Turning the world upside down

by Steve Elde

Texts: Acts 17 and Romans 5

Paul and his friend Silas went into Thessalonica, a bustling town on the coast of the Aegean Sea. When Paul showed up he started talking and he stirred up trouble. He did this wherever he went. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He went to the marketplace, he went to synagogues. It didn’t matter whether it was Jews or Gentiles, Greeks or Romans. He argued with them all. In Jerusalem he argued with the original apostles. They didn’t consider Paul a real apostle because he didn’t know Jesus personally, just in a vision on the road to Damascus. He argued with philosophers in Athens. He was kicked out of towns, his life was threatened. In Thessalonica some people were jealous of Paul, they felt threatened by him. So they stirred up a mob in the marketplace, made trouble, put the city in an uproar. They spread rumors, told lies, and looked for Paul and Silas. Unable to find them, they grabbed Jason and a few others and took them to the leaders in town. “These are the people who have been turning the world upside down!” they told them. Now they’re here! A better translation: “subverting the civilized world.” “They are defying the emperor, they say there is another king named Jesus.” Paul, like Jesus, is accused of treason. Paul would eventually be executed in Rome for this, beheaded. The leaders were “disturbed.”

What was so disturbing about Paul’s message, this good news? It was a message, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, that came “in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” something that turned the Thessalonians from dead idols, “to serve a God who is living and true.” What was this radical, disturbing thing Paul was accused of spreading? Hope. Yes, hope. Hope in the risen Christ.

Hope threatens those who hold power through fear. Hope is dangerous because it pushes through everything in its path. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, inscribed over the gates of Hell are these words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Hell is hope abandoned. Hell is hope no longer imagined. Hell is giving up. Hell is resignation. Though Paul himself would one day be executed, he would never give up, he would never abandon hope.

“A faith that does not hope,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “is sick. There is no shame in hoping.” The only thing shameful “is a miserable and anxious hopelessness that trusts nothing to God.” This from a man who was imprisoned and executed for daring to hope for a world without Hitler.

J. Christiaan Beker, a Dutch Reformed theologian, was taken as a young man from Nazi-occupied Holland and forced to work in Germany. There he got very sick. He was in a Berlin hospital during the Allied bombings of the city. Weak from typhus, Beker made his way to a window and looked out. “The night sky over Berlin was ablaze with searchlights and anti-aircraft fire,” biographer Ben Ollenberger writes. “The city itself was a conflagration, bombs exploding and buildings consumed in flames. There, standing at the window, watching Berlin burning down around him, Beker declared, ‘Only God is real.’” Beker’s experience of suffering deepened his faith. It also made him look for hope. For without hope, such suffering would be meaningless. All suffering, he said, is framed by a hope in the ultimate triumph of God over unanswered evil. God hates suffering, Beker says.

In the face of suffering, the hope of the Apostle Paul was reckless against all common sense. So it was for Bonhoeffer and Beker. So it has been for Christians through the ages. The world still suffers. We have lots of reasons not to be hopeful. But if we listen to Paul, the worse things get, the more reasons we have to hope. “No one hopes for what can be seen.”

This pandemic is uncharted territory for us. We haven’t experienced anything like this since the Great Influenza a hundred years ago, or the polio epidemic of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Both were terrifying in their randomness. We thought this could never happen again. We assumed we had immunized ourselves against all such threats. But here we are again. We are masked, quarantined, locked down, and socially distanced. Many have died. We are experiencing something we can’t see but can only imagine, and our imagination takes us to scary places.

Some are in denial, scoffing at the danger, mocking all precautions. A few suggest this is a hoax. But there is real anxiety, a gnawing fear as the economic impact settles in, especially for those who are out of work. The choices ahead are difficult, the prospects are uncertain. We long for a return to normal, while fearing that normal has forever changed. We want this to end. We ask, “Where are you, God? What are you doing?”

Christiaan Beker, in his book Suffering and Hope, says many people who are suffering succumb to despair or denial, while others cling to selfish hopes in survival technology or escape into the fantasy of heavenly bliss for a few who are chosen. They look for a place not contaminated by suffering. Others become credulous ideologues, he says, believing anything told them. In the midst of suffering, he says, we look for a place to escape, a “private village” (stocked with lots of toilet paper and bottled water) where everything is the way it was, where we can control the outcome. All this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But we can’t escape the suffering around us, Beker reminds us. In the midst of suffering, there is no way around it, only a way through it together. We can isolate ourselves physically but we can’t isolate ourselves emotionally for long.

The irony of this pandemic is that in being separated we are, in some ways, actually becoming closer. A virtual meeting isn’t a hug, but it stirs up memories of hugs past and gives us a longing for more. Having lived our lives independently of one another, we are now discovering how much we need each other. I am talking to neighbors (at an appropriate social distance, of course) I didn’t realize I had. We are breaking down walls even as we keep healthy boundaries. In an unintended and unexpected way hopelessness is driving us to hope. We are finding new ways to be together while apart. It’s even created a whole new genre of pandemic humor. When we look into the shadows together, fear loses its power over us. We are not alone.

Therein lies a little bit of hope. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 5, puts it like this: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

“Poured into our hearts.” Paul is talking about the grace of suffering. Who would have thought there was any grace in suffering? That takes us to the cross, where God emptied himself into our suffering so that we would not be alone. In sharing our suffering, God gives us not an escape from it, but a way through it.

As we come to the table and receive the bread and cup, we remember this suffering but we don’t stay there. We look for resurrection. In this, we find reason to hope in the midst of it all. We are all being transformed by this painful experience, letting go of stuff that doesn’t matter, while discovering what is truly precious in our lives and in each other.

Our job as Christians is to turn the world upside down with hope against the odds. Our job is to turn the world upside down with mercy and justice where there is none, and through this to bring hope to others. Our job is to turn the world upside down with love–unexpected, unlooked for, unexplainable love. Our job is to hope our way to the other side–together.

Crazy? Yes. Reckless? Of course. But the God of life and resurrection, the God of beginnings without end, is with us. So don’t be afraid. Hope is here. Hope is among you. Hope is on the horizon. Together by the grace of God we will get there. Amen.