Women of Faith: Lydia - Acts 16:11-15
“This. Changes. Everything.” As I began reflecting on the intersection of our Women of Faith series and Pentecost Sunday that quote kept ringing through my head. Exactly why that came to mind I will have to attribute to the Spirit because it is not a Scriptural quote…nor is words of some famous woman of the faith. It is actually a quote from one of Joshua’s television shows, “How to Train Your Dragon: Race to the Edge.” The more I thought about it, though, the more appropriate I thought those words were for today. Why? Because Pentecost was a day that changed everything.
Jesus had been resurrected. He had ascended to Heaven. The disciples, on the other hand, remained in Jerusalem. In many ways they were at a loss as to what to do next. Jesus had told them to go back into Jerusalem and wait for God to empower them to take on local, national, and global missions, but they had no idea what to expect. Each day, we presume, they gathered together to break bread; to fellowship together; to reflect on the last three and a half years they had been together (if we were there we might have heard Phillip say, “Hey Nathaniel, remember when you asked, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth. What do you think now?”; they gathered to wait. Suddenly, on the same day that Jews from all over the region gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, a noise like tropical storm winds whipping across the sound and through the island oaks filled that upper room, and flames like tongues of fire appeared over the heads of each of the disciples. God’s Spirit had been poured out. The Spirit that fueled Christ’s ministry, the Spirit of Christ Himself, now filled them…and This. Changed. Everything.
Peter, who had denied Jesus to protect his own hide, now spoke openly before the crowds in Jerusalem sharing the Good News and declaring that prophet Joel’s promise of the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the young and the old, the men and the women, had been fulfilled.
That same Spirit would begin drawing God’s people into communities of faith where, rather than simply looking out for themselves, they began sharing all their goods and resources in a communal nature.
Disciples who at Jesus’ arrest had gone into hiding to protect themselves, now defiantly declared their faith, even in the face of death.
The Spirit would move Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, where the transformation of understanding God’s people as simply those of Jewish heritage was expanded to include people of all ethnicities.
The Spirit would then empower a former persecutor of the church to become one of the greatest evangelists of all time, sending Paul, a devout Jew become Jewish Christian, out amongst the Gentiles.
Some here may be thinking, “Preacher, you said we were continuing to look at women of faith, and yet all you’ve referenced are a bunch of men, Peter, Paul, and allusions to Stephen. Where are the women?”
In all honesty, the women are everywhere in these stories. It is safe to conclude that when the disciples were gathered in that upper room on the day of Pentecost that Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and many other women were gathered with them. Paul continually references, in the accounts of his ministry, the number of women who were coming alongside him and proclaiming the Gospel—lives in which the outpoured Spirit of God changed everything.
We encounter one of those women in today’s reading: Lydia. We often forget about Lydia. She is not a Ruth or an Esther; she is not a Sarah or a Deborah; she is not a Mary or a Martha. She is obscure enough that when we all dressed as biblical characters for our Trick or Treat through the Amazing Grace Maze back in October and Anita dressed all in purple as Lydia, folks automatically assumed she was one of those other women.
Yet Lydia is not some bystander who just happens to be mentioned in the book of Acts…she is a woman of extreme importance in the life of the early church…a woman for whom everything changed with the Spirit of God being poured out upon her.
Exactly who was Lydia? Lydia was most likely a Gentile because her name is not Jewish, it is Greek. We encounter her as Paul, forced by the Spirt to change his plans, finds himself in Philippi to proclaim the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Scholars suggest that no synagogue had been erected in Philippi because there were not enough Jewish men to justify the building of one. So when the Sabbath came around and it was time for labors to cease attention turned to the worship of God, Paul and his companions made their way outside of the city gates to an area by the river where they had learned there was a place of prayer frequented by the women of the area and there he encountered Lydia.
From Acts’ account we learn that Lydia was a worshipper of God. She is not called a follower of Christ or a follower of “The Way,” but simply a worshipper of God, suggesting that she was a Gentile who had begun to worship God but had not yet encountered the good news of Jesus. We read that Lydia was listening, perhaps sitting outside the circle of those gathered because she was a Gentile. Acts notes that she was from the city of Thyratira (though evidently she now lived in Philippi), and was a dealer in purple cloth.
The purple cloth reference might seem obscure and irrelevant, but it is far from it. In these few words, we learn a great deal about who Lydia is. There is never a reference to a husband, here or elsewhere, so it it becomes evident that Lydia is an independent business woman. The fact that she dealt in purple cloth meant that she was most likely well known by the elite of the community because wearing of purple cloth was reserved for the royal and the rich of the society. It is Lydia, who probably had spend days and nights rubbing elbows with the most influential members of the Philippian community, whose heart God’s Spirit opened up to receive the Gospel.
Lycia not only heard the Gospel, but received it wholeheartedly and completely. She embraced the Gospel with such fervor that she and her entire household were baptized as she became the first convert resulting from the expansion of Paul’s mission into what we would call European territory. With the Spirit’s convicting nature upon her heart, Lydia becomes a beacon of hospitality, inviting Paul and Silas and all their company to come and stay at her home. To be honest, we don’t know whether or not she was just as hospitable before her conversion, what we do know is that she was willing to offer up her home and resources to a tent-making itinerant evangelist and his companions following her conversion.
Lydia’s hospitality stands as a positive contrast to the story that follows where Paul and Silas encounter a slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination and was used and abused by her owners to make money through fortune-telling. When Paul commanded the spirit to leave her, freeing her from its influence, her owners had Paul and Silas thrown in jail for disrupting their livelihood.
Lydia—a spirit of generosity.
Slave owners—a spirit of greed.
When Paul and Silas were released from prison, they returned to Lydia’s house. It is upon their return to Lydia’s that we learn just how far Lydia’s generosity had extended—how the working of the Holy Spirit poured out upon her had continued to change everything. Remember, now, that Lydia’s occupation had her hobnobbing with the rich and famous. However,as Paul and Silas return to her home, they find that Lydia has now opened her home to be the gathering place for all of those who have come into a relationship with Christ in the city of Philippi. Her home became a haven of worship for those who the Spirit of Christ brought together, regardless of social standing, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of their past.
When we look to Lydia, we see the work that the Holy Spirit seeks to do upon us. As God’s Spirit is continually poured out upon us, it seeks to radically change who us from whom society seeks to shape us to be, into those whose lives reflect the very image of God. Among the changes the Spirit seeks to make in our lives is to transform us into those who are just as hospitable and generous as Lydia.
Our society encourages us to be greedy and selfish like the slave-girl owners. Those who are considered successful in the world are those who have amassed a vast amount of wealth. They become known for how much they have. We are taught that the stuff we have is ours and we need to preserve and protect it in whatever way necessary. We are encouraged to hold on to as much as we can for a rainy day (though in my experience over the years, people are more financially hurt by a lack of rainy days that an abundance of them).
Yet from the poor widow who placed her last two coins into the Temple treasury…to the first converts following Pentecost who decided, as I mentioned earlier, that they would pour all their resources into a common pool…to Lydia, opening her home to become the place of worship for all followers of Christ in Philippi we see that we are to practice generous hospitality to those around us.
I will tell you that I have seen glimpses of this Lydia-like generosity since I met this congregation a year ago—through the generosity of this congregation that remodeled the parsonage without the church going into debt to the hospitable generosity of those who helped unload a monstrously loaded U-haul to the loan of trucks and tools to an ill-equipped pastor from “off.” Yet it is not just the generous hospitality my family and I have received, but the stories I have encountered of members of this congregation providing for others who found themselves in need. I’ve seen the generosity of time offered in service to Christ by those serving with the food pantry, with the backpack blessings, with volunteering at The Bridge Downeast after school program to those giving up a Saturday to travel to the MERCI center. We have truly begun to be those who have been changed by the Spirit of Pentecost entering our lives and transforming us, and may we continue to allow that generous hospitality to shine forth—for just as Lydia’s generous hospitality made her home a place for the Spirit to transform the lives of others coming to know Christ, so to may we be vessels through which the Spirit continues to enter Harkers Island and the Down East Community…changing everything! In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.