The Day Lydia Saved Paul
Free Community Church
1 May 2016
Good morning Church,
[Lectionary reading from Acts 16: 9-15]
The Sixth Sunday of Easter brings us to an interesting point in the history of the church. Jesus lived, died and rose again. He walked with, lived with, communed, and then left again. A few weeks ago, Gary mentioned how emotionally and spiritually turbulent a time it must have been for the disciples. Indeed it was, and on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, a lot more had happened since then. The church was formed, Saul became Paul, and the church was finally getting its act together. In the evolving story of Christianity, we stand at the point where preachers like Paul, were heading out into the region to preach the story of Jesus (and the impending end of the world) to the world.
We are told that Paul hears this desperate spiritual SOS call from a Macedonian Man in a dream-like vision, saying “”Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Help in what sense? Was anyone in grave danger? If so, from what? We aren’t actually told the contents of this spiritual SOS, but one can imagine that it probably had something to do with the idea of being saved from eternal damnation, or at least, being left out from the Kingdom of Jesus when the Savior King finally returns again. Which, according to most followers of Jesus in those days, was pretty soon. The sense of urgency to help others with the good news should not be underestimated.
Enter “a certain woman named Lydia”. We are told that she is “a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” Given Paul’s rather dramatic dream, I have to admit that this was kind of like a let down, story wise. This woman who was to be ‘saved’ didn’t seem like she was in any situation of desperation, quite unlike the Samaritan woman by the well Miak discussed over the last two weeks in his double-bill sermon. She wasn’t a sex worker, didn’t have 5 ex-husbands, she wasn’t about to die and she wasn’t a slave girl possessed by some fortune telling spirit. Acts 16 presents to us a rather unusual woman who was ‘saved’. She was a dealer in purple cloth, probably a businesswoman, a business owner, or a boss of some sort. She dealt with purple cloth, which is kind of kind of like a dealer in LV bags, maybe? Lydia seemed anything but desperate.
Of course, usually in the usual conversion story, the one who converts is deficient in some way. Now perhaps you might be thinking maybe she’s one of those types who are financially rich but spiritually poor. But again, Lydia defies the regular narrative of salvation. Lydia was a spiritually wealthy woman too.
In fact, we are specifically told that she’s a ‘worshipper of God’. We can tell that Lydia was a pious and religious woman, for not only was she a worshipper of God, she was in fact found by the river, a place of prayer, AND, in community with other women who like her were worshipping God. This implies that she was in a spiritual community of sorts. She’s like the complete opposite of the Samaritan woman! It wasn’t as if she was seeking out Paul. She was kind of like in church, praying by the river, in a community of women. She, was ready to receive the word.
I’m not sure why the bible doesn’t actually tell us what Paul actually told Lydia. Perhaps it was Jesus’ resurrection story, or some end-times fire and brimstone message. We don’t know. Or maybe Luke the author of Acts, was trying to get us to focus on something else. In fact much of this already very short story is devoted not to what Paul says but what she says and does in response to the good news.
And how does Lydia respond? In Acts 16, we are first told “she and her household were baptized”. Maybe she shared the word with her family, and everyone was instantly won over by the good news. However, I think given the social position of women in those days, unless she has some kind of authority, some kind of head or matriarch, I can’t see how she would have had her entire household baptized. This seems consistent with the fact that subsequently Acts 16 tells us she actually had the power to invite the homeless preacher to stay with her.
But before you imagine that she’s some kind of Elim Chew, remember that every story has a twist. In the very last line of the story, she makes an invitation to the homeless preacher to stay with her. She says “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”, which is how the New Revised Standard version of the Bible phrases it. Some versions like the NIV, say, “If you consider me a believer, come and stay at my house”. What’s really peculiar though is her hesitation.
It seems that in spite of her encounter with Paul at the river, Lydia wasn’t sure if she would be considered ‘one of them’, a.k.a, the Jewish followers of the Jesus sect. Indeed, “If you consider me a believer” seems to imply that she had at some level some hesitation about this new identity. Hesitation, not in how she sees herself but how Paul would have seen her. As I reflected on the passage, I thought that what Lydia said was pretty strange because isn’t the whole point of preaching to Lydia to convert her to some new identity, what some might call, the Jesus follower or what we have come to understand ‘a Christian’? It is strange because, why would the person who’s trying to convert you have reason to suspect that you’re not a believer?
Perhaps this stems in part from the fact that in the first place Lydia’s anything but naïve. After all, she was a shrewd dealer. And in fact, Lydia’ right. Because, just a chapter before, Paul, who’s ministry was to be an apostle and preacher to the Gentiles, told Timothy to get circumcised – right after the Council of Jerusalem had finally decided that circumcision wasn’t necessary to be considered a follower of Christ. This is also the same Paul who doesn’t think women should speak up in church, and that good wives should always submit to their husbands. Doesn’t help that as most bible commentators have pointed out, she was probably not a Jew, probably Greek or half Greek, who may have practiced Judaism or had theological sympathies with Judaism. This was Macedonia, kind of like a big cosmopolitan city like Singapore, where things don’t fit into neat categories. In short, Lydia was different.
Lydia had reason to believe that there was still a part of Paul who was a former Pharisee, who still saw himself, and in his own words, a “Jew of Jews”. Even as she invited Paul to stay at “my home”, she knew full well that people like Paul had no real business with people like her.
I think most of us, but especially LGBT people, have met Pauls in our life. People, or community, who were the source of our conversion, our faith, and our relationship with God. People whom we know come from God, are a part of God’s community, but whom we are never quite sure would fully accept us. I think this is true regardless of how smart, how capable or wealthy we are, or become. Certainly, Lydia’s was blessed with financial wealth and social authority but that did not stop her from doubting her fundamental worth as a child of God. She knew full well her status as the outsider in so many ways. I think many of us in FCC can also identify with Lydia.
Which is also why we can also learn from Lydia.
What did she mean when she said. “If you consider me a believer…?” Paul would surely have been shocked when he heard it because what was he expected to say? No you’re not a Christian – after preaching the word? Suppose she didn’t actually doubt her identity as a Jesus follower. What then was the purpose of what she said? As I reflected upon it, I realized how radically vulnerable, but powerful her invitation was. Lydia’s invitation was quite something because it forced Paul to confront any bigotry he might have had against her. Paul could have said no, no you’re not a believer, and Lydia was definitely taking the risk. This is why I admire Lydia so much because she saw her worth in God’s eyes so clearly, and she was ready to be rejected by Paul.
Even if Paul didn’t think of saying a flat NO, it would have forced him at some level of consciousness to say, yes, she is as much a believer as I am. If I may use the word ‘saved’, I would think that Lydia wasn’t the only one who was ‘saved’. I think on that day by the river, Paul was as much ‘saved’ as was Lydia. Maybe the Macedonian Man who was calling out to Paul to save the people at Macedonia, Maybe that was Paul calling out to himself all along. Maybe this was Paul’s second conversion experience.
Miak once shared with me that I always talk about what salvation is or is not, but never about what the life that is saved is. I’ve never said anything because seriously, the morning after is always the hardest mah! Conversion is easy, and salvation is shiok, but ‘waking up’ and going to work the next day is hard part. We all love songs like “Free in your presence” because they speak of our own conversion experience, that cathartic arc of self-denial to acceptance, but less popular are the songs about what to do after, or how a life that is free looks like or is to be lived. As the Free Community Church, we have a calling and a responsibility to figure it out.
But I think from Lydia’s story, we already have some answers we can learn from. I think you know you are living the life of one who is saved when your heart and home is open to the needs of others. I think you know you are saved when you are rooted in your identity as God’s beloved child, and that becomes a springboard for acts of love. Most importantly, you know you are saved when you save others, however you come to understand what it means to ‘save’. FCC, we need to be a saving community.
Let us pray.