Forming Faith Blog

Upside-Down Saints (May 3, 2020)

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

The Holy Spirit has left the building. 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 there were persuaded, as well as a bunch of Gentiles, including some prominent women. 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 went searching 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 that was used to celebrate a Roman emperor’s arrival and used it to tell the story of the arrival of a different sort, euangelion. Titles often given (or assumed by) emperors were given to this man from Nazareth: son of God, savior, lord. Even on the Jewish side, it was expected that this promised “messiah” would be a royal figure who would deliver the Jews from their oppression.

Jesus took this subversion one step further. Not only was he subverting the empire by being an alternate lord and savior, but he was subverting the meaning of these words themselves. Unlike the Pax Romana, a “peace” achieved through military domination, Jesus brings God’s peace 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 were proclaiming a king and kingdom based on the nonviolence and self-sacrifice of their leader. 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. He does not actually refer to the Thessalonians as saints, a word he uses more in several other of his letters. 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 the Holy 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 a time of fear and hate, saints live out God’s shalom and love. In a time of greed and selfishness, saints live out justice and self-sacrifice. In a time 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 at this time and in the place you find yourself?

Free Resource

This week’s free resource, “Comparing Stories,” is an activity that gets us to compare the two assigned readings, with some of the same characters and setting, but very different styles. This is designed for intergenerational small groups in our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL) curriculum. When you are not meeting together physically, participants can do this at home without their family groups or within a virtual group environment.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

New Blog Series

I have started another brief blog series directed specifically for laypeople, The Church at Home. Through this blog series we are providing our Living the Word: Sharing God’s Story @ Home devotional bulletin inserts for free, along with a brief blog reflection each week. Please share the weekly link with your congregations.

Our Living the Word (Narrative Lectionary) resources for 2020-2021 are now available to order. On our website, you can find more information for our Year 3 (2020-2021) products and see our current release schedule.

We are also excited to announce that we are introducing our first product for the Revised Common Lectionary, a Cross+Gen Education curriculum inspired by our Narrative Lectionary Cross+Gen Education product. More information coming soon!

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence

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