Last week we heard about Peter’s trance and vision from God, and a story about the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile “Worshiper of God”. This week, a few chapters later in Acts, Paul has a night vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come and help them. The verses preceding this passage tell us that the “Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia to preach the gospel, so, heeding this vision, they cross the Aegean Sea to spread the gospel in Europe, arriving in Philippi 10 miles inland, a leading city and a Roman colony.
Paul Walaskay, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, describes Paul’s journey as a “challenging mission” – taking him “from Judaism’s religious center into Greece’s intellectual center, and eventually to Rome’s political center”. Paul & Silas were entering the birthplace of Greek literature and Philosophy: of Homer, Socrates & Plato, Aristotle & Alexander the Great”.
Since it was Paul’s custom, as a Jew, to worship on the Sabbath, he went looking for a gathering of Jews to pray with, kindred spirits with whom he could share the message of Jesus. They encounter a gathering of women, who had gone outside the gates of the city, down to the river, to pray. Open air worship, not a traditional religious site; no synagogue, no temple.
According to Jewish tradition, 10 Jewish men were required to form a synagogue. Perhaps there were not enough Jews in Philippi to meet even this minimal threshold. And it is possible the city barred any unauthorized religions within the city gates. Among this group of women was a “worshipper of God” named Lydia. The reference “worshipper of God”, like Cornelius, suggests that she was not Jewish herself, but affiliated with the Jewish community. She was one of those people whom we might call “spiritual but not religious.”
The text tells us that Lydia was not only a worshiper of God, “she was also from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” These details tell us that she was a woman of means.
In the ancient world only wealthy people could afford buying purple – it was worn as a sign of nobility. The color – Imperial purple, also called Tyrian purple, was created from the excretions of predatory sea snails. It took hundreds of snails to extract enough dye for a few yards of cloth. The snails almost went extinct from overproduction because purple was valued across the Mediterranean. And Thyatira was famous for its artisans creating the most desirable shade of purple. Lydia had enough wealth to buy into a franchise of expensive purple dye, then traveled from Turkey to NE Greece to establish her business in the Roman city of Philippi. We can imagine she was raised to worship the gods & goddesses of Thyatira, but stepped away from this religious upbringing to becoming a “worshiper of God”, a God-fearer.
Who was this independent woman making her way in a world run by men, who goes beyond the boundaries set for her in a time when women were seen as property rather than people who owned property? Who was this Gentile who sought the God of Judaism? Even though Lydia was a successful businesswoman she makes time for regular worship. She makes the weekly trek outside the city gates to join fellow believers down to the river to pray. (SING)
We too go down to the river: place or origin, place of flowing, place of washing, place of gathering, place of prayer.
Perhaps she expected to meet other women there, Jewish or Gentile seekers for the living God. It seems that Lydia already knew something about God before Paul got to her. She may have learned about God from the tiny diaspora of Jews who lived in Thyatira. When Paul & Silas showed up, she was open to the words of this wandering preacher who had put his hope in Jesus. She opened her heart to the presence of God. She and her household are baptized.
The author of Acts then says that Lydia “prevailed upon” Paul and his companion to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the NT where this word is used: in Luke 24, on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening, as Cleopas and the unnamed disciple urged the risen Jesus, prevailed upon Jesus, to stay with them that night. Lydia’s use of the word is a verbal echo of lives transformed and opened in faithful discipleship. As we approach the end of the Easter season, perhaps the Spirit continues to prevail upon our hearts, and will not be silenced. This word reminds me of the phrase – “Nevertheless, she persisted” an expression adopted by the feminist movement referencing the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2017 while reading a letter from Corretta Scott King on the Senate floor. How often the voices of women have been silenced throughout history, and in the life of the church.
Maya Angelou, says there are countless women with stories untold and that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
This week, I was part of an interview team for a pastor who is transferring into the UMC. While the UMC definitely is definitely flawed and becoming more fractured by each new General Conference, this clergy man said he needed to leave his denomination when his wife started being vocal about the rights of LGBTQ persons. When he was told by leadership to silence his wife, he decided for the sake of his marriage and relational harmony, that he could not be a pastor in a denomination who asked such a thing.
In a world and a time where women’s voices were generally discounted, nevertheless, Lydia persisted, to prevail upon them to receive her generous hospitality. Although they meet in Philippi, Lydia is away from a place she once called home. Perhaps she was attuned to the needs of travelers. She welcomes strangers in a place where she once was a stranger – offering hospitality and generosity. “Come, and stay, if you have judged me to be faithful.” The first act of discipleship of a new follower of Jesus is not proselytizing. It’s hospitality. God opened her heart and she opened her home and offers hospitality.
The word hospitality is connected to the word hospital. A hospital is a place away from your home that is designed to bring healing and wholeness. Hospitality is about allowing your home and your presence to bring emotional, mental, and spiritual healing and wholeness to others. To offer a welcome embrace to all those God sends to us. It’s what church is all about as well.
Shortly after this, Paul & Silas are arrested and thrown in jail in Philippi. When they escape at the end of Acts 16 they go back to the home of Lydia, who provides hospitality once again. The church in Philippi becomes one of Paul’s favorite faith communities. He writes to the Philippians a letter of joy, urging them to “make my joy complete” and to “Rejoice in the Lord always“. Lydia’s financial support and hospitality makes Paul’s ministry possible.
Lydia becomes the first European Gentile convert, even though it was “a man” of Macedonia who initially summoned Paul there in a vision. Lydia is like another woman, Mary Magdalene, the first to receive the message of the resurrection. This wealthy, powerful woman leaves circles of influence and joins those who likely had far less power, influence, and wealth than she did.
She is an example of how prominent a role women played in the early years of the Jesus movement. Paul, who is often critiqued as less than supportive of women addresses Lydia and her female companions as authentic spiritual pilgrims, whose faith does not need to be mediated by their husbands or male relatives.
Lydia disappears from the story of the early Christian community. And yet, there are enough women mentioned in scripture to know that they clearly played an important role in the early communities even if their voices are rarely heard. These 7 short verses introduce us to a remarkable woman in a world where women held little to no social status.
Lydia – one of the Spiritual mothers of the faith.
The power of community exists not just in this story of Paul & Silas & Lydia and the other women down by the river, but in the relationships of all of us who worship together, in our diversity, our unique stories and gifts, our visions from God, in opening our hearts and listening for God’s leading, and in offering hospitality to those who come to us. We open our hearts and offer our lives, asking God where we should go, even if it’s to the most unexpected places; We are more than simply the sum of our parts: we are the Body of Christ active, at work, in the world that God loves.
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she prevailed upon us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.