols. The crowd that attacked Jason was afraid that the old theology was going away. Fear demonizes. Fear shouts down. Fear divides. Paul once lived in fear and practiced a hateful fiery persecuting faith. But, on the Damascus road, God’s love broke Paul’s hardened heart. Paul exchanged digestible understandings for a deep mysterious “relationship”. Paul tasted Love that surpasses knowledge. (Ephessians 3:19) Rooted and grounded in love, Paul did not seek enlightenment among the pagan shrines, Paul was already lit- woke- alive. Still, Paul is not afraid to read every idolatrous inscription and memorize some pagan poems. Perfect love casts out all fear. (1 John 4:18) Love drags no one to court. Hope does not shouts. Faith needs not get the last word in.
Paul’s curiosity and interfaith dialogue results in another trial. Scholars tell us that Luke modeled Acts 17 after the trial of Socrates. Listen to Paul’s masterful sermon: “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. God doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. Nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed something, since God is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. God made the nations so they would seek God, perhaps even reach out to God and find God. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are God’s offspring.’ Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought…. God intends to judge the world justly by a human being that God has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising Christ from the dead.’”
Now, Paul is distressed at the idolatry. Who is not distressed by the religious devotion we pour into sports, celebrities, music, and politicians? But Paul is not afraid of interfaith dialogue. Paul recites pagan poetry. I grew up with a lot of fear. When I entered high school, kids in my youth group told me to avoid Ms. XYZ because “she hates Christians.” I received my first A in AP English from perhaps an atheist teacher, who wrote on my final with big red gracious letters, “Paul, your spelling is atrocious, but your words flash with brilliance, keep writing: A+.” In Mark 9:40 Jesus says, “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.” The problem is that Matthew 12:30 says, “Whoever isn’t with me is against me.” I grew in the “whoever isn’t with me and is against me” camp. I learned to fiercely cling to what I believed, but my faith was weak. It feared descent, questions, and doubt. My people drug others to religious courts and put preachers on trial every Sunday. It booted people out who were different. We made little room for mystery and did not root our living in God’s unshakable love. We clung to creeds and in fear judged others and limited ourselves. We could not conceive of a God big enough to be here and there. I would learn years later that my parents were criticized by a few folks for sending me to Catholic school. I needed that second shot at the fourth grade. And maybe despite or because a youth leader actively attacked Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary, I realized God was working outside of my tiny closed-Communion camp. Hearing that one guy put down the faith of the older women who wept as they prayed the rosary, I knew something was off with that leader’s theological rules. I had no words to argue as a seventh grader, but I opened my mind and dipped my toe ever so slightly into a love that was wider, higher, deeper, and richer than I could ever imagine. (Ephessians 3)
Rooted in love, Paul quotes the pagan poets. Paul sees God at work among the idol worshippers. Where fear sees otherness, love sees sameness. That is good news, “God is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. God made the nations so they would seek God, perhaps even reach out to God and find God. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your poets say, ‘We are God’s offspring!’ I wish so many good people, who have given up on church, might find a wider, loving, forgiving, hopeful, listening, embracing and universal sort of Christianity. Oh, friends, let us stop clinging to fear. Lets stop putting others on trial. Let’s look for our sameness. Let us taste of the Love of God that exceeds comprension. And so doing admit that Christ resides beyond the limits of our particular theological box. Indeed, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. We are all God’s offspring. And let us not only name Jesus as our One King. Let us cast off all other false kings. May the Sermon On the Mount come to shape our personal constitutions:Blessed are the modest, the meek, the merciful, the mourning, the hungry, the just, the peacemakers, the pure, and the persecuted. And as we listen for the cries of the mourning, hungry and abused let us learn their stories and lift up their voices. And as we die to self-interest, let us allow our one King: Jesus to turn our world upside down. Amen.