Friday, May 9, 2014

Footsteps of Paul

Before our final dinner together in a sixth century cistern restaurant, we gave thanks for a wonderful 3,200 mile (San Diego to New York) pilgrimage through Turkey, exploring the footsteps of apostles Paul and John, learning about the context of the early church and the impact of the early church fathers. 

It was a very special meal of Turkish food, laughter and stories. Pilgrimage in community is a powerful experience. We marked our days with prayer, scripture, sharing insights, traveling light, open to what God has in store for us and acknowledging those times of providence where we just happened to be there at just the right time and place. 

Amy and I thought it was awesome to be in Istanbul for our third time -- ferrying up the Bosphorus, crossing under the Sea of Marmara by metro, walking through the crowded streets, marveling at the sights lit up at night and sampling the baklava and dolma mussels.

I love introducing people to Istanbul because it is such a surprising city of contrasts. We saw a young, tall female guide with sunglasses and jeans leading a group of conservative Muslim women in long coats and scarves. The skyline includes ancient city walls, skyscrapers, and domes mosques.  Street food of roasted corn and chestnuts are on every corner.

Most importantly for our trip, this is where New Rome (Constantinople) became the seat of Christianity for 900 years. And Turkey is the seedbed and launching pad for the New Testament church.

•Many of the cities where Paul planted and encouraged churches were sophisticated centers of commerce, religion and power. 

•John's Revelation for the seven churches may have been as impactful to the first and second century church as the 1,000s of miles Paul travelled. 

•His heart as a pastor and the real life circumstances of the seven neighboring churches grounds his vision for hope and encouragement. 

•The terrain and number of miles Paul travelled was remarkable. 

•Paul's courage to proclaim boldly the simple message that Jesus died and rose again in the face of tremendous Roman power and spiritual opposition. •The early church was faithful against those same powers to be the authentic church, filled with the spirit, loving one another, their neighbor and their enemies.

•Church Fathers grappled with deep   theological concepts in the 4th century, shaping the foundation of orthodox doctrine.

•In Ephesus as few as 5% were free citizens and Paul's message of hope and freedom in Christ was great news to slaves who would be set free and redeemed.

•Turkey is a beautiful country.

•Baklava is amazing. 

We saw so much, and yet we just scratched the surface. Just as archeology is always discovering new artifacts, each visit to Turkey uncovers something new. The apostle Paul traveled to great cities with good news about a Savior and Lord who was not Caesar. Against the power and wealth of Rome, the imperial cult and persecution, the gospel survived and spread. 


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Istanbul: the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia was built in 532 ad by Emperor Justinian in just five years. It was an amazing architectural feat, a massive building of columns and arches built above a cistern of columns and arches. 

It was also built over the temple of Apollo and  churches built by Constantine and then Theododius in the fourth and fifth centuries. It was a symbol of a new era of Christianity in an empire that killed the Apostle Paul three hundred years before.

The inside is the church is lit by clear windows. The windows created flexibility in earthquakes, but it also lit the ceilings covered with gold mosaics. This was the largest dome in the sixth century, and still the fourth largest dome in the world. 

The gold mosaic ceiling--24 million pieces of gold just in the dome--would have dazzled with the light streaming through. Heaven lighting earth. What did those believers experienced as they entered this massive, dazzling space? What hope did it give worshipers, as they entered space larger than anything they had ever seen?

The mosaic at the entrance of the sanctuary is Jesus holding the bible in his hand with the words, "I am the light of the world."  

As Rome fell and Constantinople became the New Rome, St. Augustine dreamed of a City of God, the New Jerusalem that was more spiritual than political. As followers of Christ we long to see the light of the Kingdom of God break into our world. 

John wrote: I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it... The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. Revelation 21:22-22:5






Monday, May 5, 2014

Pergamum, Bursa and Nicea

Pergamum was an ancient city of power and worship. 4th century bc fortress walls remain upon which was built subsequent victors, including Trajan. A temple to Zeus where sacrifices were made and incense burned from the altar. This is the altar John wrote about in Revelation 2 "where Satan lives."  Chapter eight tells of the golden altar where the prayers of believers rise, like incense--a superior picture of worship.
Trajan built the temple to Athena, goddess of war to credit her for his victories. He built himself a super-sized temple where the emperor was worshiped as Lord and Savior.

Here's the choice for the early church: worship Caesar who is all powerful, provides roads and services, defends against great armies and is here in this awesome temple. Or worship Jesus who is no longer here on earth, is represented by Christians who fear persecution and alienation from the marketplace, who seems powerless against the power of Rome.
This temple was perched on the hill and shining with bright white marble. It was built on an artificial platform with three stories of arched vaults which held the massive treasury used to pay for military, slaves and the second largest library (Trajan's private collection). Parchment (variation on "Pergamum") was in invented here, which allows for the first books.

Trajan is the beast of Revelation 13 who is forced to be worshipped by the second beast, the civic leader who was also the high priest of the imperial cult.

As much as Zeus' altar is Satan's throne, the real and present danger to the faithfulness of the church was the emperor, who persecuted and killed Christians off and on for the next two centuries until Constantine. This powerful acropolis could be seen from the valley below and the healing center which worshipped Aschepius. Their symbol was two snakes drinking from a bowl of milk (the symbol of medicine). As people entered the center they were assessed for illnesses. 

Priests dressed in white escorted the patient through a tunnel with incense and music "piped in" from outside rooms connected with clay pipes. The smoke, incense, music, priests and the sound of flowing water created an ethereal experience before entering surgery. Herbal medicines and hallucinogens were used, along with leaches and blood letting. One famous second century physician made great breakthroughs by treating gladiators in nearby Pergamum and soldiers returning from war. John affirms the church: "Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me." And he critiques the church because of sexual immorality and eating meat, both connected to temple worship.

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We visited the 15th century Green Mosque in Bursa. The mosque is a house of prayer, not a sanctuary for services. As our guide described the practice of five times a day prayer, I was struck by the rituals.

Before praying the men must wash themselves three times: feet and legs, arms, face, nose, ears and neck. The washing preparation takes five minutes, about as long as the prayer itself. How do I prepare myself for prayer?

The physical posture of prayer matters. Acknowledging God with a wave, sitting on the ground, kneeling forward with forehead on the ground, and lining up together.  This is a posture of submission of humility. How do I express myself physically?

There are 99 prayer beads in order to meditate on the 99 names of God, each one 99 times. Prayer in this respect is not asking for, but pure praise and adoration. How do I meditate on the biblical names of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Five times a day is "without ceasing," or a rhythm that keeps God on our minds throughout the day. A caution might be this could become rote prayer, but better to try than not pray at all. What are my daily meaningful practices that keeps Jesus at the center?

Although there are many differences between Islam and Christianity, my understanding of prayer is stretched.

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The first and last ecumenical councils (325 and 787) met in Nicea. Constantine hosted the first of seven at his summer palace on Iznik Lake. These councils brought bishops together to determine orthodox doctrine, like the nature of Jesus (same substance as the Father), the Holy Spirit (divine), Mary (Theotokos--God bearer, but not divine), original sin and the proper use if icons in worship. We visited the Hagia Sophia church where the last council was held and read the Creed along the lake at the sight of the first.

It's important to have the scriptures and the faithfulness of the early church, but without these theologians grappling over these issues, we don't have theology or a model to discern among Christians with rigorous debate and conviction. And we wouldn't have a theology of the uniqueness of Jesus:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God, 
eternally begotten of the Father, 
God from God, light from light, 
true God from true God, 
begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father; 
through him all things were made.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Patmos

John was exiled for not pledging allegiance to Emperor Domitian as Lord. It was only because of Domitian's death, and a new emperor who was sympathetic to the Christians, that John was released. John spent 18 months on Patmos in exile, then returned to Ephesus where he died a natural death at 105. 

While he was there with his scribe Procorus he had a revelation from Jesus about the things that would soon take place. He wrote the seven churches all along in the same mail route as Ephesus. These were brothers and sisters who suffered and worshipped together. He could see the coast of modern day Turkey and wrote one day "there would be no sea," maybe his own longing for fellowship.

We think Procorus delivered the Revelation to the churches before John was released. Imagine what it would have been like for him to return to  his church in Ephesus, and be visited in his old age by church leaders from the other six churches. 

John, what was it like to see Jesus again? 
How did you know we struggled with immorality and the Nicolaitans?
Thank you for the encouragement--we have stayed faithful.
Jesus is with us, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.

We visited the cave believed to be John's where he heard Jesus speak "like the sound of rushing waters" -- which is what it would have sounded like in a cave.

What John writes to the early church perhaps had as great an impact on the early church as the thousands of miles Paul traveled. Towards the end of the first century the churches had been persecuted, beaten down and were losing hope. Their choice was to worship the emperor as Lord and Savior (who held all power over buying and selling, required total allegiance, and whose temples were massively impressive) or worship Jesus (who was not here in the flesh, had left them).

Christians have read, debated, ignored, set up communes, cults and written books about this book of the New Testament. Conferences and denominations disagree about when Jesus will return and what will happen to believers.

What I think gets lost is this is a revelation of Jesus.  Just in the first three chapters we discover who he is to John, his readers and us:
Jesus,
who is, and who was, 
and who is to come,
the faithful witness, 
the firstborn from the dead,
the ruler of the kings of the earth,
who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,
who has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, 
the Almighty,
the son of man.
I am the First and the Last.
I am the Living One;
I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!
I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I hold the keys of death and Hades, the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Jesus, 
who is holy and true, 
who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can shut,
the Amen, 
the faithful and true witness, 
the ruler of God’s creation.

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Regardless how events unfold or when Jesus returns, or what kind of persecution we might face, I wonder--

Will we be faithful to Jesus?
Will we invite him in?
Will we renew our first love?
Will we fall at his feet, like John, and worship him?
Will we repent?
Will we live with the hope of a new heaven and earth?
Will we tell the story of the one who lived, died, was raised again, and who will come again?
About the one who is making all things new?

The monastery dedicated to John began in the 11th century. Stones from a fourth century temple are used as pavers. As many as 150 monks have been on the rolls and currently there are 30. Prayer has been continuously in this place for 900 years. Monks reproduced and preserved ancient Greek and biblical texts since the 700s. Icons of biblical stories, saints and Jesus beautifully painted have inspired worship for generations.

Seems like one way to keep the lampstand burning and telling the story from one generation to another. All inspired by the 18 month exile of a pastor who loved his Savior and missed his people.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ephesus

Our guide previewed our visit: Ephesus is a double site.

We know about the church in Ephesus from three biblical sources: Acts of the Apostles (18-20), Paul's letter Ephesians and the letter to the church in Revelation.  

It's a strategic location for Paul because Ephesus is was the capital of Asia Minor. All roads flowed to the Meander River, which emptied into the Aegean at Ephesus. A port city, the view from the sea included the awesome theater, where the riot broke out against Paul--24,000 people chanting “great is Artemus of the Ephesians!” The first temple to Artemis was built in the 5thC bc, so Ephesus was a famous place of pilgrimage and the temple served as the first bank in the world.

This was also a wealthy city with opulent terrace houses, amazing water fountains, 30,000 book Celsus Library. indoor plumbing, and central heating and cooling. The arm of the 10 meters high statute of Domitian was eight feet long.  

Paul spent three years in Ephesus. During that time, Paul introduced believers to the Holy Spirit, spent two years talking about Jesus in the Hall if Tyrannus, taught house to house, trained elders, worked as a tent maker to pay his own way, healed people and faced the craftsmen whose business he threatened by his claims "that gods made by human hands are no gods at all."

Of the 250,000 residents in the city of Ephesus in the first century, 93 to 95% of those residents were slaves. Paul's good news was great news to slaves as well as citizens. 

Paul had the right to speak publically in the state agora where virtues and philosophies were debated.

I can imagine Paul speaking in public and teaching house to house about Jesus, and slaves overhearing the good news of forgiveness and freedom they could have in Christ.

Paul makes the bold statement against the power structures of the Roman Empire in the culture of his day saying in Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, male or female, slave or free. 

The prison letter to Philemon (in Colossae) makes that very clear point. How would Onesimus be received as a runaway slave turned brother in Christ? How would Philemon's house church in Colossae hold him accountable?  Paul says,

He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.  So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. Philemon 16-17

John moved here with Jesus' mother Mary, maybe as late as the Jewish Wars and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ad. By this time Paul and Peter have been killed and John alone us left as a pillar of the Church.

Here he wrote his gospel and was known as Hagia Theologos, Saint Theologian. His tomb is the foundation of the basilica built by Justinian in the 6th century ad. 

John lived to 98 years, 40 years longer than Paul. He shepherded two more generations of believers in Ephesus. He also fulfilled Jesus' request to care for Mary.

Yes, Ephesus is a double site.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pisidian Antioch, Hieropolis, Laodicia and Aphrodisias

We continued across central Turkey through valleys and farmlands, mountain ranges and lakes, exploring the ancient ruins of cities Paul visited.  

Pisidian Antioch is the first place in Asia Minor where Paul's preaching is recorded (Acts 13). We stood among the ruins of a 4th century church built on the sight of the synagogue where he shared the new and good news about Jesus.

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus." Acts 13:32-33

Many believed, but the Jewish leaders rejected them. This is the earliest example of "first the Jews, then then Gentiles."

It was all about breaking down walls of separation, welcoming the outsider, expanding comfort zones and being open to the new thing God was doing through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It was a cold and windy day (we dressed for Sun), which made for a brisk, invigorating walk through the city where Paul and Barnabas were rejected but left "filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit."

We drove another four hours to Hieropolis--Pamukkale, one of the churches for which Paul intended the Colossian letter.

I vouch for Epaphras that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Colossians 4:13

Hieropolis (holy city) is an awesome sight with a theater, necropolis (cemetery) with domus houses, baths and water features. But the most amazing is the natural thermal, mineral rich water that forms the pamukkale or cotton castle. This hot water made this a place of healing for millenia. 

Laodecia is most known for being the last of the seven churches:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16

The baths were also divided into three sections: caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium. Hot (Hieropolis) and cold (Colossi) water was sent to Laodicea. The pipes were so long, by the time they reached the laodiceans they were both lukewarm--a great image of not being faithful to God. 

This was a rich Roman city: the Syrian road was half a mile long and the city continues for two miles, houses with marble walls, and mosaic floors, indoor plumbing and baths, columned streets and marble temple. 


You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire...Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.   Revelation 3:17-20

Like laodicean believers we are invited to acknoledge our own poverty and lukewarm love, then open the door so Jesus remains Lord and we remain faithful in living as people making a difference in the power structures of our world so there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11

Aphrodisias was a capital city of the Koria province, and a pilgrimage to Aphrodite, goddess of fertility and nature. We don't know if Paul visited here but it's another awesome example of roman wealth and power.


The temple of Aphrodite was converted to a basilica adorned with different crosses from different cities and the senate was converted to the bishop's residence. Each of the statutes and buildings received the mark of the cross as a baptism. The city name was changed to Stravopolis, Cross City.

I'm reminded of the radical message of the cross and the courageous mission that pierced the heart of Roman power. 











Monday, April 28, 2014

Galatia


We journeyed five hours today from Adana through the Taurus Mountains and the Cilician Gates, northeast to Konya, ancient Iconium in the province of Galatia. These steep hills were Paul's only land route between Cilicia and Galatia.


Along the way we stopped in Ulukisla to see a carvansaray, the three day way station for Silk Road caravans. But it's Monday and we crashed the bazaar. You'd think we were Martians. 

"Hello. Where are you from?"
"California."
"Oh, Americans!" 

What a surprise, and what beautiful produce and smiles.

Paul wrote his first letter to this region of Galatia, to the believers in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. He was incensed about their following a different teaching and adamant about living by the spirit and not by the law. Circumcision, the major identifier for God's people, was the focus of Paul's letter.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love... Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Galatians 5:6, 6:15

And it was in Iconium Paul was beaten for the first time, left for dead and scarred:

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. Galatians 6:17

We visited a mosque in Iconium built with stones from a 4th century church--men praying in the large room and women behind the screen. What is victory for one raiding nation, means death and rubble to another.

It was in Lystra, Galatia, where Paul meets Timothy his protege, his true and dear son in the faith:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 2 Timothy 1:4

One generation rises up to lead--Timothy is a trusted partner for Paul.

Two women hosted us in the only Catholic/ Christian church in Konya called St Paul's. They came 19 years ago from Trento, Italy, because missionaries from Iconium sent missionaries to Trento and were persecuted in the 4th century. Out of gratitude for service given 1600 years ago, these two women decided to provide hospitality to visitors. Twice a month a priest leads mass. 50 came to Easter from neighboring cities; the closest church is 220 miles away.

Visitors see the story of Paul on the walls as well as the stations of the cross. "We answer questions and invite people in, hoping somehow they experience the love of Jesus," Isabella told us. 

I think this is a place of faithfulness.