Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I imagine it was blurted out in the heat of the moment. Faces red with frustration, blood pressure rising, opponents of the Church who had just arrested a young Christian man by the name of Jason, shouted: “these people have been turning the world upside-down!” (Acts 17:6) So says the 17th chapter of the book of Acts, in the middle of one of those all-too-familiar confrontations between the early Christians and the authorities.
We’ve been making our way through a sermon series on Acts over the last several weeks, and as they’ve gone about their work of preaching and teaching and church-planting, the disciples have found themselves in scrapes like this plenty of times. In chapter 17 the particular uproar takes place in Thessalonica, and while it’s the more famous duo of Paul and Silas they’re really after, some poor guy named Jason gets arrested simply for letting the headliners stay at his place during their preaching gig in town.
But it’s really the accusation itself that interests me. For these words, in Acts 17:6 put in the mouth of someone with nothing but disdain for the early Christians, could equally well have been promoted as a team slogan by their fans: “Turning the world upside-down since A.D. 33!” That’s what we’re about after all, as followers of Jesus. World-changing reversals. Recognizing that the first are last, and the last first. Leading by serving. Losing our lives for the sake of finding them. Even turning a symbol of death, the cross, into a symbol of everlasting life. As Christian songwriter Ken Medema puts it, “the world looks different to you, when you’re flying upside down.”
And the fact that a Jason gets caught in the middle of it all in Acts 17 is so appropriate too. For it was never Paul and Silas alone … never Peter alone … who stirred up all the ruckus. Without people to house and feed them, without kind souls to pay their bus fare to the next city, and – let’s not forget – sustain the entire life of those early congregations between visits from the better-known evangelists, the Christian movement would have died out in the first year, easy. All the passionate, eloquent preaching in the world wouldn’t have stood a chance at recruiting lifelong disciples of Jesus, were it not for the fact that countless early Christians practiced what they preached. And with all their acts of faithfulness - hospitality, compassion, service, worship – with these, they convinced people there was really something here worth committing their lives to.
So last Sunday we talked about two of the headliners in the New Testament book of Acts – Peter and Paul. But today’s stories offers us helpful glimpses of what other early Christians were up to, in their own communities, while the bigger names were out preaching to the crowds.
First the story of Tabitha (her Hebrew name) or Dorcas (her Greek name). We’re told she was a disciple “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she died, the community gathered, weeping, and shared with one another all of the kind things she had done for each one of them. So important was her ministry among them that they couldn’t really imagine the church without her. In fact, in a miraculous twist, Peter goes into her room, kneels by her bedside and prays, and Dorcas rises from the dead so she can return to her good works and to the community that loves her! (Acts 9:36-41) Sadly for us, that’s not the kind of happy ending we get when one of our beloved church ladies passes away. But I imagine many of us have encountered a Dorcas or two along our way. Someone who acts as a sort of congregational mother or grandmother to us all. Someone whose kindness, compassion, and friendship makes an incredible difference in the life of her church family. Someone who seems always to be finding quiet ways to reach out to those in need, both within and outside the church.
And then there’s this marvelous story from Acts chapter 18. First, did you notice how Apollos is set up there? The text says he’s “eloquent,” “well-versed,” with “burning enthusiasm,” and willing to speak “boldly.” Trouble is, he doesn’t have all his facts straight! So this gracious couple, Priscilla and Aquila, recognizing his clear gifts for ministry, wanting to encourage him in every possible way for the benefit of the church, but not wanting him to preach the wrong message (eloquently or not!), gently pull him aside and straighten him out.
Chalk up another victory for the not-to-be-underestimated ministry of Christian Education! And say a prayer of thanks for every Sunday School teacher through the ages – including every one of you – who has recognized the importance not only of love and encouragement, for our youngest and newest disciples, but also a commitment to sharing the substance of our faith. It matters that the children of this church come to know and love the Bible stories many of us grew up with. It matters that our middle school and senior high youth have lessons geared especially to them, and that we invite them regularly to serve others too. And so much of this responsibility in the Church has historically fallen to those whose particular ministries keep them hidden away behind the scenes.
Once Priscilla and Aquila do spend enough time with Apollos to help him get his story straight, notice that they don’t stop there. Instead they encourage him as he discerns his particular call to ministry, write letters in advance to the churches who will receive him, and you just know there must have been a farewell potluck the night before he left, with a big hand-painted sign hanging across fellowship hall – “Bon Voyage, Apollos! May God be with you there!” Every cook that made a hot dish to bring to church that night, and every artist that added a letter to that sign, and every heart that said a prayer for that young man as he headed out the door – every one of them had a hand in turning the world upside-down too. Just as every one of us does, standing behind all those graduates we read about in this month’s church newsletter, as they head out from this congregation to make their mark in the world. I know some of you looked at their photos there and immediately remembered what they were like as little ones in your Sunday School classes years ago. We will all certainly be cheering them on, eager to hear where God’s Spirit leads them next.
As Colman McCarthy puts it, “few of us will ever be called on to do great things, but all of us can do small things in a great way.” Every time we do, the ripple effects carry farther than we know. So that no act of kindness or generosity, no word of grace, no heartfelt prayer for any of God’s children is ever wasted. Nor is the time we spend in a Sunday School classroom, or delivering canned goods to the food bank, or flowers to one of our shut-ins, or listening – really, deeply listening – to someone from another race or another culture whose life story has much to teach us. Granted, from where we stand, we can’t always see it, but from God’s vantage point, these are world-changing activities.
Any one of us, of any age, has the potential to be a modern-day Dorcas, or Priscilla or Aquila, someone whose life impacts those around us in beautiful and lasting ways. Granted, we can’t turn the world upside-down on our own. Look to any news source any day of the year and you’ll find hundreds of indications that our world is not as it should be. Violence and hatred, greed and injustice seem to be everywhere. It leaves us breathless sometimes, just thinking about all that needs to be done, in heaven’s name. Work of healing and feeding. Work of justice and peacemaking.
But just as God has done in every generation of the Church’s life, God will continue to fill us with God’s Holy Spirit. With that breath filling our lungs, our ripples can carry farther than we’d ever have thought possible.
Back there in Acts chapter 17, Jason’s accusers spoke more truly than they knew. For whether our particular Spirit-filled lives lead us bravely toward more public acts of discipleship, or just as bravely into some lesser known ministry behind the scenes … either way, we’ll be taking our Christian faith seriously, and the world won’t know what hit it.
Our hymn of response this morning may be new to you, but it was specifically requested by one of our teens, and it speaks directly to the world-changing power of the gospel.
So let’s stand, and get ourselves ready, for the world is about to turn!
 Colman McCarthy in an interview in Hope (July-August 2003). In Homiletics, May/June 2004, p. 14