Forming Faith Blog

Upending the World (Acts 17, 1 Thess 1)

Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica accuse him of turning the world upside down. While he isn’t inciting rebellion, Paul preaches the subversive message of a Lord who values service over power, justice over greed, peace over violence.

A girl doing a handstand on the grass. Saints, imitators of Jesus, will always seem upside down.

The Holy Spirit has escaped. Or, more accurately, the Holy Spirit has spread in power from Jerusalem and is making her way through the Roman Empire. Much of this, according to the Book of Acts, is the result of a certain man named Paul, the erstwhile persecutor turned passionate evangelist. Starting in Acts 13, Paul becomes the main character of the story for the rest of the book.

A Visit to Thessalonica

This week, we have two different readings. First is a reading from Acts 17, a narrative of Paul’s first visit to the Macedonian town of Thessalonica. Like many of Paul’s visits, it didn’t go completely as planned. As was his custom, Paul went to the synagogues and proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah. Some of the Jews, a bunch of Gentiles, and some prominent women there were persuaded. But, some of the remaining Jews were not happy about this. So, they went and started trouble. They formed a mob with some ruffians and searched for Paul and his companion Silas. They couldn’t find them, so they dragged out the man whom the pair were staying with as an accomplice. However, their accusation before the authorities is odd to me:

“These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.”

Acts 17:6
Upside Down

Paul is famous, or at least infamous. He and his fellow evangelists are known for “turning the world upside down.” What do their accusers mean by this? It’s not as though Paul and company are fomenting armed rebellion against the emperor. They are not calling for the overthrow of the empire. But they are “saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This cannot be denied.

Subversive Stories

This Jesus movement is indeed upside down, at least in terms of the Roman Empire. The Gospels are subversive documents. The writers even took a term adopted to celebrate a Roman emperor’s arrival, euangelion, and subverted it to tell the story of the arrival of a different sort. Titles often used by emperors were given to this man from Nazareth: son of God, savior, lord. Even on the Jewish side, it was expected that their promised Messiah would be a royal figure who would deliver the Jews from their oppression.

Jesus took this subversion one step further. Not only did he subvert the empire by being an alternate lord and savior, but he also subverted the meaning of these words themselves. Unlike the Pax Romana, a “peace” achieved through military domination, Jesus brings God’s peace (shalom or Pax Dei) achieved through love.

Back in Thessalonica

Now back to Paul and his accusers. Paul and the other evangelists were, indeed, turning the world upside down, as they proclaimed a king and kingdom based on the nonviolence and self-sacrifice of their leader: Jesus. As the true incarnation of God’s love, even the reign of death could not contain him. Jesus was Lord in a way that was upside down to most people, then and now. So, the accusers got it right. But they also got it very wrong, since Paul was not committing any crimes, nor inciting others to commit crimes.

Dear Saints

Now we skip ahead. Paul has helped found the church in Thessalonica. Now he writes a letter to them. Unlike in many of his other letters, Paul does not use the term “saints” for the Thessalonians (Greek hagioi). However, the concept is quite clear, both in the original and the traditional sense of the word. A saint is, for Paul, a person who has been made holy by the grace of God—which describes all children of God. Within much of church history, the word has come to refer to certain individuals who have so embodied God’s love, grace, and holiness to become extraordinary. Theologies differ on how these extraordinary people fit within the church, but all agree that there exist Christians who are paragons of the faith, those who have led lives worth imitating.

Thessalonian Saints

These Thessalonians, as a whole, embody both senses of the word. As children of God, they have been made holy by God’s Spirit. Through the work of this Spirit and their joyful acceptance of the gospel, they also “became an example to all of the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7). They are saints by the Holy Spirit and saints to be emulated.

Upside-Down Saints?

But how are saints upside down? Well, in times of fear and hate, saints live out God’s shalom and love. In times of greed and selfishness, saints live out justice and self-sacrifice. In times of worshipping power and fame, saints live out humble service for the most vulnerable in society. Paul commends the Thessalonians for becoming imitators of the Lord, living lives of holiness. And, since our subversive Lord Jesus exemplified shalom, love, justice, self-sacrifice, and humble service, their lives imitating him must be subversive as well.

Call to Flip Over

So, in this first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul indirectly calls us to be imitators of the Lord as well. God calls us to flip over (or turn around). How can you flip over and become an upside-down saint whenever and wherever you find yourself?


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

This post is adapted from a post written for May 3, 2020.

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the “Love Letters” activity from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd, NL Year 2) curriculum. This activity can be done with children, youth, intergenerational groups, and even adults!

Order Faith Formation Resources

The season of Easter is here. Hallelujah! Have you ordered faith formation resource for the rest of the program year (our Spring quarter going through Pentecost Sunday)? Purchase and immediately download the Spring quarters for the Narrative Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, or even a classic Sunday school Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th. Our faith formation resources are easy-to-use, theologically sound, and inclusive.

Introducing our newest Learning Together unit: Created to Care! Wonder at God’s creation and learn about what we can do to protect and heal it in these five lessons, intended for children and intergenerational groups, family or churchwide events, a Lenten series, or Vacation Bible School. We also have six other topics, one of which is FREE!

Our 2024-2025 resources have launched and are available to order! Narrative Lectionary, Revised Common Lectionary, Classic Sunday School, and more.

At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we might just have exactly what you are looking for:

Stay updated by liking our Facebook page, subscribing to our e-newsletter, or following this blog!

Leave a Reply