The goal of our journey

Paul’s intention, as far as we understand it, was to get to Corinth. Athens was important but Corinth was the second city to Rome, a thriving, multi-cultural, wealthy trading city standing between the Roman and Greek worlds. It was large and beautiful and there was a synagogue there and so sufficient numbers of Jews for Paul to engage with.

We set out from Athens and began the journey which would take us across the Corinth canal to the site of the ancient city. But on the way we stopped at Eleusis. Dr Mark Vernon had made a special request that we divert from the normal pilgrim route to take in this very special place.

We arrive in Eleusis

We arrive in Eleusis

It was the centre of initiation and mystery in the Greek world and when we were there we thought about how the term ‘mystery’ has resonances with the Christian understanding of God and the sacraments. Comparison was also drawn between the days of the rites and preparations that the participants in what went on there went through (and we don’t know much about that) and the structure of the Christian Holy Week.

It was a fascinating place and especially as we anticipated arriving in Corinth. We were to celebrate the Eucharist there and one of the readings we heard in that place was from Paul’s First Letter.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11.23-26)

Before the tribune in Corinth

Before the tribune in Corinth

It was incredible to be in the remains of the place where Paul had lived for a year and a half, to where he sent two significant letters from which we draw so much teaching about the life of the church, the Eucharist, Christian ethics, our understanding of resurrection, etc, etc, etc. I just love to imagine how they reacted when they first read words that to us are so familiar.

What is also so important to remember is that in this place Paul confronted the real church, fractious, argumentative, challenging, all those things that we know about the church only too well. They were Christians trying to live the life to which we are called with all the temptations and delights that a cosmopolitan city can provide. In his Second Letter Paul writes

We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4.7)

An amphora from Eleusis - but see the cracks

An amphora from Eleusis – but see the cracks

All over Greece we have seen the remains of clay jars, glued back together but showing the cracks, the signs of their fragility. With Paul’s words to this early Christian community we should not be surprised when we display the same fragility, in our local church, in our Communion, between the denominations. So we prayed for Christian unity in Corinth but knowing that as God took clay and out of it made a man into whom he breathed life, so the clay jars of which Paul speaks will always have this fragile nature. We should be more careful with each other, as if we were handling a precious artefact in an archaeological museum, rather than with the brutality and lack of charity that so often characterises the way we Christians treat one another. Our behaviour is so often little less than scandalous and our lack of charity towards one another an affront to the God who out of love created us and called us into his church.

Robert reads 1 Corinthians 13 to us

Robert reads 1 Corinthians 13 to us

Standing alongside the remains of the Temple of Apollo at the heart of the remains of this city, we heard read to us 1 Corinthians 13. It was a moving final moment of the journey, we had arrived at the goal of our journey but the true goal must be in living out that life of love, that life of charity that Paul commended to the people of Corinth and commends to us.

A last view of Corinth - the Temple of Apollo

A last view of Corinth – the Temple of Apollo

God of love,
may we love one another
as you love us;
may we care for one another
as you care for us;
may we truly be your people
for you truly are our God.
Amen.

Advertisements

Paul the fearless

The storm clouds gathered over Athens today. We had been checking the forecast all week of course to see what weather awaited us along the journey and it had said all the time that there would be storms on Thursday. And they were right. So we began the day early, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the weather, and headed straight for the Acropolis which dominates and in many ways defines Athens.

In some sense this was the climax of the pilgrimage – though, if this is not too nonsensical, there is another climax to come in the shape of Corinth – but what I mean is that with Paul we had arrived at the capital and at the heart of Greek society and Greek thinking. As we have been travelling here from Kavala, Neapolis, we have been thinking with Mark Vernon about the philosophical context into which Paul arrived with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Mark has also been contributing to this blog and further developing his ideas about Paul’s impact.

The sheer beauty of the Parthenon

The sheer beauty of the Parthenon

Stepping from the bus and beginning to climb the huge hill which is crowned by the Parthenon is an amazing experience. This mountain is covered in temples. The acropolis of Athens (there was one in each Greek city) was not about government or fortification, it was about the worship of the gods and the goddess Athena in particular. As Paul climbed the hill, as we climbed it, he would have seen it in all its dazzling splendour and as Acts tells us it distressed him.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) (Acts 17.16-18)

He was on his own, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. He did exactly what we did, looked around at the sights, looked at what was going on, the plethora of temples, the idols, the sacrifices, the lavishness of the place. And in the agora, the market place he heard the debates, the competing ideas, the questions and the answers. As it then says in Acts

So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17.19-21)

The ‘they’ were the philosophers with whom he had been arguing, debating and so they bring him to the place of audience.

The statue of Athena - or at least what it was thought to have looked like

The statue of Athena – or at least what it was thought to have looked like

As we walked around today and saw the perfection of the architecture of the Parthenon and saw the beauty of the caryatids that hold up part of the roof of the temple on the Acropolis known as the Erechtheion; as we heard about the gold and ivory statue of Athena and looked down on theatres and stadia and other temples below, I was in awe of Paul. He could easily have been persuaded into silence by the sheer power and grandeur of the place. What was he in such a setting, one man, with a word, in such an overwhelming place?

But instead, at Mars Hill, the places of the Areopagus, he speaks out and speaks boldly. This is the fearless Paul, the one who with complete conviction, with real intelligence preaches about Jesus and his resurrection and in that environment brings people to faith.

We worshipped at Mars Hill

We worshipped at Mars Hill

Again we hear that among those who gave him a careful and sympathetic hearing was a woman. She is named as Damaris. Nothing more is known of her, but to be there, to be present she must have been a woman of high status, well-educated, even perhaps a foreigner. Whoever she was, with Dionysius she is aways remembered as another of the women who heard Paul and believed in Jesus Christ.

From Mars Hill we went on a short tour of Athens and ended up in the Agora. The clouds were gathering and we could hear the rumble of thunder. Perhaps it was a reminder to us that this man accused in Thessaloniki of ‘turning the world upside down’ had unleashed a storm which would in the end result in the abandonment of the temples and the cults and the old gods. Perhaps Zeus was trying to remind us of this and trying to get a word in!

In a church called to be ‘mission-shaped’ in a context of competing truths and idols we need both the courage and the missional intelligence of St Paul because without both we won’t be given the hearing that he received.

God,
may we be your witnesses
courageous, articulate, intelligent
and faithful
that we too may make Christ known.
Amen.

Paul before the philosophers

On the day when we visited the acropolis of Athens, Dr Mark Vernon considers Paul’s impact on the philosophers who gave him a hearing.

What would the Stoics and Epicureans have made of Paul’s famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the capital city we’ve now arrived at on the pilgrimage? Let’s take the words Luke puts into Paul’s mouth in Acts 17 at face value, and consider them point by point. Once more, we see Paul being canny: don’t alienate your audience unnecessarily; indeed, reach out to them as far as you can.

I found an altar to an unknown god. (v23)

The altar to the unknown god has not yet been found, in spite of the best efforts of well-funded archeologists. But altars to “unknown gods” are well attested by ancient sources, so Paul has picked an arresting starting point.

Epicurius

Epicurius

Further, the philosophers would broadly have agreed with Paul on the plethora of idols that littered the agora. The Epicureans believed in gods. In fact, some Epicureans thought that Epicurus was a god and remembered him on his birthday. But they were entirely against what they took to be the superstition that characterised much city-state religiosity. Leave the gods alone as they leave us alone, they tended to say.

Stoics were different. They were actively theistic. “We are children of Zeus,” Epictetus the Stoic wrote about the same time as Luke. “Remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within,” he continues. The Stoics are with Paul, ready to hear more.

The God who made the world… gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (v24-25)

Now, though, any self-respecting Epicurean would have scoffed. They believed that life is merely the fortunate assembly of atoms. It requires no intervention from outside. There is no god who made the world.

The Stoics, though, would have listened on. God, through the operation of the Logos, generates and sustains all things, they taught. As Seneca, the near contemporary of Paul, explained: “God is near you, he is with you, he is within you… a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.”

He allotted the times of their existence… he is not far from each one of us. (v26-27)

This line would have interested the Stoics some more. They were strict determinists. Everything happened according to the divine will and purpose. Plus, they sought to know this will within their lives. Seneca again: “God comes to men; nay, he comes nearer, – he comes into men.” In fact, Paul’s claim that God is “not far from each one of us” reads like a direct appeal to Stoic ears.

Which would explain why he next quotes two philosophers who were authorities for the Stoics (and not the Epicureans): “In him we live and move and have our being” (Epimenides). “For we too are his offspring” (Aratus). So what will he say next?

Now he commands all people everywhere to repent… v30

Having wooed them Paul, ever the rhetorician, choses this moment to turn up the heat. The themes of repentance and judgment are simply less comfortable personally, though not philosophically. Stoics practiced repentance (the Greek is metanoia – change of heart and mind). Here’s Seneca on why it’s necessary: “Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.” Repentance can lead the individual back to God.

Zeno

Zeno

On the other hand, Stoic adepts, such as might have been in Paul’s audience, could well have been affronted by his audacity. OK, Paul comes from Tarsus, no mean Hellenistic city. But Tarsus is no Athens, they might have thought. Repentance for us? What will this man suggest next?

He will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed… v31

Again, judgment per se would have been tolerable to the Stoics. The philosopher Plutarch was writing about the same time as Luke. He’s a Platonist, though I think that by the first century AD, Stoicism and Platonism often intermingled. Plutarch writes: “If the soul survives, we must expect that its due in honour and in punishment is awarded after death rather than before.” Judgment, therefore, is OK. The tricky element for the Stoics would have been the notion of a man being appointed to judge. This Judge is presumably what they took to be Paul’s “foreign deity” (v18).

By raising him from the dead. v31

Now Paul comes to the crux issue: resurrection. For, the Epicureans it was simply impossible. There is no postmortem survival, Epicurus had been explicit.

For the Stoics, resurrection was tricky but… Officially, they believed that when we die the fire of life leaves the body with the last breath. That fire is not lost: it returns to the cosmos from whence it came. Then there are the Platonic additions, and an active contemplation of the immortality of the soul.

Both these visions of postmortem existence are different from personal survival and, even more, from the reconstitution of a body. But, having brought them this far, I think Paul is inviting his Stoic listeners to reconsider and be challenged. After all, it’s striking that he preaches the resurrection to the philosophers and not the cross, the thing that elsewhere he remarks is a stumbling block.

And some wanted to hear more of this ingenious man who was clearly passionate, confident and well-educated. We can take it that the Epicureans were the ones who scoffed, and the Stoics were the ones who wanted to hear Paul again (v34). There are also two named converts, Dionysius and Damaris, along with unnamed others. It was a good day for Paul at the Areopagus. He had made his mark in Athens.

Mark Vernon

The land of questions and answers

There is something about Delphi.  Our guide says it was all about ‘location, location, location’ and there is something in that. Located on a hillside looking down on huge numbers of olive trees, the land falling away towards the Aegean; the air, the vast blue sky and the towering cliffs. It is beautiful, stunning, memorable. 

  
People came here for two thousand years to seek the advice of the Oracle. They were seeking answers to all kinds of questions and when the time was right they got an answer, perhaps obscure, perhaps unclear, perhaps unwelcome but an an answer nevertheless. 

This all operated in a society, or in societies, in which answers to the big questions were constantly being sought. As we travelled from Kalambaka to Delphi today Dr Mark Vernon spoke to us about the Pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates himself. It was fascinating to think of philosophy – the love of wisdom – in this land of questions and answers.  

We’re travelling in the steps of St Paul and, as far as we know, he didn’t come to Delphi. Instead Acts tells us that on leaving Beoria

Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him. (Acts 17.15 )

We assume he sailed to Athens, the capital of philosophy and a place in which teachers and their students discussed the big questions of life all the time. 

So we have had a day away from Paul but as we left Delphi for Athens we began to pick up the trail again. But the theme of seeking answers to our questions is an important one. 

   
We don’t have a tradition of oracles. In fact when Saul seeks out the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28.3-25) he is breaking God’s law.  But we still look for answers. The church exists in a society in which so many people have questions yet don’t know where truth is to be found. So in consequence they will seek out any ‘oracle’. I believe we need to recover our confidence, the confidence that we will see Paul displaying in Athens, that Jesus Christ is God’s answer to our deepest, most profound questions.  As Peter said to Jesus

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68)

Lord Jesus, lead me into all truth, for you are all truth. Amen. 

Seeing heaven

The Meteora are an amazing series of peaks, isolated, high, beautiful. Early monks saw them as a place of retreat, a place from which they could get closer to God, physically and spiritually. Today access to most of the remaining six monasteries is easier. Coaches can get visitors quite close, steps have replaced nets and baskets as a means of access. All this has resulted in coach-loads of visitors and amongst them, some pilgrims like us.

Anne and Chris on the Meteora

Anne and Chris on the Meteora

For the communities it must be a bit of a mixed blessing. The visitors bring necessary income – icons and candles are big business, even amongst those who may not be conventionally ‘religious’ and the shops that the nuns and monks run do a roaring trade. But the cost to the community must be a loss of the isolation that they sought, that brought them to this place.

I was glad that we had had such a wonderful experience of Greek Orthodox monastic life yesterday. Sister Theoktisti had given us a profound series of insights into this model of the religious life. It was not as easy to glimpse a serene, isolated, simple life in the Meteora.

But what we did see were amazing churches and chapels adorned with the most wonderful frescos and icons. The skill of the icon writers and fresco painters is amazing. What they produce really are windows into heaven, windows into prayer, windows into a deeper, divine reality. We visited two of the monasteries – Agios Stephanos and Agios Varlaam. The first was easily accessible, the latter we reached after climbing 159 steps. But both were wonderful in different ways.

Mara, our guide, explains the judgement scene

Mara, our guide, explains the judgement scene

However, one feature that they shared in common in their churches were wall paintings of the Last Judgement. The imagery was dramatic, a river of fire flowing from the throne of Christ and ending in the mouth of the beast. In the stream of flame were the damned; the saved were ascending towards heaven; the seas were full of weird and wonderful creatures; the demons were loading the scales to gain more souls for their flames.

The ladder into heaven

The ladder into heaven

In some paintings the redeemed climbed the ladder into heaven. We read from Matthew 25, the judgment of the sheep and the goats with that final verse

‘These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25.46)

It’s hard for modern liberal western Christians to perhaps engage fully with this aspect of the faith. The concepts of a fiery hell and a sunny heaven perhaps seem too mediaeval. But the theme of judgement is all around us in these churches. inside the dome in each church, crowning all the images, is that of Christ Pantocrator, all-powerful, the good judge, but a judge nevertheless.

Christ Pantocrator

Christ Pantocrator

St Paul in writing to the church in Corinth says

‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.’ (1 Corinthians 13.12)

Icons provide a view of truth, but for all the skill of the writer (and we visited the workshop of a skilled priest in the afternoon) it is still a dim reflection of what we will see when we come face to face with the one who will be our good judge. What I have to struggle with is whether I have been living a life that will see me fit to climb that ladder. Walter Hilton, a 14th century English Augustinian, in his book ‘The Ladder of Perfection’ wrote this

‘What is humility but truthfulness?’ (Book II, Chapter 20)

To face our Good Judge will call for both.

Righteous Judge,
have mercy upon me,
forgive my sister,
forgive my brother,
and set our feet upon that ladder
which leads to you.
Amen.

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus?

Dr Mark Vernon, in preparing for our forthcoming pilgrimage to Greece, reflects on conversion, Paul’s (Saul’s) and ours.

It’s become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one’s beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.

The drama of conversion

The drama of conversion

Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.

Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul – though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul’s own markedly brief references to it in his letters.

That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn’t have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn’t entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.

So I suspect it also wasn’t so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.

The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. “I no longer live but Christ lives in me,” Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.

A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos (Word)”, he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.

Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we’ll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.

The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, “Our consciousness of our weakness,” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.

That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It is now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere – in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.

This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of “dying every day”. If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.

A less dramatic interpretation

A less dramatic interpretation

This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.

But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change – must die – in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.

Mark Vernon

Preparing for the journey

With less than a week to go before we set off for Greece it is time to really do the preparation.  The liturgy is all sorted, the hymns have been chosen, the readings which we will use at the various sites that we will visit have been printed off.  So in many ways there is a great deal that is ready.  I have yet to think about what clothes I will take.  I hope the weather will be good and so that rather dictates some of what I will choose but that isn’t the highest thing on my agenda.

When, a few weeks ago, those who are taking part in the pilgrimage came to Southwark for a briefing meeting I suggested that some of the preparation that they might like to do would be to read the Acts of the Apostles 16.6 – 18.21.  That is the account of the journey that Paul made and the journey that we will be making.

There are two things that I remember from Sunday School.  One was making a model of a house from the time of Jesus out of a shoe box.  That was very useful for thinking about the story of the friends who lower their friend through the roof of the house to lay him at the feet of Jesus.  The other thing I remember was having to make maps that would show St Paul’s journeys.

The Second Missionary Journey

The Second Missionary Journey

Though we are going to Greece as pilgrims, to make a pilgrimage Paul wasn’t on a pilgrimage.  He was responding to the call of God to go where the gospel had not yet been heard, to respond to the dream in which a man from Macedonia appears to him and says

“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

We have a plan for the journey, we have to.  Hotels need to be booked, a guide needs to be engaged, we need to know where we are stopping.  The question is though whether Paul had a plan.  Did he know where he was going at all or did the Spirit simply lead him, did he follow the prompting of the Spirit, one place following naturally on another, or did he too have a plan?

In all those journeys that he made however, in all the routes that I marked on my map of the Mediterranean as a child, he seemed to be driven by the wind, tossed here and there by the storms, one minute with friends, another making new friends, sometimes in the hands of enemies, sometimes having to divert to avoid more trouble, sometimes heading straight into trouble.

We are now encouraged to have plans, to have strategy in the church, strategy for growth, strategy for mission and strategy has become something of a God as well as a mantra.  I suspect that for Paul the strategy and the vision were the same – to go where God wanted him to go, to travel where the Spirit led them. That feels risky and I don’t plan for the pilgrimage to be like that. But perhaps that is more like life – that the best laid plans simply can’t be guaranteed to be brought to fruition, that the road we had in mind is not the road that we end up following, that if we do have a strategy we need to leave room in it for the Spirit to drive and direct us where the Spirit will.

“Come over to Macedonia and help us’ was just the beginning for Paul and it will be where we begin when we arrive in Greece and walk where St Paul walked.

God of our pilgrimage,
be with us in our preparations,
be with us in our planning,
be with us in our packing,
but may we always leave room
for you to lead us where you will.
Amen.

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 4,850 other followers

  • Follow me on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: