“First United Church of Philippi, part I”
Rev. Tony Romaine—October 11th, 2020
As we begin our journey into Paul’s letter to the Philippians, some background and historical context will be important. The city of Philippi which existed in the northeastern part of ancient Macedonia (modern day Greece) and was named after Philip II who was king of Macedonia and father to Alexander the Great. Geographically, it was a settlement about ten miles inland from the northern edge of the Aegean Sea on a major Roman road, the via Egnatia.
By the time of Paul’s letter, this was a thoroughly Roman settlement and although it no doubt held onto its Macedonian roots, it had become a resettlement for Roman veterans and reorganized as a Roman colony named Colonia Julia Augusta Philippensis. Because Paul would have been writing this letter in the 50s or 60s CE, this would fall historically in the reign of the emperor Nero.
Paul writes this letter from a prison somewhere, and while some sources want to claim that he is writing it from prison in Rome, others claim that it was when he was imprisoned in Caesarea, and still others want to claim that it was while he was imprisoned somewhere, we just don’t know where. I guess the point is we should all understand that Paul was imprisoned a lot! So, the authenticity of his imprisonment is not up to debate, just the actual location. Nevertheless, the importance of him being imprisoned is that he was willing to risk it all for God…foreshadowing!
We do know from Acts 16:9-15, that Paul has a vision that he and Timothy were supposed to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” When they awake, they immediately head for Macedonia and just outside of Philippi meet Lydia a trader in purple cloth who was a “worshipper of God,” and after she and her household were baptized, Paul and timothy were invited to stay with them. This was their inroad into Philippi and their establishment of a church there.
A couple of important items to note: the church in Philippi was the first church established by Paul in Europe. Also, when we say church, we mean that Paul and Timothy are using Lydia’s house and other houses to do small worship that, yes will eventually spread, but in its infant stages was really small group worship inside the homes of rich women. Which brings us to a point that we must never paint over, and Paul himself beckons us to recognize and uphold, that if it were not for the women of ancient Roman society, Christianity might never have had a chance of ever surviving…more foreshadowing!
This gives me another opportunity to do what I love and offer some historical context into what life was like for Christianity during the Roman Empire, especially on the European continent. In a letter to Diognetus from an unknown second Century author, it is written about the Christians, “They live in their own homelands, but reside as resident foreigners. They share everything as citizens, and put up with everything as foreigners.” If this does not describe aptly how Christians lived in Rome and how Romans themselves lived with Christians, then nothing else will. Greco-Roman cities like Philippi, were small in area and compact with populations exceeding modern averages of people per acre. In fact, some estimates place the population density within Roman cities to be around 200 people per square acre. The streets were narrow and, in most places, wide enough only for a horse cart at best. The houses had no fireplaces or furnaces, and to say the city was a dirty place might be a compliment. As historian Rodney Stark comments, “It is all well and good to admire the Romans for their aqueducts and their public baths, but we must not fail to see the obvious fact that the human and animal density of ancient cities would place an incredible burden even on modern sewage, garbage disposal, and water systems. Keep in mind too that there was no soap. Hence it is self-evident that, given the technological capacities of the time, the Greco-Roman city and its inhabitants must have been extremely filthy.”
Beyond the high population density and filth, Roman cities were also places of constant newcomers. Greco-Roman cities were not populated by generations of families but by a constant flow of immigrants. This constant flow of new people to a society produced strain on an already strained system of public utilities, public institutions, and public need. This created a society that was loosely affiliated with one another and focused highly on the stratification of income and the neglect of those who needed the most help. Is this starting to sound familiar to any of us?
I hope so, because now that we have some background and historical context, I want to get on with the why and what of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will not cover the whole book of Philippians today, but for the next four weeks we will be covering a chapter each week. And what comes abundantly clear out of this first chapter that Paul writes to the church in Philippi is that he wants them to focus on what truly matters most. We hear Paul, after addressing the church in Philippi say in verses 9-11, “9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Paul is asking the church in Philippi to make sure the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and joy continue to be shared with the world that needs it so much. And Paul is writing them to let them know how thankful he is for their support, for their love for him, and for their concern for him. Moreover, it is Paul’s imprisonment that will help to spread the Good News, because if people like the Philippians can spread the Gospel even when the fear of imprisonment, or as Paul continues to write about, death, does not stop them, then nothing can stop the love of Jesus Christ to reach all the ears of those who need to hear it.
In this manner, we too are being called to do exactly the same thing. We are being called to share Good News, joy, love, with a world that does not seem to know the definition of these things. We are being called to extend the hands and feet of God even if it means we will be punished for loving too much, thought to be weak for having joy in a hate-filled world, or extending the hand of care to those we do not even know even if it means that we will have to work beyond our fear and work into a place of trusting in God.
And we are being called to be unpopular in many ways. We are being called to counter the divide within our society, we are being called to love into the corners and across the borders. We are being called to bring the message of eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ in any way we can, however God is calling us, wherever God is calling us. And we are being called not just by God, or Jesus, or Paul, but our world is calling for us if we only stop to listen.
Which brings me to my final point that Paul closes his first chapter with. He calls the Philippians in verse 27 to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek word that Paul actually uses is πολιτεύεσθε or politeuesthe, which translates as “to live as citizens.” Paul is calling the Philippians to live as Greco-Roman-Christian citizens. Paul is calling the people of Philippi to live and act and be a part of their society so as to create the change their society needs. To extend the hands of love into the places where this garbled, dirty, crowded world of Roman society exists. To extend a helping hand to the widow that has been lost, to the hungry who has no food, to the stranger or immigrant who has no place to live, to the economically unable who has no income, and even to the upper stratum of society where the most love is needed in times of political and social chaos, like the days of Paul and Nero.
And again, I ask if this sounds familiar! It should, because our world is calling us to do just the same. Our city, state, country, world is calling us to be 21st Century Christians who have a First Century heart! What I mean by that is that we are being called once more to go and be the love this world needs, we are being called to be a beacon to the world that can shine light into the darkness, and we are being called to do so not as ascetics who will separate ourselves from the world, but as those citizen Christians who will work to create change from the inside out. That is why we are spending the next four weeks with Paul and Philippi, because we need to hear what he had to say to them, for he is speaking directly to us, now more than ever!
So let me end today by saying the very same thing Paul said to the church in Philippi, I thank God every time I remember you, I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, and I cannot wait for us to bring the Good News to our world once more, Amen!
 Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 149-150.
 Stark, 152.
 Stark, 156.