This is the first of a series of posts that could be titled, “Helpful Stuff I’ve Learned.” Most of these bits of learning were connected with reading books or sitting under certain teachers, so I’m usually going to share them as little pieces of autobiography: how I came across them, why they mattered to me at a certain time, or how they continue to matter. These posts will deal mostly with ideas, but these ideas have also supplied me with memorable images or phrases that have helped me over the years in trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus.
I met Jonathan Wilson over the phone. He called me late in the summer of 2003 before Acadia’s academic year began, in order to introduce himself and to ask if I would be interested in becoming his teaching assistant. I knew who he was from the year before, when he had given a lunchtime lecture during a trip to Wolfville which we later realized had been part of his candidacy for the position of Professor of Theology at the Divinity College.
Because I had already taken my required theology courses, I wouldn’t take a class with Jonathan until a couple of years later when I was in a different program and needed to take his course in Christian Ethics. Nevertheless, I enjoyed our conversations and wanted to learn everything I could from him, so I read his book God So Loved the World: A Christology for Disciples.
From Jonathan’s book—which has lots to offer—I gained two profound insights, ways to consider the gospel that have stuck with me. The first (the focus of this post) is that Jesus came to turn an upside-down world right-side-up. The second (which I’ll deal with in next week’s post) is that Jesus is the one truly human being.
An Upside-Down World Turned Right-Side-Up
The “upside down” idea comes straight from the pages of the book of Acts. Luke tells a story in which Paul and Silas tell the people of Thessalonica about Jesus and his resurrection. Their opponents realize that this story of Jesus doesn’t fit with their basic commitment to Caesar, and label Paul and Silas as people who “have been turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, NRSV and most other translations – the NIV puts it much more blandly, translating it “caused trouble all over the world”). Various writers, from Donald Kraybill, in his 1978 book The Upside-Down Kingdom, to Kavin Rowe in his 2009 work World Upside Down, have picked up on this vivid image of the way the gospel stands at odds with what is accepted as common sense or the way things are in this life. Jonathan was the one whose work planted this phrase deeply into my own imagination, and it continues to resonate, shaping my perceptions of God’s work in the world today.
In God So Loved the World Jonathan makes explicit what is implied in those other works: when it comes to right side up and upside down, it only appears that Jesus’ way, the kingdom of God, is upside-down. It is actually the world that is already upside-down—in its thinking, its priorities, its loves and desires. When Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was coming near, he was claiming to show us what right-side-up really looked like.
Since Jesus comes to turn our world right side up, his coming is good news. Often, because we are used to living in an upside-down world, Jesus looks like bad news…When he fellowships with outcasts, forgives his enemies, and turns the other cheek, he looks upside down and out of place, but in truth he is the only one walking and living right side up… he shows us how to live the way God intended us to live in this world. Faced with a world in which “kingdom of God” sounds oppressive, followers of Jesus Christ need to relearn and the story of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. (God So Loved the World, 25)
If you have your eyes open to spot this upside-down/right-side-up contrast, you’ll start to find it everywhere in the gospels. It’s there when Mary praises God for “bringing down rulers from their thrones” and “lifting up the humble” (Luke 1:52). It’s there in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), when Jesus pronounces blessings on all the people that have experienced the rotten side of life. It’s there in the way that the miserable tax collector and the widow who put two coins in the offering are shown to be the shining examples of prayer and worship. It’s there when Jesus heals sicknesses and restores people who have been oppressed by demons. He is making everything wrong right again. And he invites us to join him, abandoning the wrong, upside-down ways of our common-sense priorities (“Eating the fruit from that tree can’t be that bad an idea,” we say in our hearts, swallowing the serpent’s argument) and walking in the right-side-up way of the kingdom of God.