The strange thing about studying early Christianity in Turkey is that there are not a lot of Christians left in Turkey, the lands that were home to so much of the earliest growth and development of Christianity and the location of all seven of the first Ecumenical Councils. As we discuss how Christianity displaced, person by person, century by century, the pagan gods that predominated the Mediterranean Basin prior to the rise of Christianity, we reflect in our course on how it could even take place at all. How could a mission started by Paul, John, Barnabas, Peter, Timothy, Priscilla, Lydia and others have any success? We focus a lot on the movement of the Holy Spirit, on the experience of Jesus Christ. The ancients were not looking for gods, necessarily, but they were looking for hope and salvation. If the conversion of these lands and people is a sign of God's powerful work, what does it mean when these lands converted by the Christians are no longer Christian lands?
This is a difficult question, at least for me and our class, and we face it each time we go to an ancient site in Turkey. We went yesterday to Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, the three cities of the Lycus Valley. Paul wrote to Philemon and the Church in his house in Colossae, and Paul, or a follower, wrote to the Colossians. John wrote to the Laodiceans in Revelation. Paul also wrote, it seems, a letter to the Laodiceans which is now lost. Each of these sites is a ruin, and Colossae is not even excavated, but the Christian communities which were once here are not in the neighboring towns and cities either.
It is true, of course, that devastations do occur, both to human life and to institutions. The Church is a minimal presence in Turkey, but it can grow, just as it first did in these lands. As we stood on the mound of the ancient city of Colossae yesterday, in the shadow of Mt. Cadmus, we thought of another devastation. My colleague, Paul Gavrilyuk, asked us to reflect on all the lives lost by earthquakes that have occurred in Turkey since ancient times. Ephesus, Smyrna, Colossae, Pergamum, Hierapolis, Laodicea, all were destroyed by earthquakes in ancient times. Turkey has suffered them in modern times too. But what was on Paul's mind as well were those lost in Haiti, for whom we offered a moment's silence and a prayer. Human suffering and loss is hard to understand, but we pray that in the fullness of time, God's will is done.
John W. Martens