What did Paul preach in Philippi?

Dr Mark Vernon, one of the leadership team for our pilgrimage, reflects on the day we have spent and on Paul’s ministry and teaching here.

Paul sets foot on European soil for the first time, probably in the winter of 49AD. But what did he find at the port of Neapoli, modern day Kavala? What religious scene greeted him?

It would have been an important question for him too. Paul tells us he tailored his message to connect with his listeners. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks. So what word would have struck a chord in Macedonia? The letter to the Philippians, though written years after his first arrival, provides evidence.

It seems his usual strategy was, first, to contact fellow diaspora Jews and/or those who reverenced Judaism, the so-called “god-fearers”, who were widespread throughout the Roman empire. They would understand the language of the Christ, the Messiah, even if they rejected it.

When he got to Philippi, just up the road from Neapoli, he found no synagogue but, Acts tells us, he went to a place of prayer by the river. There he met a group of women including Lydia, whose heart opened to what Paul said. She was baptised.

St Lydia

St Lydia

However, Paul was not only interested in engaging fellow Jews. His next encounter in Philippi, according to Acts, was with another woman, only this one had a “spirit of Python”. She was probably a prophetess from the Delphic Oracle, which is to say, a significant religious figure. No wonder the city was in uproar after Paul became annoyed with her and quashed her spirit.

It sounds like the story of a new religion casting out the old. But it’s more interesting that. Why, for example, did Paul became so annoyed by the prophetess? She was proclaiming correctly that he was from the “Most High God”. I suspect the incident reveals another side to Paul’s ability to connect and persuade: he himself had spiritual abilities that deeply impressed.

The historian Ramsay MacMullen paints a vivid picture of the pagan milieu into which Paul had landed. “[People’s] senses were assaulted by messages directing their attention to religion; shouts and singing in public places to an accompaniment as loud as ancient instruments could sound; applause for highly ornate prose paeans; enactment of scenes from the gods’ stories performed in theaters and amphitheaters; the god-possessed swirl of worshippers coming down the street to the noise of rattles and drums.”

To make an impression, which he clearly did, Paul had to be able to outclass the tumult with his own displays of supernormal power. It apparently came easily to him. In Acts, we read time and time again of how he healed and exorcised, prophesied and even seemingly caused earthquakes. Paul could channel quite a show. As he told the Corinthians, he did not have to use persuasive words of wisdom. He was a spiritual adept.

But if spectacle was part of what helped Paul connect with the Greeks, there was a further side to his appeal. This was more subtle, and perhaps longer lasting. It was Paul’s authority as a mystic, which is to say, he could communicate a profoundly felt experience of the divine.

Mysticism, too, was integral to the ancient religious scene. At Philippi, the grave of Euephenes has been excavated. He was probably an initiate into the cult of the Kabeiroi. The heroon of Euephenes was discovered in tact because it had been incorporated into subsequent Christian buildings.

The mosaic in the floor of the church where Euephenes is buried

The mosaic in the floor of the church where Euephenes is buried

This respect suggests to me that Paul must have been recognised as the representative of a mystery religion too. There are echoes of this dynamic in the letter to the Philippians as well. Paul writes of having “the same mind as Christ”; of “overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight”. It’s here we find the mystical hymn of Christ emptying himself and “taking the form of a servant”. He also hopes to “know the resurrection and make it his own”.

Paul’s message must have been rich. He had wisdom that could speak to the Jews; power that could persuade the pagans; and an ability to manifest the mystical side of life. He was a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in such a way that his arrival still speaks two millennia on.

Mark Vernon

Beginnings

The second day of our pilgrimage was really the beginning. Every journey has to start somewhere and ours began by praying outside of the church of St Nicholas, close to the column at which Paul is said to have tied his boat. But he wasn’t going to be spending much time in the place where he had landed. Instead, as we then did, he headed inland and to the important city of Philippi named after King Philip of Macedonia who had made it the city that it was, large and prosperous and influential. But what it didn’t have was a large community of Jews.

So when the sabbath came and Paul and his companions, Silas and Luke, were looking for a place to worship they headed out of town and found a group of women, led by a wealthy businesswoman, who were worshipping by a river.

Lovette and Sally at the baptismal site

Lovette and Sally at the baptismal site

They worshipped with them and Paul told them about Jesus Christ and Lydia, the leader of the group and her friends were baptised in the water of that river.

The story is recorded in Acts 16.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16.12b-15)

Paul had arrived in mainland Europe; this was the first time that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been preached in Europe and it was to women and the first person to be baptised from Europe was a woman. After the resurrection the first witness and apostle of the risen Lord Jesus, was a woman. There is a similarity and significance here.

We gathered by the river, not some little gentle stream but a fast flowing river, a noisy flow of living water and there we celebrated the Eucharist and renewed our baptismal promises. We did this celebrating the fact that this is a significant place for the european church, where the first conversion, the first baptism occured. And the beautiful church near the river commemorates this.

Walking through Philippi in the steps of St Paul

Walking through Philippi in the steps of St Paul

Lydia’s baptismal site is just outside of the remains of Philippi. That is a very impressive site, extensive and very well preserved. We walked to the place where Paul’s imprisonment is remembered, to the agora where it may well have been that he preached and to a number of the churches that were subsequently built by the Christian community that developed there. All is now in ruins but you can easily see remains of the splendour and significance of the place.

The impressive remains of one of the basilicas

The impressive remains of one of the basillicas

Paul was such a thorn in the side of the authorities that after he had been released from prison (Acts 16.16-39) they asked him to leave and Acts then records

After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed. (Acts 16.40)

We can only suppose that Lydia’s home had become the first domus ecclesia, the first house church, in Europe. It was a beginning in this place of beginning and Paul and his companions nurtured this community even as they left on their travels.

It was a wonderful visit. Lydia should be much more prominently celebrated than she is. She is the proto-Christian of Europe; our mother of the church from which we have sprung, and her hearth and home provided the beginnings of the church to which we belong. Why is she overlooked? Could it be another example when the place of women in the life of the church has been conveniently forgotten?

For Lydia
and for all the women
who heard the Good News
and responded in love
and faith,
Lord, we give you
thanks and praise.
Amen.

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