(This June, I led a nine-day mission trip to Greece, visiting the historic city of Athens with a team of 15 leaders and young adults. Our role was to support a strategic partnership between Global Service Initiatives (a US-based short-term mission group) and Streetlights (a Greek-based mission in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens). The experience was eye-opening, surprising, and thought-provoking, and did not lend itself easily to the question, “How was it?” To help others understand the trip, and to help me make sense of what I experienced, I invite you to process the journey with me through a series of 7 blogs called THE GREEK DIARIES.)
Paul walked here.
Paul. The Apostle Paul. The Giant of the Faith. The Man. The Legend. The Missionary. The author of half the New Testament.
We were walking through the ruins of Philippi, an ancient Roman city that lies nestled among hills about 30 minutes from the Aegean Sea. It’s an extraordinary ruin, with an intact amphitheater, a massive forum, and acre upon acre of stone columns and remnants of the lives that have been lived there.
Philippi is famous in the Bible for two things – being a Bible book (Philippians), and being a destination on one of Paul’s missionary journeys. He was arrested there, actually, because he cast a demon out of a woman, only to find out her sorcery was the source of income for some handlers. Angry about the interruption to their cash flow, they stirred up the crowd and manipulated the authorities until Paul was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. During the night, Acts 16 records, an earthquake hit Philippi, an angel appeared to Paul, his chains fell off, and he walked out of the jail. His jailer was so amazed that he became a believer right on the spot. Between that guy, and a woman named Lydia whom Paul baptized (more about that in a moment), there was enough momentum in Philippi to start a church, which later received the famous letter from Paul while he was in prison again in Rome.
We had the place all to ourselves. It was a surreal moment. As we walked through the ruins of Philippi, we were walking where Paul walked, perhaps on the same rock where he stopped to take the thorn out of his sandal, or where that fig he was eating fell from his hand. Paul was here, not to mention the tens of thousands of others who lived in Philippi through the centuries before and after him.
We could hear their whispers emanating from the dust. Or maybe that was the echo of the laughing goats being herded up the nearby hillside? I’m not entirely sure. Anyway...
Afterwards, we drove to the the creek where Lydia was baptized (also in Acts 16). She was a merchant--a successful woman. Believing Paul's message about Jesus, she immediately asked to be baptized. Lydia was quite possibly the first European convert to Christianity. She wouldn’t be the last.
We tried to picture the events that had taken place two millennia earlier. We tried to get our minds around the enormity of what had happened here. We tried to put ourselves in Paul’s shoes and think his thoughts as he walked through the forum in a city far from his home, engaging people with a message about a man named Jesus who was risen from the dead and was God in the flesh.
It made me wonder, What would Paul have thought of his legacy in this place? When he walked into that city, did he have any idea of the impact he was making? When he casually cast out a demon that was annoying him, did he realize the fallout of his off-the-cuff reaction? When he got arrested unfairly, could he ever have conceived that the jailer to whom he showed kindness would be a link to an endless chain of CHURCHES? When Lydia asked to be baptized, could he have predicted she would be the first of MILLIONS? When he later thought of these friends he knew only briefly, and wrote them a letter of encouragement, did he know he was writing SCRIPTURE, words infiltrated with divinity which would be preached for CENTURIES and change the destiny of GENERATIONS?
How could he have known any of this? How could he have conceived of the limitless influence his presence in that place would have? He couldn't have. There is no way he could have known. Though we look back and see Paul, the great Apostle and hero of the faith, at THAT MOMENT he was simply Paul, a man who knew Jesus called him to something (what?), and stepped with no fanfare or certainty to the next step and nothing more. He walked into a city, stayed a short time, talked to people, got arrested, and changed history.
His steps were small; he did not know he was a giant. If he were here today, he would never recognize himself in the rear view mirror, larger than life.
I mentioned the creek where Lydia was baptized. We went there after Philippi. It's just over the hill. The goats were now coming down the other side. Our group took communion there. Then we asked if anyone wanted to be baptized. Two students, Sarah and Joci, said yes. I was surprised – nobody had mentioned it earlier. I was ecstatic. We took off our shoes and stepped into the water. We looked at our friends gathered on the shore. The girls went under. We all got wet, especially our eyes.
Who am I? I thought to myself. I just baptized someone with Paul. Who are these girls, Sarah and Joci? They were just baptized with Lydia. We may never know what God does with this moment, but it’s just as significant as the one two thousand years ago. Small steps leading to greater things. Ordinary people with a future in the hands of an extraordinary God.
You will never know the impact your next step of faith has on the Kingdom of God. If you could look back two thousand years from now, you wouldn’t recognize yourself.
You are a giant. You are a hero. You are larger than life.