Upside down discipleship
I’m sure most of you have either read or have heard of Lewis Carrol’s book Alice in Wonderland.
Everything is back to front in the place Alice visits. There is a talking White Rabbit and even though rabbits can run fast and this one has a pocket watch, he is always running late, the Queen of Hearts does nothing to live up to her name and is always saying “Off with her head!” Then there is the rude Mad Hatter who is always rebuking Alice for her rudeness. Alice in Wonderland is a story that certainly engages our imagination as we try to understand what it was like for Alice to make sense of the back to front upside down world in which she found herself.
Let’s use our imagination. We aren’t going to imagine what it’s like to meet White Rabbits or Mad Hatters but pretend to be something much more ordinary – a common fly. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be able to walk upside down on the ceiling like a fly? We are comfortable walking upside down, in fact, to us this isn’t upside down at all. Walking on the ceiling is so normal that anyone who isn’t walking upside down is regarded as just a little bit strange. Flies have been living that way for millions of years. We like it this way – it’s the normal thing for flies to do.
Then along comes a Jew, black hair and beard and dark eyes. He has a strange way of walking; on the ground (which is upside down to us)? He calls out to us (on the ceiling), “Hey you up there. Don’t you feel a bit stupid living upside down?” And we all say, “No way. We like it this way. In fact, we’re not upside down at all; you are the one who is upside down, or downside up to be more accurate. Doesn’t it worry you that you are the only person who is walking that way? Why don’t you join the rest of us here on the ceiling?” “Are you kidding”, answers the Jew with the dark eyes and black beard. “I haven’t come to copy your ways. I have come to save you and to show you a new way of living.”
“What makes you think we need saving?” comes the reply from one of those on the ceiling. “And who are you to tell us that we need a new way of living? Our forefathers, who buzzed around the ears of Abraham’s camel, lived like this. Who are you to tell us that we need to turn our lives downside up? We’re not perfect, but we’re nice flies and we do a pretty good job at being the best flies we can. What we do has worked in the past, we’re happy with that. We don’t care if you think it’s upside down. Go away. We don’t need your help”.
Then suddenly in an amazing way the man with the black beard does a somersault and lands upside down on the ceiling among the flies. In fact, he becomes a fly though some of the flies refuse to believe that this is the same person who a moment ago was downside up.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions”, the now upside-down Jew says. “I’m not here to agree with you, I’m here to really convince you in the best fly language I know that your values, your goals, your attitudes, your spirituality is all upside down. I want to show you a new way, a better way. My new way might seem to be upside down to you, but really it is the right way around. It’s the way things are meant to be between you and your Creator and between you and one another. This is the truth, in fact, I am the Truth. I will turn your world upside down. It’s the only way.”
Every fly glares at him with a million eyes, flexing all six biceps, laughing at this strange fly and his back to front ideas.
But there are a few, about a dozen, who are drawn to this downside up Jewish-fly. This new teacher-fly gathers Pete, Andy, Johnnie, Jimmy, Phil, Bart, Matt, Jude and few others and says, “You know how it is in this upside-down world of yours. Everyone is happy to squash anyone who gets in the way so they can get ahead. It’s a bug eat bug world. Well it’s certainly not like that in my new world. If anyone in my new world wants to be great, they must get their hands dirty and serve others. If you want to be in the running for the citizen of the year, be happy to be a lowly servant. Be ready to love your enemies. Forgive others even if they are unkind to you. Expect to see the most unlikely people in my new world – the poor, the hungry, the sad and the excluded”. And with that, the larger mob (swarm) loses interest. He makes no sense in their upside-down fly-world where “it’s every fly for himself”. The smaller group head down the upside-down road following the Jew-fly with the black beard and the dark eyes to a cross where he dies even for those who hate him – which is so back to front. This Jew-fly was so upside down to those of his time and to many today that they rejected the new way he offered, but to those in his new world, he is the only one who is the right side up.
I hope I didn’t lose you in all that talk about flies and being upside down and downside up. It’s Alice in Wonderland language where everything that would seem normal is all back to front and strange. But the point is made that everything about Jesus is so upside down. It’s not what you would expect.
Beginning with his birth – coming to earth via the womb of a young unknown girl, born in a stable, poor, in danger, a refugee from powerful rulers – that is such an upside-down way for the almighty and everlasting God to enter the world.
His life is simple – a wandering teacher, mixing with the lowliest and poorest, the diseased and the outcast, speaking a simple message of love for God and one another and living out that message in everything he did – so unlike the Messiah that had been expected. No, this back to front wandering rabbi can’t be the Messiah.
His death on a Roman cross – so cruel, so humiliating, so shameful, so painful and yet he was so innocent. This was such a difficult thing to understand even for those who were the closest to him. The Messiah on a cross – that is so wrong. Everything about Jesus is so upside down.
And then there are all those strange sayings of Jesus. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me, and the gospel will save it” (Matt 8:35).
“If anyone of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if anyone wants to be first, you must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).
And of course Jesus words in Luke 6:20-22, his Sermon on the Plain, which plainly state that the blessed in his new kingdom are the opposite of what you might expect. In this world the poor, the hated, the marginalised, the hungry and the persecuted are hardly considered blessed, but God sees them differently. It’s to these people Jesus served, touched, hugged and healed while others avoided them.
Jesus is back to front and upside down. The ways of the Kingdom of God are not the same as that of the rest of the world. When Jesus defines greatness – he uses words like love, humility, service, kindness, meekness, mercy, servant, slave, losing one’s life, and says that anyone who has these attributes is considered great in God's Kingdom. Because of the love of Christ for us and the love of Christ reflected in us, attitudes, behaviours and values are changed. What is great in God's kingdom is often different to what is considered great in the world.
It might be considered great in the world to put down those who want to achieve, or ridicule people who are different, but greatness in God's Kingdom is to show kindness and offer help and encourage them to get ahead.
It might be considered great in the world to unkindly criticise others and gossip about them but in God's Kingdom greatness means to defend others, be supportive, speak a kind word, be the voice of those who have no voice.
In Jesus’ time people felt they could ignore the poor because they somehow deserved to be poor. Even today with a degree of righteousness, it’s easy to dismiss offhandedly the hungry and poor in our society because of our welfare system. It’s easy to look after our own needs first and avoid the pleas of others. However, in God's Kingdom greatness means to give food to the poor, a cup of water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and clothe the naked (see Matt 25:31-46).
Following Jesus’ upside-down ways isn’t easy. They are challenging. They will make us re-examine whether we are following Jesus’ or being influenced by the values of our culture and society. Jesus’ upside-down ways will make us feel terribly guilty as we realise that we have chosen to go down the easy path, follow popular trends, done the “in thing” rather than take the harder path of humility and service to others.
It’s just when we are being hard on ourselves for getting it all wrong, when God’s upside-down love beams down on us. We call it grace. We fail. We think greatness is all about us. We ignore the people God gives us to serve. We let God down and what does God do? He loves us. He loves us, forgives us and embraces us as his children for whom Jesus has died.
Thank God for his grace that turns everything upside down and makes everything the right way round!
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