The Greeks who Changed the World

February 27, 2018 Length: 15:38

What happened when newly evangelized Greek merchants shared their newfound faith in their new homeland? It's grassroots evangelism at its best, and it helped spread Christianity far and wide. Fr. Patrick Reardon tells their story.





In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

High in the Swiss canton of Valais, the Rhône Glacier feeds a river of the same name. It flows south and west, through the lake of Geneva, out of the Alps and down through southern Gaul where, before receiving, continuing to the Mediterranean, it receives its largest tributary, the Saône. The confluence of these two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, is a hill known in antiquity as Lugdunum. The dune or hill of the Celtic god the Romans called Lugus, Lug. In 43 B.C., the Romans founded a city at this site, which became the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdenensis. Two future emperors, Claudius and Caracalla, were born in this city.

Lugdunum became an important commercial center, joining together two of the three parts into which, according to Caesar, all of Gaul is divided. The smart people began investing their capital in various business ventures at Lugdunum. Commerce was thriving. Any place where commerce is thriving, who are going to be the next people on the scene? The Greeks.

About 200 years after the founding of Lugdunum, a group of Greek-speaking Christians from Asia Minor decided to move there and establish various mercantile enterprises. The Greeks, after all, had been founding such colonies since the dawn of recorded history. But these Greek businessmen were Christians. They were reluctant to move to southern Gaul without spiritual leadership, and with this in mind, they approached the aged bishop of Smyrna, a man by the name of Polycarp, who had been made bishop of Smyrna by the Apostle John. To accompany and pastor these Greek merchants as they moved to their new address in southern Gaul, Polycarp assigned a bishop named Pothinos and a priest by the name of Irenaeus. Just listen to Irenaeus, those of you familiar with Greek. It’s “the peaceful one,” isn’t it? The translation of the Hebrew Shlomo or Solomon.

In the year 177, the Roman Empire began its persecution of these Greek Christians because they had become too dangerous. By this time there were so many Christians in southern Gaul that the government grew afraid of them. Among the first martyrs of Gaul was the bishop of the congregation, Pothinos. He was succeeded in the episcopacy by the priest Irenaeus, who became the most prolific Christian writer of the second century. The modern name of Lugdunum is, of course, Lyon.

Irenaeus died at the dawn of the third century, probably as a martyr. At least, he’s listed that way in the calendar. But between the arrival of the first Christians at Lugdunum, in the mid-second century, for the purpose of making money and establishing business, within that half a century, nearly all of southern Gaul was evangelized—by ordinary Christians. This was not a missionary venture. It was not like Cyril and Methodios going out from the Cathedral of St. Demetrios in Thessaloniki. This was not a missionary venture; they just went there, and the whole area was evangelized within half a century.

These Greek-speaking merchants from Asia Minor had not come to convert the Romans or the Celts of Gaul to the Christian faith. In a formal sense, they were not missionaries. They had not been trained in some sort of missionary center. They were businessmen who came to Lugdunum for mercantile purposes. They came to make money, as though there were anything wrong with that.

Now, why did I tell you this story? I’m not telling you this story to tell you about what good businessmen the Greeks are. You already know that. I tell you that because it’s one of the great adventures of evangelism in all of Christian history! These same Greek merchants were dedicated and serious Christians, many of whom were eventually persecuted and put to death for their faith in Christ. They lived and died in such a way that they nearly destroyed Celtic and Roman paganism in southern Gaul, and they accomplished this in about half of a century, a bit more than a generation—the whole area was Christian!

How did they accomplish this? Not with their great architecture, not even with their great music. None of them had ever seen an iconostas. In fact, none of them had ever heard of an omophorion. But what did they have? What did they have? What made them so infectious that all their neighbors wanted to join them?

Let me tell you sweet people what they brought with them when they arrived in the south of Gaul. They brought the apostolic knowledge of Jesus Christ, an intimate knowledge of Christ based on their communion with Christ. The new arrivals in southern Gaul came from Asia Minor, particularly the valleys of the Lykos and the Meander Rivers. A hundred years before they left that region, it had been evangelized by missionaries sent from Antioch, the place where believers were first called Christians. It was [by] the apostolic missionaries from Antioch that the churches of Asia Minor as well as Greece and Macedonia were founded and received the true faith. Those who journeyed from Asia Minor to southern Gaul, therefore, possessed a short but illustrious history. Their grandparents personally knew Saul of Tarsus and his companions, Luke, Titus, and young Timothy. These same grandparents were the original readers of the letters of Paul and John to the churches of Asia Minor.

A few years later, their children, the parents of these colonists to Gaul, in such places as Smyrna, Ephesus, Philadelphia, Magnesia, and Tralles, had hosted Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, on his journey to his martyrdom at Rome. Within days of his departure, Polycarp sent to the Church of Philippi in Macedonia an account of the bishop Ignatius. As it happens, we know a great deal about the Christians of Asia Minor; especially we have the literature that illustrates how they thought and how they felt.

What those colonists from Asia Minor was a clear and intense knowledge of and all-consuming fascination with Jesus Christ. From the writings of the men we’ve just named, we know that those Christians were utterly obsessed with the Person of Christ. In testimony to this, all we need to is consult the writings of those whose teachings gave rise to the piety of the first three generations of Christians in Asia Minor, those men that Irenaeus called the apostles and the apostolic men.

For me to live (wrote one of them) is Christ. And the life I live now in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me, gave himself up for me, and we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from doxa to doxa, from glory to glory, as by the spirit of the Lord.

Another of these same men wrote to the Christians at Rome as he journeyed there to die:

I am the wheat of God. Let me be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.

Yet another of these spiritual fathers wrote to his children at Asia Minor:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard and which we have seen with our eyes, and which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, concerning the word of life, and the life was manifested and we have seen and bear witness and declare to you that eternal life which is with the Father and was manifested to us, that which we have seen and heard, we declare to you, that you also may have communion with us, and truly our communion is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

And the immediate disciple of this man prayed, as he was dying in the fire:

I give you thanks, that you have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have part in the number of your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption by the Holy Spirit. Therefore also I praise you for all things. I bless you, I glorify you, along with your everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, your beloved Son.

Now this is what the Christian merchants of Asia Minor carried with them when they left home and sailed westward to the mouth of the Rhône and then up the river to the city of Lugdunum. They brought their knowledge and the sense of communion with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was the meaning and the essence and the center of their life. Their relationship to the Son of God who loved them and gave himself up for them. They were the heirs of the faith and the charity of their grandparents, that same faith and charity that those grandparents had received from the apostles who came to them from Antioch. These believers based their lives on the sense of communion with God in Jesus Christ. That is the Orthodox heritage. That is the Orthodox heritage.

It was the sight of that experience that thousands of pagans in the south of Gaul found positively intoxicating. This was the irresistible doxa, glory, the beauty of holiness, manifest in the lives of those simple Christians. The effective proclamation of the Gospel, beloved, is inseparable from the doxa, from the glory, manifest in the lives of those who professed the faith. If we’re celebrating anything else today, we’re wasting our time. That is what it means.

Now, to him who loved us and washed us from our sins by his blood, made us kings and priests unto his God and Father, be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.