The Apostolic Invasion of Europe (a Sermon on Acts 16:9-15)

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.

We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.


We’re reading from the diary of St Paul, as given to us in the book of Acts – a section covering Paul’s second tour of duty in Asia Minor.

In Acts Chapter 16, Paul begins what we might call the Apostolic invasion of Europe! In the diary entry that follows this one, Paul and his comrade Silas are captured and tortured, which leads to a sort of Guantanamo Bay incident, where their captors then face a possible scandal for overstepping their authority in their treatment of the two evangelists.

In this week‘s reading though, everything begins much more happily. Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, which leads him and his fellows to embark on a journey that will indeed change history!

The scene opens with Paul in Troas – a major seaport in North-Western Turkey, actually only about 50km from Gallipoli! Paul had been travelling from Israel through Turkey, entirely by land up to this point. I’ve mentioned before that the ancient Jews had a great fear of the sea, and I imagine that Paul felt more comfortable traversing these great distances by carriage, camel or by foot, rather than by boat, even if it took a lot more effort.

The decision to cross to Macedonia, however, required a sea voyage across the Mediterranean into Europe – a trip that would become for Paul the first of many epic sea voyages, though if going by air had been an option, I’m sure he would have taken It. Even so, Paul had no hesitation in booking tickets on the boat, once he received the vision of the man from Macedonia, calling out to him for help.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a vision of this sort – someone calling to you for help in a dream. Gladys Aylward, in the early 1900’s, had a somewhat similar vision of a Chinese man in her cupboard – a vision that led her into China, where she preached and served in leper colonies and did amazing work! I can’t pretend that I’ve ever had such a vision, and I don’t expect to get one, chiefly because I’m not in a position to just get up and head off to another country! I have a family, and consequent responsibilities at home.

One thing that Gladys Aylward had in common with the Apostle Paul, which they have in common with all our Catholic clergy brethren is that they are all single people, able to get up and move house or country at a moment’s notice

Indeed, I remember hearing of one Catholic priest talking about what his celibacy meant to him – ‘radical availability’ was his answer! Being celibate meant that he was radically available to God and to others, as was St Paul, in a way that most of us are not, though this is indeed what makes single people such potentially powerful soldiers on the mission field!

Paul hears the pleading cries from the man of Macedonia, and so he gets into a boat and sets sail on this historic journey – the Apostolic invasion of Europe – for it was indeed the first time that a Christian evangelist had ventured outside of the Middle East!

This was probably not what Paul initially had planned to do. In his first tour of duty, Paul had travelled around Asia Minor, focusing on areas such as Galatia, preaching and setting up churches, and an educated guess would be that he had intended to go from Troas (on the North-Western tip of Turkey) back inland, eastwards, to revisit the churches he had recently founded. This vision threw those plans into confusion! It was therefore most likely an unwelcome vision, and not only because he would have been looking forward to catching up with friends in Galatia, but also because Philippi was probably not somewhere he wanted to visit!

For us, an invitation to come to Macedonia might be similar to an invitation to come to Phuket or Hawaii – a great place for a holiday! For Paul though, it was probably more like an invitation to modern Afghanistan, for Philippi was a rough place, and not an ideal holiday destination for a Jew. Philippi, in Paul’s time, was a town full of vets (and I don‘t mean the kind that look after animals). It was a colony that had been developed solely for the benefit of retired servicemen from the Roman legions.

If you know your ancient history, you’ll know that one of the big problems for kings and emperors alike in the ancient world was what to do with your old soldiers, once they reached retirement age. When you think about it, you realise that this would not be a group of persons that the government could ever afford to have offside. The last thing you needed, as emperor of Rome, was to have 100,000 or so grumbling ex-legionaries gathering together somewhere on the outskirts of the empire. In short, it was a priority for the Roman government to pension off their veterans very generously.

Philippi was a colony given over entirely to veterans, though it hadn’t always been that way. Founded in 356 BC by (you guessed it) ‘Philip of Macedon’, the city was best know for being the scene of the final showdown between Mark Anthony and Octavian, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius on the other in the Roman Civil War that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar

It was after that battle that the victors decided to settle a lot of their soldiers from the 28th Legion right there in the city, most of the original inhabitants having no doubt been killed off in the battle. They were later joined by vets from the Praetorian guard when Octavian became Emperor.

Philippi, In other words, was a city of men – a city of rough old men, and rough old men who had money! They were living in houses they hadn‘t built, taken from people they had killed. Some would have had families with them. Many would have been single. And where there’s rough, old, single men with money, I imagine there was a thriving sex industry with lots of late-night bars.

War stories, wine and wenching (the three ‘w’s’) – a few of an ex-legionary’s favourite things, and the three W’s must have been at the heart of Philippian culture, which is why it seems like such an odd place for Paul to launch a Christian mission.

If Paul had been guided by the contemporary wisdom of the church-growth strategists, he would have looked for an area that had a well-established Jewish community – people who already understood concepts like Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Philippi didn’t have that. He would have chosen a place with a sizeable synagogue, which he could have then used as a central place for preaching and teaching. Philippi didn’t have any synagogue!

Philippi was a town of rough old men who specialised in war mongering, wine and wenching, not in spiritual dialogue. When St Paul had his vision, he saw a Macedonian man begging him to come over and help, but when he got to Philippi, that man was nowhere to be found

Paul did not find any blokes in Philippi looking for spiritual help. On the contrary, when he went out searching for a place where local people gathered for prayer, he ended up outside the city, and down by the river, and he didn’t find any blokes there at all, but only a few women!

I suspect that Paul’s companions, by this stage, would have been questioning Paul pretty seriously about how sure he was that this vision he’d had had been genuinely a message from God and not just the result of an upset stomach. I suspect that Paul himself must have questioned the veracity of that vision numerous times – seeing this image of the Macedonian man, calling to him, roughly shaven, still perhaps wearing the insignia of his old legion. I envisage that when Paul initially heard the old soldier calling to him for help, he was thinking, ‘yeah, I remember the last time I asked you for help, I didn’t get any!’

Evidently Paul and his fellow troopers were able to get beyond all that. Paul must have been able to see in that vision of the Macedonian man, not simply a retired killer and long-time oppressor of his people, but a human being in need of help. So they made the trip, they came to the city, they didn’t find any men asking for help, but they found some godly women, one of whom was named ‘Lydia’. And the Lord, we are told, ‘opened Lydia’s heart‘, and both she and her household were baptised, and so began the church of Philippi.

There has been a long-time rumour circulating amongst Biblical scholars that Paul and Lydia got in on at some level, and some even suggest that they were secretely married while Paul was still in Philippi! Personally, I can’t see anything to back up that theory, but I’m sure that when that when “Paul, the Apostle”, the blockbuster movie, finally comes out, Paul’s relationship with Lydia will indeed be pivotal to the storyline.

In truth, we don’t know a lot about Lydia. We know that she was a businesswoman – a trader of purple cloth – and probably quite wealthy. We know that she and her household were baptised that day. Did her household include her children from some previous relationship, or was it just her slaves and employees? Admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be any male partner on the scene, which is presumably why the rumors started about her and the Apostle.

Did Lydia become the pastor of the first church of Philippi? We know that the church did meet initially in Lydia’s house, so I don’t see any reason to think that she should not have been their first pastor. In truth though, we don’t know a lot about Paul or his friends’ activities in Philippi and we know less about Lydia’s. What we do know is that Philippi was the last place Paul would have chosen to start a church in Europe, but that he followed the vision he was given and that God brought into his path a woman named Lydia. And did the church grow from there? You bet it did!

It’s very notable to me, when I read through Paul’s various letters in the New Testament, that most of them come from a man who is frustrated with his churches. Galatians opens with Paul almost swearing at them, calling them a bunch of morons. The Corinthian letters are filled with Paul telling the people off for being greedy, lustful, divisive and idolatrous. Most of the congregations Paul founded seems to be a source of constant frustration to him. The church at Philippi seems to have been the exception.

Listen to some of Paul’s opening words in his letter to them:

“I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now. And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus. You are always in my heart! And so it is only right for me to feel as I do about you. For you have all shared with me in this privilege that God has given me, both now that I am in prison and also while I was free to defend the gospel and establish it firmly. God is my witness that I tell the truth when I say that my deep feeling for you all comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.” (Philippians 1:3-8)

Philippi was a tough place to start a mission – wrong type of people, wrong area, wrong timing! But it seems that God doesn’t need straightforward circumstances in order to work a miracle. All He needs is people who have the courage to follow the vision that He gives them.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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