Sermon: The Unexpected Lydia

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 22nd of May 2022

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-39

‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ asks Judas, not Iscariot, of Jesus on Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his death. Judas may be still caught up in the idea of Jesus as the conventional messiah who will come into his kingdom through violence and might. Why has Jesus not rallied all those who are ready to rebel against Rome and claimed the kingship of Israel? By the time the author of John’s gospel writes about this night one answer would have been clear. Jesus had entered his messiahship through suffering and death, a humiliating failure that was paradoxically glorification. He was not the sort of messiah who would reveal himself to the world in power and panoply. But by the time John was writing the question would have a new relevance, as the members of the fledgling house churches were being excluded from the synagogues, rejected by their fellow Jews. Why could only some people accept Jesus as Messiah, while others not only rejected Jesus but rejected his followers?

This is the same question many of us ask today. Since the 1950s, church attendance in Australia has dropped by two-thirds. Admittedly, every part of Australian society has become less communal and more individualistic. Union membership has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s, and between 2010 and 2019 the number of volunteer firefighters fell by twenty per cent.[1] In 1967 four per cent of the electorate belonged to a major political party; in 1996 it was two per cent; now we think it is less than half a per cent (although we are not certain because political parties are not obliged to disclose their membership). One of the reasons for declining church membership is simply that in twenty-first century Australia there is declining membership of everything. But unlike unions, sports clubs, and political parties, churches believe that we have God on our side, which leaves us with Judas’ question: ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’

Jesus does not answer Judas directly, any more than we are answered today. Instead, Jesus reassures his disciples that even though he is going to die and so apparently leave them isolated and alone in a hostile world, he will always be with them. The entire Trinity of love will make their home in Jesus’ followers, and Jesus’ followers will live within God; as my favourite hymn describes it, ‘thou in me dwelling, and I one with thee’.[2] This is why Jesus is able to leave his disciples with ‘peace’ on the eve of his death. By dying, Jesus may seem to be going away from them, but that is not what is happening. Through the coming of the Holy Spirit, he will be with them in a new way, no longer limited to being with a particular group of people living in a particular time and place, but able to be with everyone in every time and place.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, as I mentioned last week, is the story of the early church discovering exactly how far they are called to share God’s love, now that Jesus is with them in this new way through the Spirit. Last week we heard the Apostle Peter describing to the home church in Jerusalem his discovery that God’s grace has been poured out on Gentiles, as well as on Jews, and that ‘what God has made clean, you must not call profane’. This week we see the Apostle Paul discovering God opening the hearts not just of Gentiles, but of European Gentiles. If we ask why God is not revealing Godself to the world today, the answer might be that God is, just not in the parts of the world that we expect.

Immediately before today’s reading begins we are told that God had prevented Paul and his companions from witnessing to Jesus in the places they knew: ‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.’ (Acts 16:6-8) All these are places in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. The last of them, Troas, is on the shores of the Aegean Sea, and in a vision in the night Paul sees a man of Macedonia, on the other side of that sea, pleading with him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’. Having been prevented by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus from travelling east Paul and his companions now travel west, setting out immediately for Macedonia. Ironically, despite the vision, they do not immediately meet and convert any Macedonian men.

On the Sabbath, Paul and his companions look for a place of prayer. They may be looking for this place of prayer outside the city because at Philippi Judaism is a small and unimportant cult, one of many throughout the Roman Empire, of very little social standing. On their way, Paul finds a group of women by the river. He sits down among them and begins to speak, behaving like a typical visiting Jewish teacher. Among the women who listen is one whose heart is opened by the Lord, and who has herself and her household baptised. Her name is Lydia.

Drawing of the head of a Roman woman, surrounded by a border with purple flowers and shells on purple backgrounds.

From ‘Lydia’, in Women of the Bible by Margaret McAllister, illustrated by Alida Massari (2013)

Who was Lydia? Her very name might tell us a lot about her, but unfortunately, it seems to tell us several contradictory things. The word ‘Lydia’ is known to have been used as a personal name in the Greco-Roman world. Naming Paul’s convert ‘Lydia’ could suggest that she was of Greek descent and a woman of some status, since a Roman woman would be referred to by her family name and a woman of low status would not be referred to by name at all. We may have here a socially important woman of Greek descent. On the other hand, Lydia’s name may indicate that she is a freed slave from the province of Lydia in Asia Minor; it might simply mean ‘the Lydian woman’. In that case, her lack of a proper Roman name would suggest that she is a former slave designated ‘Lydia’ by an owner. So, while the name Lydia tells us a lot, it tells us either that she was a high-status woman of Greek descent or a low-status woman from Asia.

Her occupation as a dealer in purple cloth also tells us contradictory things. It may indicate that when freed Lydia went into the business she had learned as a slave, because the production and processing of textiles were done primarily by slaves and freed persons. The location where Paul meets her, near the river, may suggest that Lydia either owns or manages a textile dye-house. Because dyeing cloth was very dirty, smelly, and water-intensive, it was generally done outside the city near water. In that case her household might have included the workers she employed, managed, or worked alongside. Lydia may have been a hard-working member of the urban lower class, whose home was a workshop that could accommodate workers and guests.

But Lydia may not have been a freed slave at all. She is described as a householder who was involved in dealing in an extremely expensive cloth, so she might have been a wealthy merchant with a valuable inventory. The author Luke was a bit of a snob, who tended to describe the conversions of the wealthy or socially elevated to advance the cause of the gospel in the eyes of his readers. Because it is Luke who is writing this story, it is slightly more likely that Lydia is a wealthy merchant rather than a member of the working class.

Whatever the truth, Lydia’s heart is opened to Paul’s words, and she is converted. She and all her household are baptised, and she then invites Paul and his companions to stay at her home. It seems that Paul was at first reluctant to accept her offer because Lydia must urge her invitation on him. Perhaps Paul refused because he feared for her household’s safety. As the host, Lydia was responsible for her guests’ protection, and if conflict arose between Paul and the Roman authorities she would be suspect as well. Or maybe Paul declines her invitation because Lydia is legally and financially free, the head of her household with no husband or son mentioned. One commentator argues that the most likely reason for this is that Lydia is divorced. This is the only instance in the Book of Acts when an unattached woman offers Paul hospitality. Because she is an anomaly, Paul and his companions may be confused as to the proper response. Another factor in their confusion might be that, because her companions at the place of prayer are exclusively female, her household too might not include men. Here we may see the ex-Pharisee Paul in a quandary. Will he extend full acceptance to a Gentile woman by judging her faithful to the Lord and staying at her, possibly all-female, home?[3] Apparently, yes, because the story ends with the news that Lydia prevailed on the group to accept her invitation.

After a vision in which a Macedonian man calls for help, Paul and his companions end up converting and being hosted by an independent, possibly non-Macedonian, woman. They would have found this profoundly unexpected and disconcerting. God was not where they expected God to be. Instead, God was in the conversion and hospitality of the unusual Lydia. ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ asked Judas. Paul and his companions might have asked, ‘Lord, why have you prevented us from witnessing to you in Asia?’ ‘Why is the first person whose heart you have opened to us been a single woman by a river, not a group of men in a synagogue?’ Why does God never act in the ways we expect?

When Judas asked his question Jesus did not answer him directly. Instead Jesus talked about the way those to whom he had revealed himself were to live. ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ Earlier in the evening Jesus had washed his disciples’ feet, told them to wash one another’s feet, and given them the ‘new’ commandment of loving one another. Now he tells them not to worry about to whom he reveals himself, but instead simply to live out their love for him. The message was the same for John’s community, wondering why following Jesus was separating them from their fellow Jews. Do not worry about it. Simply follow Jesus by practicing love, and God will be with you.

And as Paul and his companions found, God may be with us through unexpected people and in unexpected places. Those who live out God’s love by offering welcome and hospitality to God’s people, including us, may be as unexpected as Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. But they will be there because God is always with us. So ‘do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ Amen.

[1] Andrew Leigh, ‘Me versus we’ The Monthly, November 2020, pp. 48-50.

[2] TIS 547 ‘Be thou my vision’, verse 2.

[3] Lydia and Priscilla: Role Models for Today, Brenda M. Johnson, M.A., http://www.msawomen.org/works/lydiaandpriscilla.html

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