This morning in the Book of Acts, we have a surprising story concerning Paul and his travel companions. They had been strengthening churches in Syria and Cilicia, area to the North of Jerusalem. Paul has a vision of a man who pleads with him “Come to Macedonia and help us.”
This meant crossing the Aegean Sea: in other words, going to Europe. Not for holiday, but to a unknown and potentially hostile environment.
There is an immediate change of language here in the Acts account that we are likely not to notice in our lectionary form. “We immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia,” "We set sail from Troas." The change is “we.” For the first time, the author of the accounts of Acts is first hand, part of the journey. He is a traveling companion of Paul and Silas (before this, the language had been “they.” This is the author’s first personal witness out on the road with Paul.
They reach the city Philippi in the region Macedonia, most likely not sure about what was to happen next. The author tells us that, “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer.” They were likely looking for a local synagogue, not sure what exactly they would find.
It’s not clear if they found a synagogue, but what they did find gathered was a group of women. Paul and his companions were likely disappointed: not only had they not found the man of Paul’s vision, but their patriarchal upbringing would have caused them to be disheartened in not finding men to dialogue with. Nevertheless, Paul and his companions sit and speak with those gathered in a posture to be understood as serious teaching.
It is here we meet Lydia.
Lydia is not a name that comes to most people’s minds when thinking of women of the Bible. Lydia’s name means simply “woman from Lydia,” an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey. She was from the City of Thyatira, which was especially known for its dyers. We are told that Lydia of Thyatira is a dealer of purple cloth. This is a significant piece of information. Purple is the color of royalty, and someone dealing in purple cloth would be used to dealing with the wealthy and people of power. Lydia herself is the dealer, no small significance for a woman of the time.
We are also told that she is “a worshiper of God.” This could mean that she was a Jew, but more likely suggests that she was a Gentile who already held the Hebrew God in the highest of esteems: the God of Gods, if you will.
The fact that Lydia is present at this place of prayer, outside the gate, suggests that she was already seeking guidance and direction from the Spirit of God, looking for meaning beyond her extraordinary success as a businesswoman. We are told that the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. The scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes that although this phrase sounds very Biblical, the actual expression only appears once, in the 2nd Book of Maccabees. However, Luke uses this Greek verb at special moments: the opening of the disciples eyes after the resurrection (Luke 24:30), as well as the opening of the Scriptures (24:32) and of the disciples minds (24:45) by the resurrected Jesus. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, in Sacred Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1992, p. 293)
It can be argued that the significance and power of this moment is just as important. Lydia is Paul’s very first convert to Christianity in Europe. She has the power and authority to have her entire household baptized. Furthermore, her hospitality is persuasive. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” How could they say no! “She prevailed on us,” writes the surprised author.
Lydia offers her commitment to the mission, and Paul and his companions graciously accept. Everyone in this story is open and vulnerable to change: from Paul and his companions, changing their outlook as to whom their mission is for, to Lydia’s receptiveness to the foreign men and their teachings. Barriers such as cultural difference, gender, and wealth are overcome because everyone takes the time to be fully present with one another, and open to the unexpected holiness and truth. Paul and his companions ultimately spend considerable time at Philippi, basing their operations out of Lydia’s home. As far as we can tell, they never find the man of Paul’s original vision. Instead, they are opened to a different focus in their mission: trusting God, and the strength and generosity of Lydia to ground them during there time in Philippi.
Here lies the inspiration for us today. Whether we are currently the traveler following a vision, or the one at home in faithful routine, we are all to be journeyers when it comes to being open to the Spirit of God, and to each other.