Fr. Michael, recently returned from a trip to Greece, describes visiting the place where Paul converted Lydia, a prominent business woman in Philippi along with Paul’s eventual place of punishment and imprisonment before an earthquake loosed his bonds. Watch and listen for the full story and pictures from Fr. Michael’s trip.
1st Reading: Philippians 2:12-18
My beloved, obedient as you have always been,
not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent,
work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
For God is the one who, for his good purpose,
works in you both to desire and to work.
Do everything without grumbling or questioning,
that you may be blameless and innocent,
children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,
among whom you shine like lights in the world,
as you hold on to the word of life,
so that my boast for the day of Christ may be
that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
But, even if I am poured out as a libation
upon the sacrificial service of your faith,
I rejoice and share my joy with all of you.
In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me.
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
Homily Transcript — The Cost of Discipleship
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship. If we are going to follow him he has to be first in our lives. He can’t be just one item among many items that are important to us. Jesus says, he needs to be first and when we place him first in our lives there’s going to be a cost. It will affect everything. It’ll affect our relationships to our spouse, to our family, to our work, the lifestyle we choose, how we vote, the values we hold dear, and what gives us joy in the midst of our lives.
Our gospel reading today indicate the analogies Jesus uses. He says, “If you are going to follow me, and your going to embark on this gospel trail of being a disciple. Be prepared that there’s going to be a cost to that and there are going to be sufferings. And yes, it will be worth it.”
We no where see that better played out than in Paul’s life. As many of you know I just returned from leading a pilgrimage with 28 pilgrims, walking in the footsteps of St. Paul over in Greece for two weeks. It was a wonderful trip. You know the kind of trip I’m talking about. Visit a holy land such and such with holy father so and so for the incredibly low price of such and such. Well, I was that holy father so and so.
Today’s first reading is taken from Paul’s first letter to the Philippians. On the last full day of our trip we visited Philippi, which is a city in north eastern Greece; then Macedonia. It was tremendously meaningful for us because St. Luke recounts Paul’s journey to Philippi in Acts chapter 16. Philippi was a prosperous Roman colony. It’s a seaport town. Most scholars wrote his letter to the Philippians probably in the year 61 AD when he was imprisoned in Rome. The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome where he’s under house arrest. He’s free to receive those who come to him, but he’s under house arrest and he can’t leave. He’s there for two years and he continues to exhort others and to write. Most scholars say that around the year 61 AD he writes to the Philippian community.
That’s to be distinguished if you saw the film Paul, Apostle of Christ, where he’s in the Mamertine prison, the dungeon, and he’s awaiting execution under the Roman emperor Nero. This is an early period, his first imprisonment, where he’s under house arrest. He exhorts this Philippian community that he had visited at least twice earlier. Acts chapter 16, as I said, recounts the story of his arriving in Macedonia for the first time. Paul had been evangelizing over in Asia Minor, contemporary Turkey, and he had a vision. The vision was of a Macedonian—a person of that section of northern Greece—appearing to him in a vision and asking Paul to come and evangelize them. Paul trusts that vision and he sets sail, leaving Turkey going over to contemporary Greece, and he lands in Philippi.
Now one of the surprise joys for us in the midst of the pilgrimage—on of our pilgrims, Peggy Arizzi, had put together a prayer card for us with a section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice!” And on the front of the card, Peggy had just googled images of St. Paul and what caught her eye was this particular icon of St. Paul stepping on to the shore of Greece. Peggy had no idea where that icon was, she just liked the picture; nor did any of the rest of us [know where it was]. So for two weeks everyday we were praying this prayer and looking at this icon and on the last day of the trip we pulled into Philippi and what do we see in the center of the town but this mosaic shrine depicting exactly this image. This was where the image came from on Google images.
It depicts this historic event of Paul landing in Europe for the first time. Acts chapter 16 tells about his first convert which is in the city of Philippi. Now Philippi, as I said, was a Roman colony. It’s a prosperous he seaport town, many retired military leaders were there which explains the fact that there was no synagogue. There is no Jewish synagogue in the area so Paul gathers where the people are gathering and there’s a bunch of women at the riverside. Now the river hasn’t moved into 2,000 years. Even though rivers move, the location of the river hasn’t moved in 2000 years. The city of Philippi has set up a wonderful outdoor amphitheater where people can gather to celebrate a prayer service or a mass and so we did that at the riverside.
Acts chapter 16 tells the story of Paul evangelizing this group of women that had gathered and one of them is a prominent citizen of Philippi. She’s a dealer in expensive purple cloth and her name is Lydia. She’s Paul’s first convert in Europe and he baptizes her at that river. That was tremendously meaningful for us to be able to gather at that site. We renewed our baptismal vows and there’s a little icon there of St. Lydia. We recounted this story of Paul’s visit in chapter 16 of Acts of the Apostles, coming to Philippi.
We also went to, as chapter 16 continues, Paul journeys into the center of the town—what they call the agorra—and there are ruins spread all over this section of the ancient city and Paul exercises a demon from a slave girl there who had been prophesying. The masters of that slave girl had been making money on the slave girl. When Paul exercises the demon from her, she loses the ability to have any prophetic utterance and those who are profiting from this demonic prophesying, this fortune-telling, lose their source of income and they get angry at Paul and they report them to the magistrates. [Today] they have the actual stone—they know the exact site where the Roman magistrate would hear cases and that was very meaningful to be able to stand there and to say this is the spot where Paul was tried. They also have the actual site where he was flogged—along with Silas—beaten with rods and then thrown into prison.
Now here’s the connection with our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul unjustly accused, unjustly beaten, and thrown into prison, the Acts of the Apostles says that Paul and Silas are singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God. This is exactly what Paul exhorts the Philippians to do: “In the midst of persecution and hardship, sing your praises to the Lord.” Brothers and sisters, that’s advanced spirituality is it not? St. Ignatius calls that the 2nd degree of humility, because most of us, when we suffer anything for any reason, we feel sorry for ourselves.
This isn’t my fault! Why is this happening to me?
The cry of St. Teresa of Avila: “Lord if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Now St. Teresa is a doctor of the church; a great saint, but her spirituality isn’t matching the spirituality of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians where he and Silas are rejoicing that they’re found worthy to be able to suffer for the sake of Christ’s name. We know the exact spot where that took place and the ruins of that small prison where Paul and Silas and other prisoners were held is extant to this day. What I learned is there lots of earthquakes throughout Greece and most of the Roman buildings are in rubble not because of marauders so much because of the earthquakes over the years that have toppled the buildings.
But we still have the the ruins of that prison and St. Luke records that while Paul and Silas are in prison, there was a tremendous earthquake that shook the city of Philippi and the chains that were holding the two of them and the other prisoners were shaken loose and the Roman guard pulls out his sword—assuming the prisoners had escaped—to kill himself because, if you were in charge of of prisoners and they escaped it would be a death penalty. And so to avoid the shame, it’s his duty to kill himself. Paul calls out, “Don’t do harm to yourself! We’re still here.” That so impressed the Roman guard that he took Paul into his home, bathed his wounds—he and Silas—and asked to be baptized.
That’s the power of the gospel. That’s the power of how God makes all things work to the good. When we’re were faithful and we offer up our sufferings as Paul does, and recounts that, and urges the Philippian community to do the same. Paul writes the Philippian community to thank them for their financial contribution to help his ministry to grow. Furthermore, he exhorts them to remain strong in the midst of their own persecution; to be unified, to be humble. He commends other disciples, Timothy and Aphroditis. Finally, he ends his letter by exhorting them against extremes in the community, against those who are the legalists, the hardliners and those who are the libertines, who just say “anything goes.” Paul warns them against these two extremes. At the center of this letter is this call for joy.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is sometimes called Paul’s letter of joy. We use it in the third Sunday of Advent on Gaudete Sunday where the call is rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always. We hear that today in the midst of our suffering, of our taking up our share of the gospel, let’s avoid all self-pity and know that from God’s perspective he wants to use those sufferings to draw us closer to himself and to purify us, to become disciples that place Jesus first in our lives.