I will always hold and treasure a pilgrimage to Greece that I led under the theme of “following the footsteps of St. Paul.” Our group’s first stop was Philippi. Philippi was named for the emperor Philip II, who was the father of Alexander the Great. As a result, this city was a “colony” of Rome meaning it was a smaller version of Rome but copied the culture and embraced the rule of Caesar. In fact, buried on these bloody grounds of Philippi was literally rooted Caesar’s conquest of such notables as Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
The citizens of Philippi knew Caesar as lord and savior and they understood there was no greater power. The mere signal of a “thumbs down” was all it took to execute those who opposed Caesar, the so-called son of God. Fear kept the city under the control and rule of Caesar. Fear, as you know, has a tendency to close hearts and breed only hate.
With this in mind, we came to the outskirts of Philippi and the sacred place where Lydia worshiped with Paul and was baptized. According to the story in Acts, Lydia was a prominent business woman and a dealer in purple cloth. When she listened to Paul refer to Jesus as the true Son of God and the living Lord and Savior, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart. (Acts 16:14) The spiritual heart is different from the physical heart. When reflecting upon the spiritual heart we might consider the heart as the entry point for both the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
The heart houses love. We know, “perfect love casts our fear” (I John 4:18) and that is because it is God’s love or agape, is self-giving love. An open heart is attracted and receptive to God who enters our world through the incarnation and revelation of Jesus. An open heart looks to Jesus and follows him into a life that is abundant. Lydia was baptized in the waters where you see me pointing in the picture above and in this act of conversion her heart, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God opened her to the world around her and to the sacredness of life.
Lydia was an amazing woman as she then asked Paul to baptize her household and invited Paul and Timothy to stay before they continued on. This baptism and these waters represent the beginning of the Christian church in the western world and the spread of the Gospel and the Good News of life with God.
I think of the war in Ukraine and the senseless and brutal invasion by Russia. It represents an abuse of power no different from Caesar. It also signals a warning to all who surrender their freedom to the rulers of this world. What is remarkable about Lydia and her story is her willingness to face Caesar and Rome and the powers of this world and claim a greater power that opened her heart and emboldened her to love that as Paul would later write, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:7)
Lydia is a woman who stands before us as we celebrate on March 8, International Women’s Day, and she leads us forward into Ukraine where military warfare is met with spiritual warfare. Her open heart is a perpetual witness that love wins over hate.