These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also. (Acts 17.6)
Response to Real Change
“The more things change the more they stay the same,” 19th-century critic Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr mused. We take him to mean progress is illusory; though advances look like breakthroughs, they’re no more than fresh approaches to age-old challenges. To be sure, reading the epigram from this angle gives us plenty to mull over, since we live in what’s often described as a rapidly changing world. Communication is a prime example proving we’re awash in fast and furious transition. In roughly 600 years—a finger-snap in the human saga—written text evolved from tedious, time-consuming manual transcription to instant messaging (no less tedious or time-consuming, for different reasons). The methods changed, but the endgame is the same: packaging information to travel across time and space. In this sense, the saying suggests at its best, change is improvement, not innovation, refinement rather than revolution.
If this is what Karr meant, the adage proves his point, as it’s merely a fresh spin on an old idea. Ecclesiastes, a volume of proverbs traditionally attributed to Solomon, says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) But I have a hard time agreeing, simply because what’s old indisputably began as something new. Though perhaps not as frequently as we imagine, revolutionary ideas can and will emerge, changing the world on such a profound level nothing stays the same. And what’s interesting about this is Ecclesiastes and Karr’s observations most assuredly apply to our response to real change. That has always been, and no doubt will always be, exactly what it is in Acts 17.1-15, where Christ’s revolutionary Gospel provokes emphatically opposite reactions from two remarkably different sets of people. It’s the classic faith-meets-fear conflict played to the hilt with everything but pitchforks and torches.
The drama starts with Paul and Silas arriving in Thessalonica, Greece’s thriving deep-water port on the Aegean coast. Given what happens, the setting couldn’t be more perfect or ironic. Commercial advantages as the hub where West Asian, European, and Middle Eastern trade routes intersect grace it with a sound economy that stabilizes its multicultural population. Yet due to its location it’s equally well known as one of the least stable and sound places to live. The Romans call the region Thermaicus, or “Hot Spot,” alluding to thermal springs surrounding the city. Geologists connect prevalence of naturally hot water with seismic activity, and Thessalonica lives up to expectations. Earthquakes and tremors are common, as are landslides and avalanches in looming mountains that squeeze the city to the coast. So, despite their economic and cultural stability, the restive landscape makes Thessalonians easily excitable and stubbornly rigid. (Living on shaky ground that spews scalding water, staring at mountains that could dissolve into rock piles at any moment, will do that.) Which is why things get real hot real fast when any threat to the status quo comes to Thessalonica. And that’s what Paul and Silas bring to town.
Paul marches into the Thessalonian synagogue and draws its teachers into a heated discussion about Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled by His suffering and resurrection. This goes on for three weeks, creating buzz that attracts bigger crowds at each Sabbath’s performance. Thessalonian Jews pack the front of the house, while Greeks who observe Jewish traditions fill the Gentile gallery and many of the city’s prominent women look on. Paul’s eloquent mastery of Scripture persuades many to embrace Christianity. Envious of his success and enraged that he preaches a faith that includes all ethnicities and genders, traditionalist Jews team up with local thugs and wreak chaos. They tear through the town looking for Paul and Silas. When they can’t find them, they attack Paul’s host, Jason, dragging him and other believers before the city authorities. “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,” they complain. (Acts 17.6) Framing their indictment as a global shift is a cunning ploy; the slightest mention of terrestrial upheaval puts any Thessalonian on edge. Then they come in for the kill, misrepresenting the Gospel as a subversive plot. “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” (v7) The city finds this disturbing. Becoming a reputed haven for up-enders puts its socioeconomic stability at risk.
Wisely, the city leaders release Jason and the others. While this is going on, Paul and Silas head south, to Berea. Although the city is also situated on rocky terrain, its ground is surer than Thessalonica’s and its people more reasonable. Paul does the very same thing he did in Thessalonica: without hesitation, he goes to the local synagogue. (Will he never learn?) The Bereans aren’t threatened by his message. “Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing,” verse 12 reports. Similar changes to those that occurred in Thessalonica take place. But they’re welcomed. And they’re big news. Word of them reaches the disgruntled Thessalonians, and what do they do? They hurry down to Berea “to stir up and incite the crowds.” (v13) This time, their ploys don’t work. Paul leaves Silas and Timothy behind to establish the Berean church and travels on to Athens. That’s what up-enders do: they boldly declare their revolutionary message everywhere they go, turning the world upside down one step at a time. Someone recently framed this strategy as “Think globally, act locally.”
The Same New Ending
Christian theologians and historians cite Paul’s Thessalonian and Berean adventures as the moment the Church comes into its own. Prior to this, the doctrine of inclusion is realized on a case-by-case basis. The influx of Gentiles and other unorthodox believers has raised many concerns among Early Church leaders, which they resolve at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). And now we discover what real change looks like, as everyone—Jews and Greeks, men and women, the lowly and the prominent, poor and rich, ignored and respected—come together under Christ’s banner of love. There is no status in the Early Church—no barriers preventing total acceptance. Everyone plays a role; everyone is equally valued as an essential member of Christ’s Body. This is revolutionary—completely new and unheard of, not only in Judaism, but also in pagan religions and ancient society at large. While many welcome this change with enthusiasm, just as many find it so fearful they rally to prevent it from taking hold.
As seen in Paul's era and our own, when the Spirit calls the Church back to Its original doctrine of full inclusion, response to real change is always the same. Those resisting it will resort to every available tactic to see it’s defeated. They’ve heard about up-enders like us, who’ve courageously taken Christ’s revolutionary Gospel to heart. When real change reaches their shores, they’re alarmed, primarily because they live where stability and soundness aren’t guaranteed. These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also! Figuratively and literally, they take to the streets, starting trouble and vilifying those who don’t agree with them. They attack inclusion’s allies and prevail on leaders to do something. They travel wherever inclusion is welcomed and make ruckuses there, too. That will not change. Neither will the final outcome, because real change cannot be thwarted.
John’s Gospel sums up real change’s invincibility beautifully: “What has come into being in Him [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.3-5) Yes, it’s the same old story. But with it comes the same new ending. We who are convinced Christ’s Gospel insists on total inclusion are up-enders. We’re turning the world upside down with the message we’ve been given. Adversarial responses are predictable to a fault. They’re nothing new and therefore nothing to worry about. We don’t stop because backward-thinking people disapprove. We don’t hang around to hear their allegations. We move ahead, turning the world upside down one step at a time. The more things change the more they stay the same: light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
God of endless change and perpetual motion, set our compasses to Your Spirit. Endow us with boldness to speak Your Word to fearful ears in unstable places. Open our eyes to the futility of those who oppose real change. And fire our passion to turn the world upside down one step at a time. Amen.
It’s the same old story: real change the Spirit calls us to lead frightens and angers many. But the same old story always comes with the same new ending.