Sunday, 17 November 2013

Acts 16 - Citizens of Heaven

There is an immediacy to the Bible which means that we can open it and read it and hear God’s word for us. 

We left by ship from Troas and sailed straight across to Samothrace, and the next day to Neapolis. 12 From there we went inland to Philippi, a city of the first district of Macedonia;  it is also a Roman colony. We spent several days there. 13 On the Sabbath we went out of the city to the riverside, where we thought there would be a place where Jews gathered for prayer. We sat down and talked to the women who gathered there. 14 One of those who heard us was Lydia from Thyatira, who was a dealer in purple cloth. She was a woman who worshiped God, and the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying. 15 After she and the people of her house had been baptized, she invited us, “Come and stay in my house if you have decided that I am a true believer in the Lord.” And she persuaded us to go.

There is also a depth to the Bible which means we can explore it and investigate it and ask question of it.  In particular God chose to work at a particular time in a particular place with particular people – that means it is good and important for us to seek to understand what was going on at the time, something of that culture and see how people respond.

As we read through Acts we get a  picture of a church seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in what is often a hostile world.

The early church had its roots in the Jewish world, seeing Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law the Prophets and the Writings.  But at the same time they lived with one particular dominant culture, you could say one particular dominant power – the Roman Empire.  How are they to live with Rome?   There was a whole range of ways Jewish people sought to live with Rome – Some went along with the power of Rome and joined in with it – Herod the Great, the Herodians, the High Priests the Sadducees.  Others sought to reaffirm the purity of the law – the Pharisees maybe.

Others sought refuge in a monastic rule of life and community in the desert – the Essenes.  There were those who wanted to resist with power – rebellion against Rome.  Armed rebellion.

John the Baptist was critical – a prophetic voice in the wilderness.  Jesus lined himself up with that prophetic voice and was taken to be a prophet – indeed described himself as such – and held the powers that be to account.

What of the early church?

It is a dilemma.  Much that is good about Rome – positive stories about the Centurion helped by Jesus, the centurion at the cross.  The peace that was established under Augustus was a peace that prevailed – it gave rise to ease of travel, straight roads.  Respect for Rome.

That is one end – work with the culture, go with the flow, work within its power base.  That’s the element we find as Paul and Silas and Luke reach Philippi.

I want to home in on one verse in particular – it’s a verse that is easy to miss, easy to skip over, but significant enough for Luke to mention.  In Luke’s day it would have an immediate meaning for people reading his book.  They would have known what it meant.

Verse 12

12 From there we went inland to Philippi, a city of the first district of Macedonia;  it is also a Roman colony.

That is something that becomes of great significance and is worth reflecting on.

44 BC
Julius Caesar Assassinated

42 BC
The army of Brutus and Cassius meet in battle with the army of Mark Anthony and Octavian

Mark Anthony and Octavian are victorious.
Mark Anthony marries Julius Caesar’s lover, Cleopatra
Julius Caesar’s step son, Octavian, changes his name to Augustus, describes his father Caesar as ‘divine’ and describes himself as ‘Son of God’
In 31 BC Octavian defeats Mark Anthony and prepares the way for himself to become Emperor of Rome.  Within 16 years is acclaimed as the first Emperor of Rome.  He is still the Emperor Augustus when Jesus is born.

31 BC
Near the site of the decisive battle that effectively brought Caesar Augustus to power is a small settlement called Philippi.
Augustus refounded Philippi as a Roman colony in honour of the Julian family giving it the name, Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis and under his personal patronage.

‘With this change of status just over a hundred years prior to Paul’s letter, Philippi now enjoyed the considerable privilege of Italian legal status  (ius italicum): its colonists had not only citizenship but extensive property and legal rights, and they were exempt from poll taxes and land taxation.  In return, the colony carefully maintained and groomed its image as a city loyal to the emperor’s authority, in both government and religion…. Not only citizenship and political loyalties were Roman, but even the form of local government was patterned on that of Rome itself, with two chief magistrates (duumviri iure dicundo) at the hed.  Citizens of Philipp were at the same time citizens of the city of Rome
Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (A & C Black, 1997)

Very important to see that a colony in the Roman Empire is very different from colonies of other empires.  Colonia is the very special status given to a very important city – those who live within the walls of the city and are citizens are living as if they are citizens of Rome itself – they have all the luxuries all the privileges and all the responsibilities as well.

Aside:  while Paul had been on his earlier travels the Emperor Claudius had ambitions to extend his empire Westwards and conquer the last bit of Western  Europe that still the Romans had not succeded in conquering.  Julius Caesar had tried a hundred years before but failed.

Now Claudius was determined to do much better.  He had sent his legionaries in AD 43 and by AD 47 they had marched Westwards as far as the River Severn where I live!  They set up a fortress, as Paul is in Philippi they are subduing the Celtic tribes.  They establish next a city at the first crossing over the Severn – Gloucester today has a street layout that is exactly Roman – in AD 95 the Emperor Nerva granted Gloucester, Glevum as it was called the status of Colonia – only the second city in Britain to be given that status.

You can walk the walls of the city, laid out in the street plan, though hardly any walls remain.  And you can see a wonderful mural that tells a story and a pub that explains the status the city had – a colonia.

Retired soldiers able to live there with all the delights of Rome and celtic tribes people and leaders made to feel really important – and though you might not believe it now they could have the luxury of running water, baths, theatre, games, and under floor heating to keep them warm in the cold British winters.

The Romans were clever.  They went along with local customs, local cultures, they allowed local religions – but when it came to the city and especially a Colonia they expected those within the city to follow the Roman religious customs, keep to the Roman ways and culture.

Rosemary Rowe is a wonderful thriller writer locally in Gloucestershire writing detective stories about Libertus a Mosaic Maker from Corinium, moder Cirencester a short way from Glevum and linked by the straightest of straight Roman Roads Ermin Street.   The Ghosts of Glevum is set in Gloucester and it tells of a shadowy group of people who are committed to helping poor people and have a reputation for caring for people and healing people and making a difference – and they meet outside the walls of the Colonia by the riverside.

They are the followers of someone called Jesus.

Just as in the story here – you can track it through –

Paul, Silas and Luke remain in the city for a number of days.  And then

13 On the Sabbath we went out of the city to the riverside, where we thought there would be a place where Jews gathered for prayer. We sat down and talked to the women who gathered there.

Notice how it is outside the city walls – by the river.

 14 One of those who heard us was Lydia from Thyatira, who was a dealer in purple cloth. She was a woman who worshiped God, and the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying.

Place of prayer – the implication is they were worshipping God – doesn’t actually say Jews.

Love that way it speaks of the way ‘the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying.’

Woman who is a business woman – dealer in purple cloth – very expensive from Thyatira, particularly precious and important for the Romans.

Invitation to stay at Lydia’s house – she has a house in a colonia that makes her a pretty important person, a person of some standing.   Baptised – and ‘a true believer’ in the Lord.

Live in the colonia – the place of prayer outside the city walls.  It fits.

Then there is the account of the young girl – it is as they are going from the city to the place of prayer they are plagued by the young girl –

Abused – men making money from this young girl.

And Paul brings her healing – in the name of Jesus Christ.

The girl’s owners realise they have lost their source of money and income.  They are angry – the accusation is important to note – we will come back to that tomorrow –

16 One day as we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a young servant woman who had an evil spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She earned a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes. 17 She followed Paul and us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!” 18 She did this for many days, until Paul became so upset that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I order you to come out of her!” The spirit went out of her that very moment. 1

When her owners realized that their chance of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the authorities in the public square. 20 They brought them before the Roman officials and said, “These men are Jews, and they are causing trouble in our city. 21 They are teaching customs that are against our law; we are Roman citizens, and we cannot accept these customs or practice them.” 22 And the crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas.
Then the officials tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be whipped. 23 After a severe beating, they were thrown into jail, and the jailer was ordered to lock them up tight. 24 Upon receiving this order, the jailer threw them into the inner cell and fastened their feet between heavy blocks of wood.

Then about midnight Paul and Silas are singing praises to God and the earthquake happens – the gaoler is about to take his own life because he the prisoners will have escaped.  They haven’t, he hears about the Good News of Jesus and he and his household are baptised.

All sorts of wonderful things going on here – from the significant part played by Lydia to household baptisms – the house church.

And then the officials come to release Paul and co.

And this is the point I want to home in on.

Paul at this moment stresses that he is fully a Roman.  What is more he is a Roman citizen.  That is particularly significant in a Colonia.  He has rights.  They have been violated.

The next morning the Roman authorities sent police officers with the order, “Let those men go.”
36 So the jailer told Paul, “The officials have sent an order for you and Silas to be released. You may leave, then, and go in peace.”
37 But Paul said to the police officers, “We were not found guilty of any crime, yet they whipped us in public—and we are Roman citizens! Then they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? Not at all! The Roman officials themselves must come here and let us out.”
38 The police officers reported these words to the Roman officials; and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were afraid. 39 So they went and apologized to them; then they led them out of the prison and asked them to leave the city. 40 Paul and Silas left the prison and went to Lydia's house. There they met the believers, spoke words of encouragement to them, and left.

Through this whole story the thing I notice is that it fits exactly the rules of the Colonia.  And Paul respects that.  He works with that Roman culture.  More than that he takes pride in being a  Roman citizen.

He works with it.  He goes with the flow.

There is a genius to the Colonia idea.

It was a primary way the  Romans had of winning hearts and minds.

They provided a working model in the middle of a very different culture whatever that might be of what it was like actually to live in Rome.

Within the walls of the Colonia you might as well have been in Rome itself.

This was the genius.

Those celtic tribes people around Glevum or those Macedonians around Philippi could actually experience within the Colonia what it was like to be a citizen of Rome … and it was very attractive.  It drew them.

And Paul knew exactly how it worked.

Paul’s travels take him to Corinth to Athens and back again and eventually off to Jerusalem with a collection for the poorest and victims of famine there – but of course he is arrested.  And after endless delays eventually appeals to Rome where by now Nero is Emperor.

And from prison in Rome he writes to the church in Philippi.

Is it a church still valuing the hospitality of Lydia, still meeting down by the river?

In Philippians 3:18-4:1

Paul describes a hostile world in which so much is destructive, governed by base human instincts and a brutal kind of greed.

Within this hostile world – the church gathers togheter – and are called to be a Colonia of God’s kingdom.

We, however, are citizens of heaven, and we eagerly wait for our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to come from heaven. 21 He will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body, using that power by which he is able to bring all things under his rule.

We are citizens of heaven.

So as citizens of heaven we are under God’s rule – just like the citizens of Rome.

Here in his place we live as citizens of heaven – inside the church – the church offers a model of what it is like to live under God’s rule.

Value of using the culture around us – but then within the church seeing the church as a colonia of heaven – where we offer a picture of what the rule of God is like.

A challenging picture for us of church and what it means to be church today.

A sermon of Martin Luther King’s

We are called to a higher loyalty, to a more excellent way

Indeed, every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds the world of time and the world of eternity

We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of having to be in
the world and yet not of the world

As Paul said in Philippians 3 

“We are a colony of heaven ”

The Christians to whom Paul was writing understood that figure, for
their city of Phillippi was a Roman colony Whenever Rome wanted to Romanize a province, it took a small colony of people and planted them there to spread Roman law, Roman culture, and Roman customs

These people stood as a powerful, creative minority spreading the gospel of Roman culture Even though they lived in another country their ultimate allegiance was to Rome.

While this analogy has its weaknesses, if for no other reason than that it is placed in the framework of a system that has become a symbol of injustice and exploitation, - colonialism- it  does point out the responsibility of the Christian in an unchristian world

We are sent out as pioneers to imbue an unchristian world with the ideals and way of living of a higher order and a more noble realm

Even though we live in the colony of time we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity

In other words, as Christians we must never give our ultimate loyalty to any home-bound custom or idea of earth

There is a higher reality at the heart of our universe to which we must be conformed - God and his kingdom of love

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