Acts 16.11-15 (40)
Gender is a hot topic these days. Open the newspaper to the national news, and you will see stories about how women compare to men at the workplace…in terms of salary or authority or rights (usually not well). You will see stories about how women vote, in comparison to how men vote, especially in the hotly contested presidential election. You will see stories about legislation proposed or passed in North Carolina, Missouri, even Kansas, designed to allow governmental agencies to prohibit by gender who is allowed to go into which bathroom. All of these are examples of the controversial and complicated conversation around gender.
And into the conversation, we wander. We, a people who have committed our lives to following a person who lived 2,000 years ago, in a very different culture and a very different place. We, a people who attempt to look to his teachings and the teachings of those who came soon after him. We, who look to these words from our Scriptures and we pray, in the words of Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro, “Steep us in your story, Lord: that we may live its truth today.” And we, as a people ask, “how in the world are we supposed to do that?”
“Steep us in your story, Lord; that we may live its truth today.” It is one of the reasons why we together are exploring the lives of believers through the Scriptures in our current worship series. Together, we are looking beyond the obvious stories and most popular narratives and finding those out of the spotlight, everyday heroines and heroes whose stories remind us that the story of God is for us all, not just for a select few. “Steep us in your story, Lord.” Together, we steep.
And in the steeping, we find the story of a woman named Lydia. Perhaps we have heard of her story, read in an anthology about women in the Bible, or remembered from the pages of our children’s Sunday school. There she is in that unmistakable Sunday school style of illustration, dressed in purple, talking to Paul next to the river. But we are a little fuzzy on the details about her life, and we perhaps doubt that there is anything about steeping ourselves in her story that would help us to live God’s truth today.
Well, not surprisingly, I think that there is. To open our eyes to the story of Lydia is to begin to ask pertinent questions about what is happening in our world today, questions about gender, leadership, and authority. It takes some work to steep in her story, because there are not a lot of details about Lydia’s story. Six verses in the 16th Chapter of Acts. Not much to go on. But Luke is like any good storyteller – the sparse details that he gives us paint a picture that is meaningful to our lives, as well.
The story begins before we even see Lydia. The great missionary Paul has had a vision. A man from Macedonia has come to him in a dream and begged Paul, “come to help us!” Paul, who in the chapter before has passionately argued that the Gospel should not be offered only to Jews, but also to Gentiles, now has a chance to test his theory, as he heads into Gentile territory. Paul, who has been told repeatedly by the Spirit NOT to go to his old haunts and familiar places, but to instead go to a new place, finally gets it through his head and heads to Macedonia.
Macedonia – the non-Jewish, largely urban, culturally different territory – is going to take a very different strategy to share the good news. Paul is used to a strategy in which he goes to a new Jewish community, walks into the synagogue, and shares with his fellow Jews that Jesus is the answer to all their unanswered religious questions. Now, he has had this vision of the man of Macedonia, and he heads in search of this man and his fellow searchers. But as he arrives in Philippi, the first major city in the new territory, he has a problem. No synagogue. Which means no Jews. A synagogue can be formed if there are at least 10 worshipping male Jews in a city. But Philippi doesn’t even have that. No place to sit down and debate with the teachers. Nowhere to begin his Macedonian ministry. No idea how he will find the man of Macedonia from his vision.
So, he tries plan B. In cities and towns where there are not enough believers to form a synagogue, there will sometimes be a group that meets outside of the city limits. Unable to legally form a prayer group inside the city, they move outside of the gates and pray together. Thankfully, Paul hears that there is such a group meeting outside of the city gate, out by the river. Success! With expectation and anticipation, he runs out past the gate, his excitement palpable as he imagines finally meeting with the man from Macedonia. And then he gets there and finds not one, but a handful of men from Macedonia, gathered to pray there by the river.
Except, to Paul’s surprise, his “men from Macedonia”…are all women. Not a man in the group. Not a single one that looks like his vision. Not what he was expecting. But Paul has followed the prompting of the Spirit long enough to know that his expectations don’t mean a hill of beans. And the Spirit has brought him here, to a group of women praying, longing for a word from the Lord. So, he sits down and begins to teach them. Many teachers, and most men, would have turned around and walked the other way. What would God do with a group of powerless, unlearned, ungifted women? But not Paul. Just like if he was sitting down with the most important religious council in the city, he sat down and poured his heart into his message. And that message landed. Acts tells us that a woman by the name of Lydia heard what he said, felt convicted by the Spirit, and converted there on the spot. She was baptized and became the first recorded convert in Europe, opening the door to the Spirit’s work beyond the walls of expectation, and allowing the faith to become a global phenomenon.
Lydia is a fascinating character in the story of Acts. Again, a few short details share a lot of information. Luke tells us she is a dealer in purple textiles. Today, we would question her business plan that had a whole stock of merchandise…in one color. It kind of sounds like someone who decides that they are only going to only sell merchandise embroidered with the initials MBS. For someone like me, it’s a dream come true! But the niche market is a little small. Likewise, we wonder if maybe Lydia should branch out a little…perhaps throw a little red or yellow into the catalog? But in reality, this was an incredibly lucrative business. Purple dye was created by using the excretion of one specific type of tiny mollusk. It was incredibly difficult to harvest, meaning purple dye was incredibly rare, meaning that someone who was able to buy and sell purple textiles was incredibly rich. Lydia likely sold her goods to the richest and most powerful. There is a reason that purple is often associated with royalty. They were the only ones who could afford it! Kings and queens would likely have been in her Rolodex (or Favorite Contact list on her phone for those of you who don’t know what a Rolodex is). So, one thing that we know about Lydia is that she was a rich and relatively powerful merchant.
But the other thing that we deduce from the story is that Lydia did all of this…on her own. There is no mention of her husband, or of any men in her life. Acts will later refer to her home, and her household, making it clear that she is the head of the household and very clearly self-sufficient in her career and her life. We might not be surprised by this today, but in that day, it was phenomenally shocking. Here, on the banks of the river outside of town, a wealthy, successful, self-sufficient businesswoman gathered with other women to pray and long for an understanding of God. Until Paul walked up the bank of that river and showed her exactly what she was looking for.
Or, more to the point, the Holy Spirit puts Paul and Lydia together, giving both of them exactly what each is looking for. Paul finds his “man of Macedonia” and discovers that he is really a she – a woman with means, social versatility, and inner strength. And Lydia finds someone who can answer the questions about God that she has been wrestling with on the banks of that river for who knows how long. The Spirit gives both exactly what they need.
So what are we to do with the story of Lydia? What might it mean for us and how might our steeping in its sparse details teach us to live its truth?
Well, you might not be surprised to hear that the story of Lydia – like the stories of all of our Believers from the series so far – teaches us about the counter-cultural power of the Gospel. Look at the ways that Lydia’s story re-writes the cultural narrative of the day. Paul’s inclusion of Lydia stems from a radical notion that men and women are equally loved and equally capable before God. In fact, every issue or category or difference that threatens to separate us becomes null and void in the church of Christ. As Will Willamon writes, in reference to the story of Lydia, “Barriers that divide male and female or poor and rich do not hold in the church.” The early church became a place where barriers of gender, of race, of class disappeared. Slaves worshipped beside former slaveholders. Rich merchants worshipped beside the poor and destitute. Jews worshipped beside Gentiles. And, perhaps most shockingly, women worshipped beside men. For Paul, a trained Pharisee who had only worshipped next to men in the synagogue or Temple his whole life, this was a significant change.
Of course, this counter-cultural reality was not without its practical problems. Reading Paul’s letters, we see that this radical equanimity made things complex. He had to explain to the rich church members that they could not bring their own food early before worship and exclude those who don’t have enough to afford pre-gaming with champagne and escargot. He had to explain to the slaveholders what freedom really meant, even when freeing their slaves caused them financial pain. And he had to explain to some of the women that without any training in Scripture, their role was to learn and not speak. Of course, this was a particular cultural phenomenon that was a byproduct of this radical equanimity, not a universal rule tied to gender. Those who take Paul’s words to mean that there is an inherent imbalance between men and women today completely miss the point. Paul preached radical equality that came from the radical love and radical grace that Jesus came to proclaim. That equality was counter-cultural in ways that we cannot begin to understand today. It wasn’t just that Paul talked to Lydia, or that she was converted. The power in the story is that she became the leader of the church at Philippi, hosting it in her home, bankrolling its ministries, and using her gifts of social versatility to lead and grow the congregation. Her house church became the launching place for the global ministry of Paul to begin, and we are all a legacy of that counter-cultural leadership.
Meanwhile, the story of Lydia reminds us of the need to ask what the counter-cultural power of the Gospel teaches us about gender in our context. I proudly name myself as a feminist, because I believe that God has created us to break apart the divisions that separate us, first and foremost gender. In spite of the ways that Paul’s words have been twisted over the years, I think that his proclamation of equality – “there is no male or female” – is a mandate for us to fight for the rights of women, of racial minorities, of religious minorities, of the poor, of all those whose rights are taken away by a culture dominated by fear of that which is different. Shockingly, or perhaps not really too shockingly, in reality, the Church has rejected that radical model of equality in order to run back to those comfortable divisions that culture has defined for us. But like Willamon pleads, the love of Christ redefines and re-frames those divisions, and such “barriers…have no hold in the church.” We must be radical proponents of the idea that we are all created in God’s image, and fight for equality in the name of mutual neighbor love.
But there is at least one more lesson from the story of Lydia today, and it comes from the actions of Lydia herself. Lydia had already learned to battle the cultural mores around her, and defeat them. She had succeeded in a man’s world, and became an example for countless women who had been told to mind their place. But still, she longed for something more. There was some reason why she ended up on the riverbank that day. Something that she longed for. Something that she yearned to hear. When the Spirit spoke through Paul that day, she received a strength that not even she had possessed before. Lydia, the self-sufficient, strong leader and merchant, was not complete. Now, she didn’t need any man to survive and thrive. But she needed God. I think that in the rush to proclaim equality, we can sometimes forget that we all are in need of something beyond ourselves. Someone beyond ourselves. The Gospel reminds us that we are created with an equality of ability and of need.
The true story of Lydia is not that a strong woman overcame her need for men. Nor is it that a man named Paul swept into the picture and gave Lydia was she was always looking for. But instead, it is the story of the very Spirit of God, who guided both to see things in a new way. Who came and brought peace and hope and power to those who needed it in unexpected ways. And who continues to do the same for all those who are willing to watch for visions and pray for answers, and who are willing to open their mouths and their homes and their hearts to the power of God’s love. May we be so willing today.