Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus  Christ. Amen.

Last Sunday, I began this summer sermon series on the Apostle Paul in Greece, with the saint’s vision of a Macedonian man pleading with him to come and help Macedonia. Immediately, he sailed together with Silas, Timothy and Luke to the island of Samothrace.  According to the Book of Acts, they spent the night there before heading on to Macedonia. That is where we will begin today as well.

In the Louvre Museum in Paris, at the top of the Duru stairway rises the famously displayed statue of Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. This woman with wings, poised on the prow of a ship, once stood on the Samothrace hilltop overlooking the port.  She was erected as a tribute to commemorate a naval victory. Her windblown and sea-sprayed robes cling closely to her body.  She has no arms, but she has two wings rising heavenward. The statue was excavated from Samothrace by a French archeologist 170 years ago. In a glass case nearby is the Winged Victory’s open right hand with an outstretched finger, found in 1950, nearly a century after the statue itself was unearthed. When the French government  discovered this hand was in Turkey, they negotiated with the Turkish government for the rights to it.

No doubt, Paul would have seen the statue of Winged Victory atop the hilltop on Samothrace. It was a part of a Temple Complex dedicated to the Cabeiri- the unnamed Greek gods.  For the Macedonians the island of Samothrace and the Temple Complex was a national sanctuary where King Philipp met his future wife and mother of Alexander the Great.  Mystery cultic rites were held during the night on the island which drew pilgrims and tourists alike. Paul may have stopped purposefully to see how he could understand the ways of the Macedonia man.  However, he would certainly been appalled by the island’s worship practices and countless idols.

Perhaps, it was with the inspiration of Winged Victory pointing her finger to Macedonia, that Paul with confidence travelled straight away to Philippi. The port of Neapolis would have been a natural place to start, but it held little interest to Paul. Without pausing he passed on to Philippi instead. That is where he felt the gospel of Jesus Christ was most surely needed.  And with the statue of Winged Victory pointing him in that direction, he entered Philippi with the Holy Spirit opening the door.

How surprised Paul must have been by the lack ceremony arriving in the West. There was no welcoming committee, no key to the city and no one to greet him.  He thought that his vision of the Macedonian man was a powerful call to do work in the legendary homeland of Alexander the Great and his father Philipp, only to arrive in a city where there was no synagogue.  Jewish law required ten males for a synagogue to be formed. But in Philippi, there were not ten God-fearing Jews in the whole city.  He arrived in the historic Roman city where the Republic ended and the Empire began. 100 years earlier, in the Battle of Philippi, the armies of Brutus and Cassius who had assassinated Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, were defeated by Mark Anthony and Augusta Octavian, the first Roman emperor.  They declared Philippi a Roman colony, but not with the same rights as Rome itself.  Religious tolerance was not practiced, and so etched on the arches of the city walls was a prohibition against bringing any unrecognized foreign religion into the city. That may explain why there was a Jewish prayer meeting being held outside the city, on the riverbank.  With no Jewish men and no synagogue, Paul must have wondered whether God had brought him to the right place.

I know that feeling personally.  When Janna and I first arrived in Latvia in the fall of 1993, we too wondered what we were doing. We boarded the passenger ship in Stockholm bound for Riga with 50 green hymnals, a 25 pound reading Bible, a black preaching robe and great expectations.  But when we arrived the following morning in the container harbor in Riga, moored between rusty ships, and were barred from passing through customs unless we paid a bribe, which was carton of cigarettes, we too wondered whether God had brought us to the right place. Days passed as we tried to determine the best location for holding worship services.  The promising Lutheran congregation in our neighborhood didn’t believe that a coffee hour was essential to the work of the church.  It was too Baptist.  The church building that we had been invited by the archbishop  for services, was managed by the Riga Technical University and was run as a cultural center. The most promising venue was in the church office building, but the archbishop had no time to initiate our work. On our first personal meeting, he asked what resources I brought with me- and he meant financial resources. Yes, we wondered whether God had brought us to the right place- or whether the hand of Winged Victory was pointed in the wrong direction.  We finally held our first worship service nearly two months later on Reformation Sunday.

Although Paul and his companions had wasted no time in getting to Philippi the mission itself required patience. Not much happened for a while, but when God began work in Macedonia, it came with surprises. The first person to welcome the gospel was not a man at all, but a woman, named Lydia from Thyatira, from the very area that Paul had be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to travel and speak.  She was a seller of purple cloth with plenty of resources, including financial.

As Paul spoke, Lydia listened intently.  We don’t know how long these visits lasted. She was already regarded as a worshiper of God, but she knew nothing of Jesus. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what Paul said.  Whether it was a single day or weeks,  Lydia listened to Paul’s words at the riverbank and grew in her devotion to God. She longed to be baptized together with her whole household in Jesus’ name. How exciting it was for the apostle that Lydia was becoming the first European convert to Christianity, but also quite surprising.

This was all a new territory for Paul. Having been trained by the scholars in Antioch and Jerusalem to be a leader among Jews, he would have been well acquainted with their views on women. The rabbis were known to say, “It is better that the words of the Law be burned that be delivered to a woman.”   Still the Spirit changed both the heart of Lydia and Paul in those visits. The fact that Paul was willing to speak to these women on the riverbank at all indicated that he no longer held that view.

Most remarkably, Lydia didn’t just open her heart, but she courageously opened her home to this new faith as well. Given her business, the role of women in society, her social connections and the high price of purple cloth, her economic security and social status were all in jeopardy, but she willingly shared what she had and demonstrated the spiritual gift of hospitality. The Lord used her greatly to aid Paul and her home would be the first church in Europe.

Pastors and evangelists often talk about building up and growing their churches, as if it is something that they can do on their own.  The story of Paul and Lydia, however, teaches us that building of the church is something only God can do. He nurtures the relationships, sometimes slowly, and other times quickly, so that faith can take root among the community of believers, so that they may be fed and strengthened by one another.

The story of the church in Philippi serves as a model of this faith building and nurturing.  There is a mutuality in the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, the pastor and the congregation, if you will.  Lydia used her gifts and possessions to start the church at Philippi. And Paul used his gifts to teach, exhort, encourage, and build the church spiritually. They were a community working together, each with their own gifts and abilities and resources blessing one another.

My friends, you may wonder about your own gifts and your significance in the church. You may have found yourself in an awkward place like Paul. You look around and ask, “God, am I in the right place- doing what you want me to do?” The circumstances and frustrations may seem over -whelming and you may not foresee a good and prosperous future. You wish there was a Winged Victory pointing you to a destination ahead. Don’t be too quick to abandon God’s work for your life. Just as it did for the Apostle Paul in Macedonia,  one unlikely convert, a woman named Lydia can make all the difference.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.