Children, imagine someone standing at the top of the world, the North Pole, and someone else standing at the bottom of the world, the South Pole. Is anyone standing upside down? …… No of course not. The reason is because the person standing at the North Pole and the other at the South Pole both have their feet pointing downwards towards the centre of the earth. If either person stood on his or her head at either pole, both would be upside down relative to the centre of the earth! The centre of the earth is our point of reference and not any one point on its surface. This is made necessary by gravity, the force that holds us fast to the earth, acting towards its centre.
Something similar applies to our own lives. To be, as it were, the ‘right way up’ in our own lives we have to have our feet on the ground, that is stable, not doing handstands or falling about the place as if we were drunk! We must be centred on Christ, the force of whose love keeps us the right way up. Strangely, through ignorance or sin, many people do not live their lives like this at all. They live their lives the wrong way up, and in consequence many fall. Yet these people still think that they have everything the right way up. They do not direct their lives toward the centre, which, of course, is God. They are only concerned about their own power and position. This is why they are so unstable.
When St Paul and St Silas were preaching in Thessalonica, those who rejected their message tried to hunt them down, but Paul and Silas managed to escape. The complaint of those who reacted so negatively to their teaching is interesting. They exclaimed: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” (Acts 17:6) How St Paul, St Silas and the early Christian communities were living did indeed seem to turn the world on its head. These Christians were not concerned with earthly power and position. They had a life in common which accorded the same dignity to everyone, leading through service, not by an imposition of their own will.
The gospel has this power to turn the world upside down and this has been true in every place and age where Christians have lived out the gospel faithfully in their lives and communities. When the world is overturned in this way though the reaction, the offence sets in. In the fourth century, that great father of all monks, St Anthony the Great prophesied at a time when worldliness and the gospel life would clash head on. He said:
A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.
“You are not like us!” Yes, indeed we see the world the right way up because we are standing the right way up, centred on Christ. It is you heathen rather who are deranged because what is abnormal has become normal for you and what we represent therefore becomes an offence to you. This of course is the logic of persecution and martyrdom. It is the clash between a disordered world which hates God and a harmonious world which loves him. The God-hating world is topsy-turvy but the God-loving world is the right way up.
For all of this, worldliness and the worldly way of thinking can sometimes also infect the Church. It starts where we are with us. We can be tempted to make all those little compromises with the world that make Christianity more acceptable and less challenging to ourselves and others. These compromises save us from the disrepute and the scorn we should experience when we are faithful in confronting this upside-down world. Sometimes, even Christian leaders, who should know better, play power games and need to be reminded what makes for greatness in the kingdom of God. This was true in the gospel reading we heard today when the sons of Zebedee, St James and St John, ask our Lord for preferential places at His right and left hands in the kingdom of His glory. Understandably this leads to resentment among the rest of the Twelve so Jesus intervenes to put the record straight. He says:
You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).
Service, therefore makes for greatness in the kingdom of God. Privilege and power are sought by the ungodly and this brings them to their ruin. St Bede comments on these verses as follows:
He teaches, that he is the greater, who is the less, and that he becomes the lord, who is servant of all: vain, therefore, was it both for the one party to seek for immoderate things, and the other to be annoyed at their desiring greater things, since we are to arrive at the height of virtue not by power but by humility.
Elsewhere in St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus confirms the teaching with reference to humility:
... he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:11-12).
If these standards of living our lives the right way up only applied to the Church, then the challenges would be significant but not unmanageable. However, this is not so. Christ teaching concerns are shared humanity and is a message that challenges all, not just those who confess the faith and who consciously and actively follow Him. We are called to live this life as an example and witness to others. It is the judgement of the gospel for some to respond and others not to respond. That is not our business. It is our business to live our lives as Christ taught them to be lived, to witness to His love and just and gentle rule so that one day God might be all and in all.
This is a revolutionary message, a revolutionary ideal, a message that turns the world upside down - topsy-turvy land - depending on whether you are standing on your feet are on your head! However, this revolutionary life that all good and honest people seek can never be achieved by secular revolutions or secular political ideologies. The kingdom of God is not something to be built by human design and human powers. Such designs and powers are always to a greater or less extent contaminated and compromised by ego driven and impassioned selfishness. Even Christians find it difficult sometime to resist such corrupting temptations. No, the pursuit of human utopias always ends in bloodshed and disillusionment. A better world, even a perfect world, is possible but only by putting the God of love at the centre of our lives where He truly belongs and by expressing that love in service to all.
Since judgement starts with the household of God, the challenge of the gospel is to make sure that we in turn express that love of God in the self-sacrificing, burden sharing and martyric life in Christ that we share in common. Then and only then, the world around us might just begin to turn again the right way up. So, be not topsy-turvy but be upstanding in Christ!