Backpacking with Bill: A letter from Philippi

IMG_0234Near the coast of the Aegean Sea on the banks of the Gangetes River, are the ruins of a Roman cemetery. The inscriptions are barely legible. The grass needs to be mowed. Standing water surrounds the sarcophagi. Death should have normally gotten the last word in a place like this. We have no idea who’s buried here.

But just a few yards away from the cemetery is a monument to eternal life. This is one of the sites of ancient Philippi. After seeing a vision of a man in Macedonia, Paul arrived here and found a woman named Lydia. She led a group of women at a place of prayer near the Jewish area outside the walls of this ancient city. This Gentile observer of Jewish law and her household were the Spirit’s first converts to Christianity after Paul arrived. The Gangetes River flows through her baptismal site just past the Roman cemetery. Death doesn’t get the last word here. Jesus and Lydia do because of the power of resurrection.

Today I began a journey retracing Paul’s second missionary journey in Acts 16-20 and visiting the island of Patmos where the apostle John was exiled. This week and next, I’m traveling with a group of pilgrims from Tallahassee and Pensacola, Florida, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Waco, Texas. Dr. Barry Howard, Pastor of First Baptist Church, is my co-host. Along with our Greek and Turkish guides, we’ll be teaching through pivotal passages in the New Testament, enjoying the sites, and connecting with old and new friends. I’ll blog a few reflections of our experiences. The weather is beautiful; the scenery is breath taking; the country of Greece is stable. I’m grateful to be here with special people.

Philippi was our first stop this morning. We then traveled to ancient Thessalonica and read familiar passages of scripture just outside the city walls. In Acts 17, Paul encountered opposition from some of the Jewish leaders in the synagogue. Instead of arresting Paul, they dragged Jason, the host of the Thessalonican house church, before the authorities. The local leaders tried to accuse the group of sedition. They said, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have now come here.” The charges they tried to pin against the Christians merely revealed the truth. Jesus’ resurrection had already overturned the tables on death and set the world aright.

A few years after Paul was thrown out of the city, the apostle wrote back to these same people. His protégé Timothy reported to him that they were anxious. The Thessalonians now longed for Jesus’ return but worried that their dead Christian relatives would miss out on the resurrection.  Paul comforted them by reminding them that the dead in Christ would rise at the resurrection along with those who are alive at his return (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and then urged them to remain faithful at work until he does. Death still can’t hold its grip no matter how hard it tries.

Whether in Philippi, Thessalonica, Illinois, or Florida, the followers of Jesus’ Way offer the only hope that lasts an eternity. One day people may look at the ruins of our lives and wonder who once lived here. But not Jesus. With Christ as our Lord, you are never forgotten.

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