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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 July 2023

Malcolm Guite stands in the same river in which Lydia was baptised by St Paul

TO PLUNGE one’s feet, on a hot day, into clear, cool running water is always a pleasure; but, when I did so just outside Philippi, it was a pleasure that verged on sacrament.

My fellow pilgrims and I had come to the place where Lydia was baptised. Philippi itself was a heap of ruins; but, here, just outside the city, the same river ran clear, and, at the spot where the first European Christian was baptised, stood a fairly new church, built as an octagon around its baptistery. And, indeed, there was a baptism taking place on the morning of our visit, beneath beautiful mosaics that told the story of St Paul and his companions, of Lydia and her household, and of the planting of those gospel seeds still bearing fruit in Christian lives so many centuries later.

And, just outside the church, on the riverbank, was another baptistery: an open cross-shaped channel through which the river flowed, where adult converts could be washed and reborn, as Lydia was; and there, I, too, stood in the water and silently renewed my baptismal vows.

“You can’t step into the same river twice,” Heraclitus said; and Cratilus went further and said, “You can’t even step into the same river once!” They were right, of course, when it comes to flow, to the mere material accidents, as Aristotle would say, of the flowing water; but, when it comes to essence, it was, indeed, the same river, and I stood for a moment in the flowing stream of time contemplating the eternal truth which shines above that stream, the evangelium that I share with Lydia.

I had been visiting Philippi with a group of scholars and theologians on a pilgrimage to follow in the footsteps of St Paul. And, just as St Paul had the vision of a man saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” and, obedient to the Spirit, changed the course and trajectory of his missionary journey and the course of history, and came from Asia Minor to Philippi, so we came there, too.

We trod the streets of Philippi, just as the apostle did, came to the place where he was flogged, to the prison from which he was delivered by earthquake, and to the courts where he revealed that he was a Roman citizen and should not have been so mistreated.

Yet, a stone’s throw from the place of his shameful flogging is the mosaic floor of a substantial church, dedicated in his honour and founded perhaps as early as 314 — barely a year after the edict that permitted Christians to exist. It is a beautiful place of worship, which indicates a flourishing and well-established Christian community, and shows the astonishing success of Paul’s mission.

Paul’s success is still an extraordinary and encouraging story, especially as it begins with apparent failure. Paul’s usual mission strategy was to start with the synagogue, and move on to the intellectual centres and engage in serious debate, as he did in Athens and Ephesus. But, in Philippi, he was thwarted. There was no synagogue, and the leading Gentile citizens were not intellectuals open to debate, but retired soldiers looking for a quiet life.

So, Paul was forced, literally, on to the margins. His first healing there was of a slave girl, and his first converts were women who could gather only on the margin, by the river, for their place of prayer. It may be that now, as then, the margins will be the place of renewal, the place where the refreshing stream of the Spirit flows most clearly.

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