Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, Sunday, May 22, 2022. Scripture: Acts 16:9-15
After a few months of focusing on the women in the New Testament, the women around Jesus and now the women of the early church, what is it that pops out in reading about Lydia? What is it that we notice about this particular woman?
One of the first things to stand out, of course, is the purple cloth. And, that as a dealer of purple cloth, that she was a businesswoman—an independent business woman.
We probably also notice that she traveled from where she was from originally to Philippi. Why? We don’t know. But, we know she was the head of her household, and that she was generous and open to this new thing.
Our passage today finds Paul traveling, spreading the Good News. But, he’s encountered some difficulty, as he finds himself, and his traveling companions, not always welcome. In a vision, he sees a man from Macedonia, so that becomes the next place.
And, that means that Paul has ventured to Europe. And, though he is looking for a “Man from Macedonia,” he instead encounters a group of women. And, in that group, the first person in Europe—male or female—to convert to the new faith, to receive and accept the Good News.
Lydia—a woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor, but living in Philippi (in Macedonia)—becomes a sort of Mary Magdalene in Europe. The first person to hear and respond to the Good News. Then, she is baptized into the faith, along with her household, bringing them all onboard this new thing.
Yet, again, it’s first a woman who hears and responds to the message of Christ, through the mission of Paul.
And, then the work begins.
We have today not only yet another example of the leadership of a woman in the early church, but a reminder that to be in the midst of this faith, to find ourselves in its mystery and its embrace, offers unexpected twists and turns. We should not fret when the unexpected happens, but to find in those moments the realization that God indeed is with us and working through us.
Paul thought he had been beckoned to Macedonia by a man he saw in a vision. Instead, he found not only one woman, but a group of women.
Get used to the unexpected. That’s how, time and time again, we see God at work.
Our short passage for today also contains other important reminders. Living the faith is not a solitary, private enterprise. Rather it’s a group thing. And, it’s a mixed thing, with a mix of class, skills, life experience and life perspective. Lydia, as a businesswoman, was likely well-off and perhaps even wealthy. In the dominant society of which she was part, she would have been expected to stick to that class. She would have had servants, but she likely wouldn’t have considered them friends, or colleagues. In fact, she would have been expected to see them as inferior to her.
The early church broke all sorts of boundaries and norms of society. Men and women served as leaders and those men and women came from various walks of life.
Through Paul’s sharing of the faith, allowing himself to carry the mission of sharing the Good News, open to where that voice led him, he found himself in the midst of quite an interesting array of humanity. It’s one of the gifts of the Church, from the very start.
Paul thought he was looking for a man, but instead found a woman, along with her household.
Through Paul, God is at work, and on the other end, Lydia displays an openness of heart, a willingness to absorb and allow it to change her life, her perspective. And, her household as well.
And, then comes the hospitality, another crucial component of what this new thing was all about, a willingness to share and to welcome. Come, stay at my house. Come, let us do this work together.
This is a group thing. It was at the beginning and it is now.
We are part of a long, long story. What story will we tell, as a church today, tomorrow and into the future? What unexpected place is God calling us to? In what ways are being asked to show hospitality and welcome? How are we, like Lydia, called to listen in and to allow our lives to be changed, over and over again?