One of my daughter’s hobbies is gymnastics. Sometimes I think she would prefer to cartwheel somewhere rather than walk.
The other evening, she asked me to time how long she could hold a handstand with her feet against a bedroom wall. I had to ask her to stop, because I could see her face going beetroot red with the blood. She was disgusted, as it turned out she had not achieved the time she wanted to make.
Our Gospel reading today is about Jesus turning things upside down. Just as the early Christian preachers were accused, according to the Book of Acts, of ‘turning the world upside down’, so had Jesus done precisely that before them. They were only following in their Master’s footsteps.
There are two major areas of life that Jesus turns upside down in these verses. The first is religion itself.
Think about the story of Jesus meeting the man suffering from dropsy on the Sabbath (verses 1-6). The Pharisees are watching him. Healing is banned on the Sabbath, but Jesus asks an awkward question:
“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Verse 3)
In the face of their embarrassed silence, Jesus heals the man, sends him away, and then asks another embarrassing question that exposes the hypocrisy of the religious rules they were operating:
“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” (Verse 5)
Again, embarrassed silence (verse 6).
Now, it’s easy for us to be smug and talk about those wicked Pharisees. But … there are a couple of elements here that should make us nervous.
One is that what Jesus shows up with his light here is the darkness of hypocrisy. You know as well as I do that one of the charges non-Christians level at Christians is that we are hypocrites. I know we can retort with comments such as, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites – but there is always room for one more,” but perhaps sometimes we need to look at our hypocrisies, or at very least our inconsistencies. What are the areas where our lives contradict what we claim to be the truth of God? For a lot of us, there are rather too many.
Sometimes, this is blatant in the way that we do not lives up to the stringent standards that Jesus laid down for the life of discipleship. We do not love the poor. We are glad to have a Food Bank at our church, but we do nothing to support it, not even an occasional tin in the basket.
But our inconsistencies can show up in the most surprising forms. We proclaim that God is love, but we don’t actually believe he loves us.
The late Brennan Manning, one of whose books we have been studying in the Discovery Group, once said that he was convinced that on Judgement Day, God would only ask us one question, and it was this: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be?”
Some of us actually don’t believe that God loves us. And because deep down some of us don’t truly believe God loves us – and loves us like this – we manufacture a substitute religion. It comes out in the other thing that Jesus is criticising here: we construct a religion of rules. If we can’t believe God loves and live in response to that, then we will come up with something else that makes it look like we truly believe: outward conformity to rules. It’s as if we are saying that keeping the rules makes us acceptable to God, or keeping the rules shows that we are on the inside of the boundary between those who are God’s people and those who aren’t.
That is what the Pharisees were doing – and they ended up with labyrinthine rules that led to the prohibition on healing on a Sabbath day.
But it’s also what we do. We do it when a sincere churchgoer says to the preacher after the service, “If we only returned to the Ten Commandments, all would be well.” (Not that I am knocking the Ten Commandments!) We see it when we turn those in the religious hierarchy into people who police the laws of our institution, rather than preachers of the Gospel. Anglicans can turn Archdeacons into their police officers, and Methodists can do it with their Superintendents. When we are more concerned with maintaining the institution, we have fallen out of love with God.
Turning religion into a set of rules can actually happen for the best of reasons. We are so used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament piece that we forget they started out as good guys. Before the birth of Christ, they had begun as a group that wanted to return the people of God to the purity of the faith, and away from spiritual compromise. It was a noble goal. But somewhere along the way, they took a wrong turn or two and ended up with a caricature of pure faith. Could it also be possible of us that we are people who began with worthy goals as Christians, but took our eyes off Jesus Christ and the grace of God and ended up with a distortion of the real thing, one that – unlike Jesus – rarely brought any kind of healing to people? If that is a description of our faith, then do we not need to start dwelling again on the radical nature of God’s love for us and for the world?
The second are of life that Jesus turns upside down is power. He notices how the guests at the meal lust for the places of honour. But he tells them instead to seek the place of least privilege, and when putting on dinner parties themselves not to invite the movers and shakers of this world but the least and the last, for that is the way of eternal blessing (verses 7-14).
This is the same Jesus who would refuse the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in glory. He knew the human tendency to seek power, or – if we are unable to gain it for ourselves – to associate with those who are powerful, and so at least be influential.
Unaccountably, despite Jesus’ clear example, this is a lesson the church has struggled to learn over two thousand years. For some bizarre reason, we think the testimony of a celebrity who has become a Christian is more valuable than that of nobodies like us. We think that the church should have clear links with power, whether that is Anglicans clinging on to the idea of being the Established Church, or Methodists not wanting to move our central offices out of London, where we suppose we can talk with national politicians.
And if you think it doesn’t infect ordinary local Methodism, think again. When I arrived in one previous circuit, I inherited a building refurbishment programme. Six months in, we had a grand reopening and managed to get the President of the Conference to preach and dedicate the bright and shiny new premises, with the local mayor performing the official ‘opening’. My biggest headache in the organisation of the day was in satisfying a circuit steward that we had the right dignitaries on the platform. When all that was juggled and agreed, there was no space on the dais for the local MP. He had to sit in the congregation. Thankfully, he wasn’t bothered – unlike the circuit steward!
We need to see, along with Jesus, that the world’s ideas of who should be preferred by virtue of status and power are wrong. They need to be reversed. Let’s think about the examples I’ve just given. The evangelistic initiative that features the testimony of a famous person is actually less effective as a method than ordinary, everyday Christians telling the stories of their faith to friends. The linking of the church with powerful political forces is more likely to end up with spiritual compromise as we try to stay on the right side of these people in order to gain a hearing, whereas the work of the church at street level in standing up for the poor and the forgotten is more credible. And if we have a big event locally, then if we choose to invite the great and the good in order to garner headlines and attract people who otherwise might not come, we will probably largely attract people who come for the wrong reasons – reasons that are inimical to the Gospel, reasons that harden their hearts to Jesus’ message of God’s upside down kingdom, as one author put it.
So the question is, how upside down are we when it comes to power and status? Do we have our own little hierarchies, where we elevate people in a worldly way? Is there any sense here in which we see certain people as more important than others? I certainly hope you don’t see me as your minister as more important. Maybe we even say that some people matter more than us, because we think so little of ourselves, despite the fact that we are loved so much by God.
Or do we set an example here of reversing the world’s values? Do we raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty? Do we bless the poor and not worry too much about what the rich think? Do we favour servanthood over power-grabbing? Are we impressed with humility and disdainful of attempts by people to elevate themselves to positions of prominence?
And do we translate these words and attitudes into action? We know the early church did what it could, even though politically it was a powerless organisation. Slaves became bishops. One early bishop was called Onesimus – the same name as the converted slave Paul sent back to his master, Philemon. It could be the same person. Are we as willing to go against social convention when the Gospel demands it as those first Christians were?
In my teens, we used to sing a modern hymn, ‘O Lord, all the world belongs to you,’ by Patrick Appleford, the man who wrote ‘Living Lord’.
The fourth verse of five pertains to this second point about Jesus upending power and status:
The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but You show a new way to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning the world upside down.
However, the first verse – which is repeated as the fifth and final verse, too – sums up all we have been talking about:
O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning the world upside down.
May we be turned upside down by the love of God in Jesus. And may we go out, cartwheeling and hand-standing, to do the same in the world.