It was a nice place, Philippi. A Greek city, just a few miles in from the seaside resort of Neapolis (home of the ice-cream), but in 42 BC it had become a Roman colony. Mark Anthony and Emperor Augustus had fought there to beat Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar.
That was for the ruling class. The rest still spoke Greek, wore their Greek togas, ate moussaka and worked as builders, tradesmen, shopkeepers. These were the underclass. They would have made up most of the small church that Paul wrote to in about 60 AD - the letter we begin looking at on Sunday: ‘Philippians’.
Paul and Silas were on their way to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). On route, they stopped a few days at Philippi. It was Paul’s habit in a new place to visit the Synagogue first - but there were so few Jews out there (less than 10 Jewish men) that there wasn’t one. So they found a place by the Gangites (not ‘Ganges’) River where a few met to pray, just outside the city wall. They sat down and began to chat to the women gathered
Little did Rome know it, but at that moment the Roman Empire was stormed by a new movement that would turn it upside down: the Christian Gospel. That was the first place it was ever preached in Europe and the Empire. And one of the women there, Lydia, was just ready to hear it. She and her household were baptised there and then in the river.
Immediately there was spiritual opposition. A demon-possessed fortune-telling slave girl kept going on shouting about them, disturbing the whole quiet movement of God. Paul, being able to, exorcised the spirit from her, and found himself in deep trouble with her owners - he’d cut off their source of income. One thing led to another, until Paul and Silas were dragged into the market place, seen by the magistrates, stripped and beaten (“severely flogged”, Acts 16:23) and thrown in prison. There they sang out hymns to God. It was midnight. They cheesed off the neighbours, but the other prisoners listened. Then a great earthquake bust their chains (but not them), and they ended up proclaiming Christ to the jailer. More believers. And another load of baptisms.
What a church this was going to be in Philippi! All sorts there. But thick as thieves, it would become. Close as brothers. Bound together by a great cause - the greatest cause of all: the gospel.
I hope this letter will do the same for Wellfield Church over the coming weeks. I hope it will give us a sense of belonging together, full of joy in Christ. Why not make the most of it by reading it through first? Imagine yourself on a warm, Greek veranda, where your little church meet, with olives and red wine. Imagine gathering round as one of the church members unseals and reads the newly arrived letter from Paul, the prisoner in Rome. Imagine how it will change the church - the attitudes, the comforts. And imagine, if you can, that this letter might one day provide the same needed message to another little church in a faraway cold, wet town in England, in a very different world - but a world that is just as hardened against the gospel, and where the church has just the same struggles to keep going.