The dealer in purple cloth

Photo by Andre Furtado on

Acts 16.9-15

If you are a person who notices detail, you may have realised that during the Easter Season there is no reading from the Old Testament in our Sunday Services. This isn’t a downgrading of the Hebrew Scriptures which are foundational to our Christian faith, but instead an elevation of the story of the young Christian church. During the Easter Season we hear each Sunday, and weekdays too if you come to a weekday Mass, portions of the Acts of the Apostles, the book that is part two of the Gospel of Luke.

Acts must be read in the Easter Season. If, as on the first Sunday of the month here, we only have two readings, then Acts has to be read rather than the other reading from the New Testament set for the Sunday. So always in Easter we have the Acts of the Apostles and a Gospel reading.

Well why Acts! This is the story of the first followers of Jesus, the story of how the good news of the Risen Jesus spread and groups of believers began to gather in his name and become the church. Acts is the story of Jesus alive in his followers and of His church becoming a reality.

And today we have the story of “a certain woman”, a woman named Lydia.

It is a very significant story and it helps if you know your geography. Perhaps some of you, like me, are old enough to remember drawing maps of Paul’s Missionary Journeys at school, a now rather discredited approach to the mission of Paul. But if you do remember this, then we are on missionary journey 2, and if you can imagine a map of the Aegean Sea with modern day Turkey to the right and Greece to the left, the journey Paul takes from Troas to Philippi in Macedonia, crosses that sea diagonally in a north westerly direction, and Paul travels from Troas in Asia to Philippi in Northern Greece, significantly travels from Asia to Europe. For the first time the good news of the Risen Jesus is taken into Europe.

Paul is open to listening to God, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, recognising a vision, possibly a dream, as a message. He is spiritually aware and willing to take risks and “follow his dream” in a literal sense.

How do you start to tell people you don’t know about Jesus? Well Paul, as he often does, seeks out those who might be receptive, who have some background in Judaism. On the Sabbath he seeks out the Jewish worshipers in Philippi – Jewish worshipers and those known as God Fearers, not Jewish but sympathetic to Judaism and attracted to a monotheistic faith, one God, rather than the multiplicity of gods of Greek and Roman culture.

Lydia was a God Fearer, described in the reading as “a worshipper of God”. Paul finds this small group of women, outside the city gate, and speaks to them there. Paul, who often gets such a bad press as being anti women, because of a few verses in some of his letters, Paul thinks nothing of seeking out this group of women and speaking to them. If we concentrate on what Paul does, rather than on a few particular verses he wrote, then Paul is actually a radical when it comes to women.

We don’t know if these women just met in the open air by the river, or whether there was a small synagogue there, outside the walls of the Roman colony. But Paul finds them and talks to them about Jesus. Paul doesn’t care whether they are men or women, whether they are slaves or free people, he will tell anyone who will listen about Jesus. And of these women, it is Lydia who is named, the one whose heart was open to God’s message. Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, a luxury item back then, a business woman, who appears to run her own household – no mention of a husband or any man. And it is Lydia, there and then, with the members of her household – is that children, other relatives, servants or slaves? We don’t know, but there and then they are baptised, probably in the river where they are. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity. She is rather overlooked in the Western Church, but in Orthodoxy she is a much honoured Saint, and in some Orthodox Churches given the title “equal to the apostles”. There is a baptistry on the banks of the river Zygotki, just by the archaeological site of Philippi, so you can visit and remember Lydia, the first person in Europe to become a Christian, you can remember her there in the place where she was baptised.

After her baptism, Lydia asks Paul and his companions to stay at her house, if, she says “you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord”. If we read on in Chapter 16 of Acts we find that Paul and Silas get dragged into prison – and then there is a really exciting bit of the Book of Acts, where as Paul and Silas are singing hymns and praying, there is an earthquake and the chains of all the prisoners are broken. This leads to another conversion – that of the jailor and his family. And then Chapter 16 ends with these tantalising words:

“After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters[g] there, they departed.”

It indicates that already a group is meeting in Lydia’s house, a group that will become the Philippian Church, to whom Paul wrote one of his great letters. It seems natural to assume that Lydia became the first leader of that church – it met in her house – most of the early churches were house churches and Lydia would be the natural leader of a community meeting in her home. This was running through my mind yesterday as I attended the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the ordination of women to the priesthood in Southwark Cathedral. And my thoughts about Lydia were further confirmed by one of the speakers at the study morning yesterday, Paula Gooder. She talked of us needing to strain our ears to hear the whisper of women’s voices in the New Testament. The only words we have of Lydia’s are those we heard in this morning’s reading, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. There is the whisper, but how we can build on it. They did stay at her home, and go back there. Paul and his companions obviously did judge her faithful, and by the time they went back she had already gathered a group of believers in the risen Jesus around her. A woman of some affluence, in control of her own home and household, running a business. She becomes the focal point of the church in Philippi and continues to this day to be revered as the first convert to Christianity in Europe. Can you imagine her? Can you fill out her story in your head?

Lydia’s story and her encounter with Paul, gives us a glimpse, a whisper of the importance of women in the early church, and certainly shows us that Paul was far from prejudiced about women, but very happy to use them as part of the Christian mission and to go against all convention in talking to women and staying in a house run by a woman who was either widowed or single. As we commemorate this week the first ordinations of women as priests in our Diocese 25 years ago it is important to realise that we have foremothers in the faith, women who were leaders in those embryonic churches back in the first century.  

But I started by explaining why we read the book of the Acts of the Apostles in the Easter Season, saying it is because it is the story of the first followers of Jesus, the story of how the good news of the Risen Jesus spread and groups of believers began to gather in his name and become the church. Acts is the story of Jesus alive in his followers and of His church becoming a reality. 

Lydia is one of those followers and the church in her home one of those churches. She hears the news from Paul about the risen Lord Jesus – resurrection is always the heart of Paul’s message – and she believes that Jesus is risen and gives her life to him then and there, and so Jesus is alive in her and in the house church she leads.

It is worth reading the book of Acts, or looking back on the stories we have had from Acts this Easter Season, to catch the enthusiasm, the passion, the joy, of those early Christian believers. It all stems from that declaration that we make here every Sunday in the Easter Season “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed Alleluia!”

We may lament that our church is not full, that we don’t attract many new members and that we are struggling as a church to pay our way, but if we can capture some of the enthusiasm, the passion and the joy that faith in the risen Christ brings, it will be easier to turn things round. The stories in the Acts of the Apostles show us what is possible when people capture the life transforming power of the risen Lord Jesus. May we capture that power here and be a church which hears the whisper of the voice of Lydia of Philippi, one of our foremothers in the faith. Perhaps if we can say with Lydia in all honesty “if you have judged us to be faithful to Lord”, then others will be drawn to us “and stay” and worship “with us”.