You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Open Our Hearts!

“Open Our Hearts!”

Acts 16 St. Lydia

Acts 16:6-15 – August 30, 2015

Men, men, men! Here in the United States, men still take center place in many areas today. Look at most sports broadcasts. What you see is—men! Look at many industries and places of work, still, today. Firefighters? Mostly men. Police officers? Mostly men. Truckers? Construction workers? Mostly men here, too.

The sermon I have for you this morning is not the typical sermon. I would like us to consider the passage from Acts 16 that was read just now. This passage is interesting because of its highlight on women. Let’s take a closer look at the subject at hand.

We are looking at Acts, chapter 16, as part of our summer sermon series, Postcards from the Early Church. The events recorded in this book take place later in the first century after the birth of Christ, a long, long time ago. The concepts of welcoming and celebrating multi-culturalism—as we do today—were not even thought of.

The apostle Paul and his friends had a bit of a culture shock themselves. They had been itinerant preachers and missionaries throughout Asia Minor for the past several years. They were on the front lines, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ on the frontier, to people who had never heard that good news before. And now, at the beginning of Acts 16, they take the huge step of crossing into Europe. They are now in Philippi, in what is now northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia. So they are truly missionaries, bridging continents, crossing cultures, coming into a new situation with their good news.

Now, there was one structure Paul and his friends had to deal with, wherever they went: the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire embraced many different cultures, from western Europe to northern Africa, to the edges of what is Iraq today. But within that polyglot of cultures, one basic aspect remained constant: the pre-eminence of men, and the subordination of women.

We can still see this fact of life in certain societies and cultures today; in certain cultures, women are still subordinate, not allowed to do things or to be involved in activities that are normal and matter of course for both women and men today, in our culture and society here in the United States.

Let’s return to the scripture passage we are examining today. Dr. Luke is different from the other biblical authors, since he was a Gentile, and a doctor. He was used to dealing with women and children as a doctor, as a matter of course, and I believe they were important to him, professionally as well as personally. Thus, he mentions them more often in his writings. Here in Acts 16, almost the first thing that Dr. Luke tells us about Paul and his friends in Philippi is their encounter with a gathering of women outside of the city.

Let me say how unusual this is, for the Bible. In either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, the mention of a gathering of women, only, is almost unheard of. The mention of a woman, on her own, at all, is unusual.

Just think about it: women in the Bible are usually mentioned in reference to a man: Abraham’s wife, Sarah; Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar; Samuel’s mother, Hannah; Mordecai’s cousin, Esther; Aquila’s wife, Priscilla; Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Some women in the Bible are not even mentioned by name: the woman at the well from John 4, the woman with the flow of blood from Luke 8, and the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman from Mark 7—anonymous women, known only to God. But wherever they appear in the Bible, the women of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament are clearly examples for anyone who reads the Bible today or has read the Bible, throughout the centuries.

Let’s look at this situation in Acts 16 from a different perspective, for a moment. Quite an odd occurrence, to be sure! Here we have a small group of men, strangers from out of town, coming and sitting down among a larger group of women. What is going on here?

I could mention the fascinating information I researched about Jewish synagogues among majority Gentile towns in the first centuries of this common era, or about the possibility that there was no synagogue in Philippi, which led the God-fearing people who wished to worship outside of the town. However, that is not where I wish to focus today. I would like to look at the rabbi Paul and his companions coming to pray and worship with this group of women. Rabbi Paul was probably the guest preacher for the morning, supported by his colleagues in ministry.

This prayer meeting was an open-air meeting outside the town, probably at a marginal location near the river. It was a meeting of God-fearing women, probably mostly Gentile in makeup. The amazing thing about this mention in Acts 16 is that Dr. Luke mentions the women.

Women are not mentioned often in the Bible, period. But without the active participation and support of women, and some of them of high standing, too, Paul and his companions would not have been able to accomplish half of what they did. Women, especially of high standing, were involved in local politics throughout the region, and economically involved, as well. Women were important to the ongoing life of the new church and to the spreading of the good news for several years before this occasion in Philippi. I believe Paul was acknowledging this through his willingness to talk with and preach for the women.

It is unusual for women to be mentioned on their own, self-sufficient, having their own accountability and standing in the city where they live. Yet here we have just that. Dr. Luke particularly mentions Lydia, and he gives us lots of personal information about her. We can tell by her name that she is a Gentile woman, and we are told she was born in a city called Thyatira, and is a dealer in purple cloth, which for that time was a luxury item, for sure. What we can compare this to is a dealer in high-end designer clothing in our culture and context, today. We can readily see that she not only owns her own business, but she also has her own house, and household servants and maybe even assistants and others in her entourage.

What did the Lord do? Here in verse 14, the passage says that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to the things Paul preached. And because of her attention to the message, she came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And as an expression of that sincere faith in the Lord, she went the next step, and was baptized, thereby making a public declaration of her realization of coming to faith. And not only Lydia, but also her whole household was baptized.

Then, after she was baptized, she offers her own house as a hotel, as a place for Paul and his companions to stay, a base of operations while they were in Philippi. She is hospitable, showing good character and a definite spiritual gift. She had been a God-fearer, a worshiper of God, and now she was a Christian, a believer in the good news.

That’s Lydia’s story. But, how about you? Lydia was a God-fearer. Lydia was a proselyte, probably coming faithfully to prayer and worship Sabbath after Sabbath. It could even have been for years, faithful in her attendance, faithful in her giving to others. But it took the Lord to open Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to the message of the good news. It took the Lord to lead Lydia to faith in the good news of Jesus Christ.

What about you? Have you come to that point in your life where you accept what Jesus Christ has done for you? Have you come to believe in that good news that Paul preached? Paul’s answer from Acts 16 still stands today. It is still valid. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

And if you are a believer in the Lord already, praise God! You can join Lydia and Dr. Luke and Paul and Silas and the rest of the saints, throughout the centuries.

And even if we do know the Lord, there may be some who have been far away from Him, and not as attentive to God’s will and God’s ways. I know I have sinned, often, and I think there may be others in the same circumstance. The Lord does not turn His back, and ignore us when we come to say we’re sorry, and we have sinned. No.

The Lord is ready to welcome us, to extend God’s mercy and grace to us. Each one of us.

Have you come to the Lord? Have you asked forgiveness for your sins, and thanked God for welcoming you to Him? See, today is the day of salvation. Let this day be the day when you open your heart to the Lord.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!