The apostle Paul has one thing on his mind. He wants to share the good news of the risen Christ to the whole world. To do so, he travels to major cities in the Greco-Roman world. Paul wants to share with folks how God’s love, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, can change their lives, just as it did to his. Of course Paul being Paul, he has his own travel itinerary—one that always involves using well-built Roman roads and other major arteries of commerce. He and Silas travel to Asia Minor, then to Derbe and Lystra—both of which are in modern-day Turkey.
Paul hopes to take the gospel east into Asia, but the Holy Spirit has other ideas. She sends him west, to Greece.
One night, Paul has a dream, or vision, in which a man from Macedonia (modern-day Greece) implores the apostles to come and help them. Paul and his companions follow God’s leading. They board a ship for Troas and end up in Philippi, a major Roman city in Macedonia. Paul has a particular way of entering any city in which he wants to preach and teach. He finds someone who will welcome him into their home to stay. He finds out where the center of town is—where philosophers, business owners and crafts people gather to practice their trades, to do business, to discuss, question and learn from each other. If he intends to stay in a city for any length of time, Paul sets up his own business—probably tent-making—and gets to know other craftsmen. Paul also finds out where the local synagogue is. Not only does he seek Gentile converts in the heart of the city; he wants to share the story of Jesus with his Jewish brothers and sisters. The local synagogue is often called “a place of prayer.”
Paul and his traveling companions stay in Philippi for some days. On the Sabbath, they go outside the city gates beside the river. Likely someone has told them about a place where Jewish believers gather to pray. The fact that this place of prayer is outside the city limits may mean that “the city lacks a quorum of ten Jewish males to congregate. . .for worship.” When they find this place by the river, they find a group of women gathered there.
Now in scripture, whether in Hebrew or Christian scripture, it is significant thing when a person is mentioned by name. Many people in scripture go un-named. However, when people are named, we need to pay attention, to ask why. Paul meets a “certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God.” What is significant about Lydia? First, she is a woman—a woman in a very patriarchal Roman culture. Second, she is named, which indicates that she likely has a high social and economic status. Third, it is clear that Lydia is a successful business woman. She is from Thyatira, a city in Asia Minor well known for its textile industry, yet Paul meets here in Greece; clearly she travels on business. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth. Purple dye is expensive. “Purple clothing [is] for the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it [symbolizes] power and influence. A merchant in purple cloth, then, is someone who [rubs] shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous.”
Unlike most women of that time, Lydia is not identified with a husband. In fact, her name, which is the same as her district back home, indicates that she is unmarried and independent. The reference in Acts to “her household” tells us that she is head of her household—no mention of husband or father. Fourth, Lydia is “a worshiper of God.” The writer of Acts does not tell us whether she is a Jewish convert or a Gentile seeker who has aligned herself with a local synagogue. The latter may be the case. Regardless, we know that Lydia worships the living and eternal God rather than pagan idols that dot city landscapes all over the Roman Empire.
In Acts, we learn that this wealthy businesswoman has an open heart. She listens eagerly as the apostles share their stories of God’s love through Jesus Christ. Then she and everyone in her household is baptized—probably there in the river that flows nearby. After becoming a Christian believer, what does Lydia do? She has already opened her heart. Now she opens her home. She urges the apostles to come and stay at her home. The gospel of Jesus Christ has now expanded radically. In the first instance, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has been proclaimed to Jewish believers—thus creating a particular sect of Judaism. In the second instance, Gentiles have been brought into the Christian faith. Now, the circle widens. Gentile women become critical components of the story of Christ’s love. Women are given credence and positions of leadership—yes, thank you, very much, by Paul.
Keep in mind that in the 80’s and 90’s of the first century, Christians do not gather in historic buildings. Instead, they gather in the homes of wealthy patrons where they break bread and drink wine to remember Jesus. They give money for mission—the Church in Jerusalem. They pool money, food, and clothing to take care of those on the edges of local society—in that time, widows and orphans, who have no legal rights and no one to care for them. Lydia’s hospitality tells us that it is likely she begins to host a Christian House Church. She becomes an important witness to the gospel of Jesus. Lydia’s hospitality is deep and radical. It begins with her heart that is open, a heart that welcomes a Truth she has been seeking. Her hospitality continues as she opens her home to welcome people who have begun as complete strangers. Someone shares God’s love with her. She then turns to share God’s love with others.
I believe that Lydia has something to teach us today. As twenty-first century Christians, we must ask ourselves whether we are as eager as Lydia was to hear about God’s love and to share it. We no longer have to meet on a grassy area next to the river to worship. We have, and love, our historic buildings. We love being in a community of faith that is like Cheers—where everybody knows our names. Unlike the first century Church, we have generally lost that edge of challenge and excitement about opening our hearts and our worship spaces to people hungry for spiritual nourishment.
In a time when the world constantly changes politically, socially, economically, we want Church to be dependable, unchangeable, predictable, comfortable. This will never happen. Why? There are at least two reasons. First, because if we are not changing and growing, like any other living organism, we are dying. Second, and more importantly, because the Holy Spirit is dependable, but only because She is unpredictable. Paul thought he was headed east, to Asia. The Holy Spirit thought otherwise. She sent him west, to Greece, where he met an intelligent businesswoman who would help change the Church and the world for the sake of the Gospel.
If we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we must be willing to move beyond our own comfort zones. In a world full of people who call themselves Spiritual But Not Religious, Jesus challenges us to ask how we, in a community of faith, will share the story of Jesus with them. How do we—at St.Philips—show folks how the love of Christ can make a difference, not just in their Sunday morning lives here, but in their Wednesday morning lives out there—lives full of challenge, demand, stress, frustration?
God loves you. God loves me. God loves us so much that God became human and lived with human beings to show us a new way to live and love. Jesus continues to challenge us to share that love—not just inside the comfortable boundaries of our own churches, but outside the doors of this and every church. People are hungry for spiritual nourishment, for companions on their journeys, for love, for deep, radical hospitality.
How will we tell them that God loves them? Our doors may be open, but how open are our hearts?
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton