The last two Sundays we have explored Barnabas & Paul’s 1st missionary journey from Antioch to the Island of Cyprus, to Derbe & Lystra and back. The two apostles have a falling out over a disagreement over whether to take Barnabas’ cousin, John Mark, who some scholars believe wrote the Gospel of Mark. Barnabas ends up taking John Mark and heads east to spread the good news. That is the last we hear about the story of Barnabas. The Book of Acts now follows the journeys of Paul as he returns to Derbe & Lystra in the first part of Acts 16. Paul and his companions travel throughout the region of Phrygia & Galatia. One night Paul has a vision where a man begs him, to come help in Macedonia. They leave Troas and sail to Samothrace & Neapolis, ending at Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia.
Paul Walaskay, in his commentary on Acts: Paul’s journey takes 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”.
Upon their arrival in Philippi, Paul and his companions seek out a Community in Prayer, kindred spirits with whom he could share the message of Jesus. Paul intuitively goes down to the river and found a group of women praying. These women had gone outside the gates of the city, down to the river, to pray. It wasn’t a traditional religious site; no synagogue, no temple, but open air worship in God’s creation.
According to Jewish tradition, 10 Jewish men were required to form a synagogue. Perhaps there were not enough Jews in Philippi to meet this minimal threshold OR 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.
The text also offers another important detail. Lydia was also from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” This tells us that Lydia is a woman of means. In the ancient world only wealthy people could afford to purchase purple cloth – it was worn as a sign of nobility. Hebrew scriptures also tell us that purple cloth was to be used in creating the tabernacle of God. 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 apparently 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 at some point she became a “worshiper of God”, a God-fearer.
As a successful businesswoman, Lydia still makes time for regular worship. She makes the weekly trek outside the city gates and goes down to the river to pray with the other women.
When Paul & Silas show 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. Lydia and her household are baptized.
In verse 15, some translations say that Lydia then “prevailed upon” Paul and his companion accept hospitality in her home. Other translations use the word invited. There is one other place in the NT where the word prevailed is used – Luke 24, on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple prevail upon the risen Jesus, to stay with them that night. Lydia’s invitation is a verbal echo of lives transformed and opened in faithful discipleship. She welcomes them to her home and provides for them.
Most Bibles refer to this passage as Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi, but I wonder if it was more than Lydia and her household being saved that day. Does Paul and his companions save Lydia and her household or do Lydia and her household save Paul and his friends? Perhaps they save each other in Christian mutuality and the radical welcome of God. After this story in Acts, Paul & Silas are arrested and thrown in jail in Philippi. They will return to the home of Lydia, who provides hospitality once again. Would Paul and his companions have been able to survive their near death and other harrowing experiences without the hospitality and financial support of Lydia?
Author Marg Mowczko writes:
“Lydia’s hospitality and her benefaction of Paul and his ministry required courage. Having a group of foreign men stay in her home, could cause scandal. In addition, hosting worship of a new Jewish messiah, and not an emperor or any of the ancient, respected pagan gods, could have ruined her reputation and her business.”
I love that Lydia’s marital status is ambiguous. Who was this independent woman who goes beyond the boundaries set for her in a time when women were often seen as property rather than people who owned property? Who was this Gentile who sought the God of Judaism? This text paints a picture of an independent, powerful, influential woman of means who owns her own business and who was capable of making decisions, without having to consult a man. In a world and a time where women’s voices were generally discounted, nevertheless, Lydia persisted, to prevail upon Paul to receive her generous hospitality. 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.”
It turns out that the first act of discipleship for a new follower of Jesus is not proselytizing. It’s hospitality.
Lydia becomes the first European Gentile convert and builds the first Christian church on Greek soil, welcoming other new believers into the faith. Both her position in commerce and her knowledge of faith made her uniquely qualified to be a leader in the church in Greece. Lydia is one of the Spiritual mothers of the faith – an example of how prominent women were in the early years of the church.
Who receives blessing in story? Who is being saved? Two leaders of two spiritual communities meet and recognize they need each other. Paul was called over the waters and ultimately finds renewal and blessing from Lydia’s household. What we can glean later from Paul’s writings to the churches he helped to build is that the church in Philippi becomes one of Paul’s favorite faith communities. It is Lydia’s financial support and hospitality that makes Paul’s ministry possible.
This story is a good reminder of humility and hospitality. It offers a glimpse of how shared resources and willingness to offer hospitality can create Sacred Community grounded in mutuality & shared blessing.
Two years ago Rev. Jake Miles Joseph of Fort Collins UCC preached on this text following the death of Jean Vanier who started the L’Arche community where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community. Vanier studied how people with mental disabilities were being treated and resolved to create a community where they could live with one another in dignity. By living together, Vanier said he truly began to understand what it meant to be human. Following Vanier’s death two years ago, the New York Times carried an obituary of his life with the unfortunate title: “Jean Vanier: Savior of People on the Margins.” Just like many bibles refer to the passage of Acts 16 as Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Jean Vanier and the L’Arche model of Christianity would would say it was the opposite. Jean Vanier wasn’t the savior of those at the margins; he was the one who was saved.
Angie & I joined a friend who was recently diagnosed with MS on a fundraising bike ride for MS. We thought we were going to support her on the 38 mile ride. While my sit bones may still be recovering, I am also basking in the blessing and inspiration of sharing that ride with her. It provided reconnection and blessing.
Our faith is about receiving hospitality from unexpected sources with grace. When we let go of our need to help or save others, and open ourselves to the unexpected gifts other people can offer us, there is mutual blessing. The household of God is rooted in mutuality of shared and unexpected blessing. That is how those who support L’Arche Communities understand church. Where do you find mutuality in your faith today?
In offering hospitality, in sharing Gospel hope, in living in community with those whom many have rejected, we are not only giving home and household of God, but it is how we truly become Christians living in mutual need of one another. We need the gifts of those whom we serve as much as they need us.
Rev. Stephen Garnaas Holmes writes:
A seller of purple cloth, a strong woman, by the name of Lydia, appears.
The waters flowed down to the sea as Phoenician ships plied their trade
taking her died materials of this deep purple shade.
God opens her heart and She is transformed.
She welcomes the stranger, turned new found friend to her home and offers hospitality.
The Transformed One, the Welcoming One prevails.
Let us join Lydia, and others to go down to the river to pray recognizing that the River is Here,ready to refresh us and renew. May we be surprised by the unexpected grace of God through the mutual sharing of the gifts God has given us.