Sunday, May 09, 2010

Lydia, a Mother of the Church

Acts 16:9-15

9 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." 10 When 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. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and 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. 13 On 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. 14 A 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. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Paul is very possibly the most controversial character in the New Testament. We know of some of modern controversies over him – Paul’s words about slavery, the place of women, the household codes and homosexuality have been used to oppress members of minority groups for centuries. Works by Feminists, African Americans, Gay/Lesbian, and other theologians look closely at Paul, rejecting a great deal of what he says on such topics as being totally conditioned by the cultural constraints of the time and by his own education in Jewish law. Historians and theologians alike look at the body of letters attributed to Paul and see significant differences in both writing style and message, which indicates that Paul didn’t write everything with his name on it. The modern controversy over Paul’s writings and their position of importance in the church are not likely to end any time soon.

We may not be as familiar with how controversial he was during his lifetime
He was first a persecutor of followers of Jesus then a convert
No one wanted to trust him.
Ananais didn’t want to go to help him even after the Lord spoke to him personally and told him to go!
Saul/Paul spent time with the disciples in Damascus preaching and his conversion upset some of the Jews so much there was even a plot to kill him, but he escaped.
He went to Jerusalem, and none of the disciples wanted anything to do with him.
Except Barnabas.

The apostles and elders weren’t sure what to do with him.
He was certainly passionate, his conversion was unquestionably real.
But he was so controversial. . .
They decided to send him out of Jerusalem.
They sent him to Tarsus, his home town, where there was a sizable Jewish community.
He could preach the Good News there.
We know he was to become the apostle to the Gentiles.
But at first the idea of converting the Gentiles was problematic.

You’ll remember, I hope, the controversy over Peter baptizing Cornelius and his family without first circumcising the males.
Peter had to return to Jerusalem and convince the other apostles and leaders of the church, describing the vision God had sent, before they would accept that Gentiles could have the baptism of repentance without first becoming Jews.
But he did, and that cleared the way for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.

Barnabas had gone to Antioch where a great many Gentiles had heard the good news and turned to the Lord. Desiring some help in that work he went to Tarsus for Paul and brought him back to Antioch.

There was still controversy over whether circumcision and obedience to the Law was required. Barnabas and Paul had to return to Jerusalem and defend their work, getting a ruling in writing from the church leaders on what would be required of Gentile converts. He and Barnabas set out again but argue and go their separate ways, Barnabas with John Mark and Paul with Silas, each carrying copies of the ruling they had received from the apostles and elders had reached in Jerusalem.

According to the story it was God’s will that Paul go into Europe carrying the Good News to the Gentiles. Setting out on the journey Paul tries twice to head into Asia, but the author of Acts tells us that both time he is forbidden to go there by the Holy Spirit. Instead he has a vision of a man in Macedonia (northern Greece) begging him to come there. And so the stage is set for Paul’s trip to Philippi, his meeting with Lydia and his first conversion in Europe.

In Philippi there is, apparently, no synagogue. Jews gather outside the gates for Sabbath worship. Paul goes out to the place where he imagines there be a place where Jews gather to pray and sits down to speak with the women who are gathered there. Immediately we notice something odd. Men and women worship separately as a matter of course yet Paul sits down, in the position of a teacher, with the women. The women. Not what you’d expect of an evangelist coming into town. Nevertheless, that’s what he did, and while sitting and teaching the women of Philippi his words touch the heart of a woman called Lydia.

The few lines about Lydia tell us so much about her. Her name and place of birth tell us she is Greek. She is a dealer in purple cloth, a merchant who deals in a particular luxury item and therefore she is well off financially, a person of status in the community. Because she is identified in this way it is also clear that she is the head of her household, financially independent. Indeed, we will learn that her household, family members and servants, are with her at the riverside. She is a follower of God, not a Jew but a seeker. A woman whose heart is already open to the possibilities of what God can accomplish. This is the woman sitting there, receptive, when Paul begins to teach. His words reach into her heart, she is converted and baptized, along with her household.

All these things are good, but it is what happens next that makes Lydia a mother of the Church. She says “If you have found me to be faithful in the Lord, come and stay at my home.” She opens her home to Paul and Silas. It is where they will stay throughout their visit. It will be the first of the many house churches to be founded by Paul. It will be the place where the church in Philippi is based and she will be one of its leaders.

Lydia, seeing that Paul and Silas were strangers in the city, immediately offered hospitality. She saw something that needed to be done and did it. She saw an opportunity to serve God’s people and immediately took that opportunity. She didn’t spend time wondering if it was the right thing to do, or waiting to see if someone else would step forward first to give Paul and Silas a place to stay. Her heart was open to possibilities. She experienced a resurrection of the spirit – from seeker to leader of the church in a very short time.

The great thing about the early church is that there wasn’t anyone around to say “Well, when they’ve been part of the congregation a little longer we’ll let them have some little responsibility.” In so many congregations today the long time members have a hard time letting the newer folks actually do anything. I am grateful that my experience in the church was more like Lydia’s. When I first started attending Treasure Coast Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1993 I hadn’t been to church in about 25 years. The pastor made opportunities available to me. She asked me to give the children’s sermon and teach Vacation Bible School. She didn’t let me sit in the pew just listening but quickly included me in the work of the church. And she wasn’t the only one to make me feel that I was part of the congregation. Someone sitting in front of me one of the first Sundays I attended suggested I might join the choir. Which is so much better than if they had suggested I sing more quietly. ☺ And of course you all know the rest of the story. Because my heart was open to the words and actions of the faithful at Treasure Coast Christian Church I experienced resurrection of the spirit. Because of their loving care I became able to hear God’s call to the ministry. It was just 10 short years after joining that congregation that I came here as your pastor.

Paul carried the Good News of Jesus Christ equally to men and women, Gentile and Jew. In his letters he identifies more women leaders by name. Lydia is just the first. Rhoda, Tabitha, Eunice, Syntyche, Priscilla, Pheobe . . . these women will be leaders of the congregations in their cities. These women, faithful and worthy, will open their hearts and their homes to the Gospel message and to the followers of Jesus Christ. These women, these mothers of the church would be preachers and teachers, evangelists, strong workers in the mission field, gaining converts to the faith through their faithfulness in word and deed.

Paul carried the Good News to everyone without prejudice. He frequently had to defend his actions to others who thought he should have stricter requirements about who he let in and who he let lead, but the fact of the matter is, he carried the Good News to anyone and everyone with ears to hear. And so many, Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, men and women, gay and straight, of all races and cultures and languages, experienced a resurrection of the Spirit like Lydia did, like I did when I finally heard Christ’s message of God’s love for all people. The congregations established in Paul’s time were the perfect example of what church could and should be today - open to all who want to experience God’s love and carry that love outside into the world we live in, diverse in Culture, Nation and Race. Let us be that church.