In this Easter season, we’ve been reading through the Book of Acts as our first lesson on Sundays, as we do every year – not the same set of passages each year, but a total of eighteen readings, spread out over the three-year lectionary cycle. We read about the very earliest history of the Church in Easter season, because these are the people who were living and working and worshiping in the earliest days after the Resurrection; they were the ones forming the community of believers who followed the Risen Christ.
Last week we heard about the Apostle Peter and the experience of the first Gentile person to come to faith in Christ without first becoming Jewish: the Roman centurion Cornelius. And you may remember that was a big hurdle for the apostles to get over. This week we have the account of the first person on the European continent to become a Christian: Lydia, a Greek business woman who traded in luxury goods - purple cloth.
The Apostle Paul was on his second mission trip. He had already made a two-year tour of the island of Cyprus, and the area of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) called Galatia, in the western part of the region. Whenever he would go to a new community, he would always go first to the synagogue, to connect with his fellow Jews when he could. After that, he would reach out to any Gentiles who seemed interested in speaking with, anyone to whom the Holy Spirit led him.
On this second journey, Paul and Silas, his traveling companion, left Jerusalem and headed north along the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Then they headed northwest into the various regions of Asia Minor. In the town of Lystra they met Timothy and recruited him to serve on their missionary team. Paul planned to go into the area of Bithynia, up on the Black Sea coast but (as he said) “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them”, so they ended up in Troas, a town on the Aegean Sea. Here is where our story picks up.
While staying overnight in Troas, Paul had a vision/dream of a man in the region of Macedonia, just across the straights, pleading for Paul to come and help them…whatever that meant. So Paul, Silas, and Timothy got a ship the very next day and eventually landed in in Philippi – an important Macedonian city and a garrison town for the Roman army. For the first time, Paul was on European soil. He stayed in town for several days, but there is no mention of what he did or who he met. Then the account tells us that Paul went outside the gate, beyond the walls of the town on the Sabbath day. He went to the river “where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” Why Paul supposed there might be a place of prayer there, we do not know, except that people throughout the ages and throughout cultures have found inspiration, solace, strength, and peace near water: rivers, lakes, oceans, streams, springs, and wells. Perhaps Paul’s efforts in town had been frustrated, he’d come up empty-handed in looking for people who were receptive to hearing the Good News of Christ, and so he was willing to step outside his comfort zone and outside the walls of Roman power, and seek other, less-likely people. And he was led to Lydia.
She is described as a worshipper of God, already drawn to the One God of Judaism, as opposed to the pantheon of Greek and ancient Near Eastern deities. She was a dealer in purple cloth – a very expensive commodity – so she was a woman of means, used to dealing with buyers and sellers, probably a shrewd judge of character, with the ability to weigh the truth (or lack thereof) of what she was being told. Lydia and her friends had gathered for prayer, and Paul goes ahead and preaches to her and the others, not being put off by the fact that they were a group of women. Lydia hears what Paul says and responds eagerly; she and her whole household ask to be baptized. Her quick response to Paul’s message may well be a sign that the Holy Spirit was already at work in her life and in her heart. She just needed to hear the specifics of who and what Jesus was so she could complete the trajectory her life and faith were on. Not only was the Spirit at work in Lydia before she had ever heard of Jesus; the Spirit was at work out ahead of Paul, preparing the way, guiding him, calling him in that dream to Macedonia, where he was indeed needed.
And look how Lydia responded further. She didn’t only put her faith and trust in Christ and begin to live as a baptized follower of Jesus’ Way. She prevailed upon Paul and his companions to come and stay with her, at her house; to make it the launching pad for the rest of Paul’s mission in Philippi, the center of the new church there. Lydia’s hospitality was more than offering refreshments and entertaining guests. Lydia made sure that she was going to learn as much about her new faith and way of life as she could; she created a space and an opportunity for Paul’s ministry. No doubt Paul, and the new Philippian church, benefited from her generous financial support, as well.
Why is this important for us? How is this not just ancient history, part of Bible trivia? This encounter between Paul and Lydia is full of risk, and trust, and the work of the Spirit. Paul was trying his best to be faithful to where God was leading him, but he wasn’t getting anywhere, until he listened to that dream, and until he stepped outside the walls of the Roman garrison and found Lydia and her friends. He had to be willing to take the risk to follow Jesus on what might have seemed like pretty slim information. And Lydia, for her part, had to be willing to risk that what Paul was saying was true, to trust that the depth and meaning of life that she had been seeking in worship was finally coming to fulfillment. They both had to trust the Holy Spirit was active and at work ahead of them, calling them both to deeper and truer relationship with God. That takes wisdom, and discernment, and paying attention to the sorts of things we often ignore or devalue.
As we think about our own context, our own day and age, there are many places people gather to try to connect with God, to deepen their spirituality – even if those places are often not in church on Sunday morning. How many people do you know who talk about the satisfaction – the spiritual fulfillment or peace – they find in a yoga class; walking in the woods; gathering with others to paint or make music; gardening; volunteering in a literacy program or with Habitat for Humanity; getting together with good friends for coffee or a glass of wine and deep conversation? And they are right…. these are all absolutely places where God is present and active in the lives of people – maybe in your life, too. And so for us – Jesus’ followers – we need to know that it is good and right for us to take the risk, when we meet and friends and neighbors in these settings, and share a bit about what faith in Christ means to us, why we give our love and loyalty to Jesus. When we speak this way, we are not trying to convince anyone to be Christian, we are not trying to prove them wrong or ourselves right; but we can honestly and respectfully and confidently share what is of deepest importance to us.
And most of all, we can pray and trust that the Holy Spirit goes before us, invites us into places of hospitality and relationship and truth, and gives us wisdom and guidance when we seek to honor Christ – especially when it feels risky.
Let us pray.
Holy and Life-giving Spirit, help us to see you at work in the world about us, to go with courage and confidence to the places, people, and relationships you send us to, knowing that you are with us always, and that there are hearts and minds all around us longing to hear of your love and grace. In Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2016