The city of Philippi was the site of the first Christian church in mainland Europe. Paul went to Philippi in response to a vision he had while planning to go to Bithynia in which he saw a man dressed in the garb of a Macedonian asking him to come to Macedonia as described in Acts chapter 16:9-10. Philippi was a very rich city. The city was situated in a commanding position in a gap in the mountains running from the Black sea to the Adriatic through which the East-West trade route called the Ignatian Way ran. There were gold and silver mines in these mountains adding to the wealth of the city. In 1990 the tomb of King Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, was discovered there and it is second only to the tomb of Tutankhamen for the wealth of the grave goods found there. It was a roman colony so all those born in the city would automatically become Roman citizens, provided they weren’t the children of slaves of course. In 42 BC Anthony and Cleopatra defeated Brutus and Cassius there and eleven years later they themselves were defeated in battle and killed by a Roman Army under the generalship of Octavian who later changed his name to Augustus and named the city Colonia Julia Augusta Philipensis, but everybody just called it Philippi.
Paul planted the church there in about 52AD. Now normally Paul would begin his activities in a new city by going to the synagogue but he couldn’t do that in Philippi because there weren’t enough Jews in Philippi. A synagogue could not be set up where there were fewer than ten Jewish men; so, Paul went to a Jewish lady’s prayer group by a riverside to begin his mission in Philippi and made the first known convert in Europe; a woman named Lydia. This is the first recorded instance of the Gospels being preached in mainland Europe. There were possibly people there who had been at the revelation of Pentecost but there is no known record of that.
So it is probably no surprise that Paul had a special place in his heart for the church in Philippi, as we can see from the opening verses of today’s reading. Now when Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi he was himself in prison in Rome, chained to either a wall or a Roman guard; and yet throughout this letter Paul writes of his joy. He uses the words joy and rejoice a lot in this letter. He also uses the word Koinonia. This word means fellowship. Not the sort of fellowship that comes from having a cup of tea and a chat, but the sort of fellowship, which can better be likened to a business partnership only stronger. The way this word is used in the New Testament is more like the koinonia of Siamese twins; a koinonia of the blood. If one twin dies then so does the other one. What happens to you happens to me.
So why is this of interest or concern, how does this apply to us today? Well I think today’s reading from Philippians can and should be taken as a blueprint of what can bring us through the trials and tribulations of the present time. We are constricted by government dictates and our own common-sense. We cannot meet as we have become used to meeting and there is a very real danger that this enforced regime will carry on for some time to come. If you value this community, and you definitely should, then you must take steps as soon as you can to ensure we not only get to the other side of these present difficulties but we can pick up where we left off, as much as we can, when we get there. Reach out to those of our community that you can; maintain contact as best you can. We are brothers and sisters in Christ; we must not disappoint our saviour by withdrawing into our shells at the first sign of difficulty.
I direct your attention to verses 6 to 9 and would venture the opinion that this may be a good lesson for us all to take on board at this time. The world seems to be in a very tumultuous period.
There is the world pandemic in which over a million people have died and economies have been strained around the world to their utmost limits in an effort to reduce deaths. Make no mistake we shall be feeling the effects of this virus for many years to come and paying a heavy price in raised taxes and reduced services.
There are very real problems in America where an election is taking place, which can only be described as vitriolic. Each side of the political divide has become so partisan that the interests of their own country have been sublimated to the interests of their party. The democrats are openly stating that if they lose this election there will be insurrection and more rioting. The Republicans are claiming that if the Democrats win then the country will be destroyed by the socialist policies that have destroyed so many other countries in the recent past. Gun stores in America are selling out of ammunition and guns as people let their fears dictate their actions. All we in the rest of the world can do is watch and wonder where it will all end. We know from history that when America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. We can already see the enemies of the free world are moving to capitalise upon any weakening in our capabilities. China and Russia together with Iran are known to be in military talks. The Chinese Communist Party has adopted an expansionist policy for the first time in that country’s 3000 year history and partly mobilised the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of over 2 million soldiers, sailors and airmen. There have already been minor conflicts on the Indian/Chinese border, with many soldiers killed. All of China’s neighbours; Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam, India, Australia are openly building up their armed forces in expectation of armed conflict with China on some level and this country has ancient ties, defence treaties and obligations with at least two of those countries. The Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier is even now on it’s first active duty deployment in the South China sea and America has given India 98 M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks and two squadrons of new F35 fighter jets.
And to cap it all, I’ve just been made a Lay Minister in the Church of England, at this very parish.
So, in the face of all this doom and gloom what can we do? Well what does Paul say? Verses 6 and 7 tell us that we should not worry, although it must seem a very strange thing to say in the face of everything I’ve just said. But think about it a minute. Where is your faith? Let’s take one more look at what the Holy Spirit has to tell us through Paul (Verse 6-9). Never forget that we are required and instructed to turn to Christ away from the world of men towards the Kingdom of God.
Paul is in prison. Every time the door opens, he must, at some level, wonder if it’s a reprieve or a death sentence; and yet he tells the Philippians that he is joyful and rejoicing. Do not fret or have anxiety about anything. Easy to say; almost impossible to achieve, on your own; but with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving and with true fellowship, true koinonia, we stand a chance of at least making a good showing; and through the once for all perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Christ and the love of God I really believe that that will be enough. Amen.