Sunday’s sermon: Lydia: Woman of Means and Message

Text used – Acts 16:11-15

  • So throughout the summer, we’ve been exploring the stories of various women of the Bible, right?
    • Met women we’d never met before
    • Met women who didn’t even have names
    • Met women in difficult circumstances
    • Met women whose choices weren’t their own
    • Met women whose stories have been misunderstood and/or misrepresented for centuries
    • Met women from both the First Testament and the New Testament
    • Some of them, like Hagar and Tamar, were women who met God unknowingly or even unwillingly in the midst of their circumstances. Some of them, like Bathsheba and Vashti, were women who may not even have been aware that God was even speaking through their actions and their faith. Others, like Shiphrah and Puah and the Syrophoenician woman, like Rahab and Huldah, were women who actively and passionately sought to do God’s will.
    • But last week marked a bit of a turning point for us in that it introduced us to a category of women we hadn’t really encountered yet: women disciples.
      • Last week: Mary Magdalene = first of the women who was a devoted disciples of Jesus Christ
      • This week: continue the trend with Lydia
        • Similar to Mary Magdalene in that she’s a woman of means (which we’ll talk more about later)
        • Different from Mary Magdalene in that she is a Gentile convert
          • Didn’t grow up a Jew (as Mary did)
          • Never actually met Jesus (as Mary did)
  • So let’s dig into the short and somewhat obscure story of Lydia.
    • Context: book of Acts
      • Written by Luke (same as the gospel) as a conversation between himself and a reader (Theophilus)
      • Probably written sometime toward the middle to end of the 1st (70-90 C.E., possibly a little earlier)
      • History book of sorts → version of history of the early church
        • Church growing in numbers
        • Church growing in geography
        • Church growing in theology
        • Scholar: A number of studies have demonstrated that Acts is best read as a genre of ancient historiography, itself quite fluid in form and function. Luke’s narrative is a selective account of what happened – a “history” shaped and signified according to his personal theological beliefs and pastoral purposes. … In the case of Acts, Luke selects and arranges a series of events that he narrates for his reader(s) in order to give meaning to the church’s mission and message as a history that accords with God’s redemptive plans for Israel and the nations.[1]
      • And in the context of this “historiography” of the early church, we meet a lot of people in their midst of their coming-to-faith moments like today’s story with Lydia. → most of them Gentiles
        • Peter stayed near Jerusalem to spread the gospel among the Jews while Paul took Jesus’ good news on the road among the Gentiles → Acts mostly follows the journeys of Paul and his helpers (with a few off-shoot stories mixed in)
          • Get a taste of those journeys in the opening part of our Scripture reading this morning – text: We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city in Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony.[2]
            • Troas = port city on the western coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Turkey)
            • Neapolis = port city on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea (modern day Greece, just 10 mi. south of Philippi)
            • Samothrace = island in the Aegean Sea about halfway between Troas and Neapolis
    • Setting for today’s story
      • City: Philippi in Macedonia (modern day Greece just inland from the north shore of the Aegean Sea)
      • Even more specific: the banks of the river … why?
        • Text: On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.[3]
          • Scholar gives us even more clarity about this location: In this case the term designates a marginal location outside the city gates and beside a small river on the southern edge of town. … That Paul only supposed this was a place of prayer may well symbolize the insignificance of a Jewish presence within the city.[4] → So in the telling of this story, the author of Acts is making it clear to us that Philippi is a thoroughly Roman city, not a Jewish city like Jerusalem.
        • Before moving on – important line that we cannot ignore in that verse: “We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered.” → We cannot ignore this verse because it shows us once again that women were, in fact, included in the life and learning of the early church without objection, without obstruction, without needing to meekly sit and absorb that learning like a silent sponge. Paul and those traveling with him specifically sought out that place on the riverbank and initiated the conversation “with the women who had gathered.”
          • No mention of men by the riverside → in Paul’s eyes: women were just as worthy of hearing and acting on the gospel message as men → So the next time someone tries to tell you that women only have a silent and subservient place in church, you can talk to them about Lydia’s story!
  • Lydia’s introduction = interesting – text: One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.[5] → Let’s break this down a bit because there’s a lot here.
    • Lydia was “a Gentile God-worshipper” → We’re told straight up that Lydia is a Gentile, and her purported home of Thyatira (an ancient Greek city located in modern day western Turkey) reinforces this identity. But there’s also some ambiguity and mystery in this designation. How does the author know Lydia is a God-worshipper? Is there something about her that telegraphs her spiritual leanings? Or is this knowledge that was added after the fact?
      • However it happens, Lydia being a “Gentile God-worshipper” puts her in solid Scriptural company → other Gentile God-worshippers:
        • The Syrophoenician woman (whose story we read 3 wks ago)[6]
        • Cornelius (Gentile who summoned Peter to his home and was converted along with his entire household)[7]
        • In fact, many of the people Jesus encounters and heals throughout the gospels – the ones who first recognize and name him out loud as the Son of God – are all Gentiles.
    • Lydia was “a dealer in purple cloth” → This can be a difficult cultural designation for us to grasp nowadays when we can drive over to JoAnn Fabrics and buy thousands of different kinds of purple cloth. (Literally: quick search on JoAnn’s website for “purple cloth” = 5841 results!) → ancient method for dying cloth purple was vastly different than today (Smithsonian article[8])
      • Purple cloth = “Tyrian purple”
        • Made by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats
        • Valuable because it was such a difficult color to produce
        • Valuable because it was a color that, unlike many other colors of dye at the time, didn’t fade → stayed bright and vibrant
        • Purple cloth was the color of exceptional wealth and royalty until well into the 19th century, so the fact that Lydia was a “dealer in purple cloth” meant that she had significant means and connections throughout society and probably even throughout the Roman empire.
          • Note: it said “dealer in purple cloth” → means she was more than just one of the women working in the production process → “dealer” indicates ownership which indicates status and power
          • Scholar: Purple clothing was destined for the rich and royal in the Roman world, where it symbolized power and influence. A merchant in purple cloth, then, is someone who rubbed shoulders daily with society’s rich and famous. Luke’s use of Lydia’s personal name in his story may well indicate her social prominence.[9]
    • As Lydia listened to Paul’s teachings, “the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message” → Once again, we see God at work in and through someone before they even realize there is work to be done.
      • Actually prefer NRSV translation of this portion of the text: “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” → better expresses the Gr. here
        • Gr. “opened her heart” = pretty literal → “opened up completely, explained, interpreted” + “heart” → Something about this translation makes it clear just how active God is in Lydia’s conversion experience. It is God who opens Lydia’s heart to interpretation and explanation, to God’s own good news through Paul’s witness. It feel like there is some special work that God has for Lydia to do, so God is making sure that Lydia truly takes in the message of the gospel – that she takes it to heart (literally) and lets it bring about a change in her.
        • Gr. “listen eagerly” = also very active and evocative phrase → “listen, heed, understand, learn” + “turn one’s mind to, pay attention to, cling to” → There’s a level of devotion and wholeheartedness in this phrase that’s hard to fully capture in English. Lydia didn’t just half listen to Paul while she continued to chat with the other women down by the river. She refocused her entire being on what Paul was saying. She probably turned her whole body and face to him, but more importantly, she turned her spirit toward his message, drinking in the joy and promise of the gospel like a stream of living water.
  • Fruits of Lydia’s conversion experience are swift and obvious – text: Once [Lydia] and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.[10]
    • First fruit = obvious: Lydia and her entire house are baptized, potentially even on the spot right there on that very riverbank → Lydia was so moved in her faith by the message of the gospel that she had to act.
    • Second fruit = Lydia takes Paul and his companions into her own home – home that eventually becomes the spiritual center for the entire city of Philippi, presumably with Lydia as the local spiritual leader once Paul has moved on[11] → This is significant considering the population of ancient Philippi around the time of Paul’s visit was roughly 10,000.
    • Modern day fruit of Lydia’s conversion = powerful reminder for us → Lydia’s story is definitely a reminder of the true role that women played in the development and furtherance of the early church – a role of inclusion, significance, and leadership equal to those of their male counterparts. But more than that, Lydia’s story is a reminder that the message of the gospel reaches past any and all barriers we might try to construct – barriers based on gender, economic status, social status, or anything else. The good news of the gospel – the truth that Christ died for us and rose for us to bring us God’s everlasting love and untarnishable grace – reaches each and every one of us where we are (wherever we are!) and bring us all to the same, level place in God’s eyes: beloved child. Nothing else matters. Amen.

[1] Robert W. Wall. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 2002), 12-13.

[2] Acts 16:11-12.

[3] Acts 16:13.

[4] Wall, 231.

[5] Acts 16:14.

[6] Mk 7:24-30

[7] Acts 10.

[8] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/in-ancient-rome-purple-dye-was-made-from-snails-1239931/.

[9] Wall, 232.

[10] Acts 16:15.

[11] Wall, 235.