Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Disturbing the Peace

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 17, 2016)
Acts 17:1-9 & 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – “Disturbing the Peace”

Paul and Silas journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, then came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was Paul’s custom, he entered the synagogue and for three Sabbaths interacted with them on the basis of the scriptures. Through his interpretation of the scriptures, he demonstrated that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He declared, “This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.” Some were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women.

But the Jews became jealous and brought along some thugs who were hanging out in the marketplace. They formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They attacked Jason’s house, intending to bring Paul and Silas before the people.  When they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city officials. They were shouting, “These people who have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here. What is more, Jason has welcomed them into his home. Every one of them does what is contrary to Caesar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus.” This provoked the crowd and the city officials even more. After Jason and the others posted bail, they released them.

From Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
To the Thessalonians’ church that is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace to all of you.

We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers.
This is because we remember your work that comes from faith, your effort that comes from love, and your perseverance that comes from hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father. Brothers and sisters, you are loved by God, and we know that he has chosen you. We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know as well as we do what kind of people we were when we were with you, which was for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord when you accepted the message that came from the Holy Spirit with joy in spite of great suffering. As a result you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The message about the Lord rang out from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place. The news about your faithfulness to God has spread so that we don’t even need to mention it. People tell us about what sort of welcome we had from you and how you turned to God from idols. As a result, you are serving the living and true God, and you are waiting for his Son from heaven. His Son is Jesus, who is the one he raised from the dead and who is the one who will rescue us from the coming wrath.

By the tone of Paul’s letter, you would think that it’s all hunky dory in the Thessalonian church.

“We always thank God for all of you when we mention you constantly in our prayers,” he wrote. “The news about your faithfulness to God has spread so that we don’t even need to mention it.” This type of introduction was customary for the style of letter in that day. Paul, of course, doesn’t mention the mob riot. He doesn’t talk about how they were barricaded inside Jason’s house. Or the trial. Or the accusations, “They’re disturbing the peace! They say there’s another king!”

Can you imagine a church that gets in trouble?

Maybe your answer is “yes” because of what’s happened in some chapters of St. Mark’s history. There that the time folks sequestered Caesar Chavez in the cabin on Mount Lemmon. Or the time that Rev. Sholin joined the March on Washington and half the church left the next Sunday. Or the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s. Or that gun violence panel a couple of years ago that got out of hand. I heard you could see the beads of sweat trickling down [your interim pastor] Scott Opsahl’s face!

Can you imagine a church that gets in trouble?

We are so far removed, culturally and historically, from circumstances of the early church. Paul himself was always getting in trouble and was eventually beheaded. Most of the apostles were martyred. The church was, in its earlier stages, a threat to the political and religious establishment. Not to mention people thought they were crazy. “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” was subversive enough of a claim to make in the Roman world. “Jesus is Messiah,” was incredibly offensive to many in Judea, let alone the idea that he suffered the shame and defeat of crucifixion. And that he rose? What? Stop it! And rumor had it that this religious cult, this tiny breakaway sect of Judaism that we know now as Christianity practiced cannibalism. That’s right: all that talk about eating flesh and drinking blood had people worried about what went in there!

Fast forward to more recent times.

The pastor of the church at which I interned during seminary once cited an article from the New Yorker in a sermon. It was around the time that Prince William and Kate Middleton got married. The piece was about how important a royal wedding was for national morale and about how enduring the British monarchy is, despite movements to abolish it. San, my supervisor, quoted this line from the article: “Republicanism [which means anti-monarchy] in Britain is normally regarded as a harmless and mildly embarrassing pursuit, much like morris dancing or Presbyterianism.”

Harmless? Mildly embarrassing? Not the Presbyterianism I know! And what the heck is morris dancing? Well, apparently, it “is a traditional British folk dance whose practitioners dress in lavish costumes, and jump and skip about to music while clicking sticks together.” Akin to Presbyterianism, I guess.

Contrary to what some say, we don’t live in a culture that is hostile toward our faith. All this legislation about religious freedom being threatened is absolutely absurd. Our culture isn’t hostile to faith. Worse; it’s indifferent. We’re perceived as flimsy by some. “Harmless.”

A lot of that has to do, I think, with the fact that we have been so intertwined with the “empire,” so to speak. When I say “we” I mean, mainline Protestantism. To be a Christian in a certain era was synonymous with being a loyal citizen, a good, “upstanding” member of the community. You recited the pledge and the Lord’s Prayer in the next breath. There was an expression I read once, in Newsweek magazine, I believe, calling the Episcopal Church in the 1950s “the Republican Party at prayer.”

As some people say: “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God. What was left in his wake was the church.”

Remember the line from the first reading, from Acts? “These people… have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire.” Another version reads “These people… have been turning the world upside down.” Another way of saying it would be “upsetting the apple cart.” Or thinking in terms of Jesus’ ministry, turning over tables.

Which makes me wonder, how does my faith challenge the status quo?
How does our faith challenge popular trends?

Some scholars have labeled the ethos of Christian belief in America these days as “moral therapeutic deism.” In other words, belief in a distant God who is just supposed to come down every now and then to make me feel good. There’s very little world-changing “umph” about that brand of faith, right?

Can you imagine a church that gets in trouble?

My internship supervisor in seminary, who I quoted earlier, in that same sermon spoke about the countercultural practices of the early church:

“Sociologist Rodney Stark, now at Baylor University, has written about how the practices of the first Christians often clashed with the values of the Greco-Roman society in which they lived. For example, under Roman law, fathers could, and often did, commit infanticide. Yet Christians picked up—and cared for—the abandoned babies who were simply left in the gutters to die. ‘These Christians were conspicuous,’ Stark declares, ‘because they cared for those who were expendable: widows, orphans, the aged and infirm.’”

Now, I’m convinced that you don’t have to get arrested to be a faithful Christian. But still, this text messes with me. It burrows into my mind, making me wonder: in what ways have I taken risks for my faith?” How have I “disturbed the peace,” so to speak, by telling a hard truth in my family or my workplace?

Someone in the 8:30 service told a story about a faculty meeting at her former school. Faculty meetings weren’t really conversations, she said, but rather opportunities for the principal’s monologues. But one day, in one of these meetings, one teacher dared to speak up and say, “There’s another way to think about this.” And suddenly, there was a cascade of differing opinions, as people had the courage to speak up because of one, dissenting voice.

How does our faith lead us to stand up for somebody who is voiceless?

Whatever you might come up with in answering these questions won’t necessarily look the same as it would for the person sitting next to you. If bucking the system isn’t your thing, that’s OK. There are other ways to demonstrate the Lordship of the risen Christ in our midst. That’s what’s helpful about a community; we all have different roles to play in the Body of Christ, to be supportive of one another as we live out our common calling in unique ways. As someone said in a Facebook post the other day, “It takes a village to support the disenfranchised.”

Whatever we do to “disturb the peace,” and whatever that looks like, wherever that happens, may we do so to the glory of God and the well-being of the world God so loves.

May it be so…