Sunday, May 9
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Festival of the Christian Home
Gracious God, through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath. Grant that we may be sent like Paul and be found like Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us. Amen.
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying,
"If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.
All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 16:9-15 with Psalm 67 and
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9
Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey
1. How does it strike our ears differently when a woman (instead of a man) in the Bible makes a decision for her entire household?
2. How do you discern God's will for your life?
3. When have you ever encountered obstacles on the path you thought was right, until you found the path God actually wanted you to take?
4. Who are women who have been "mothers" in the church, bringing new life and energy to its mission and ministry?
5. How do you imagine the life of Lydia before and after that day by the river, when she met Paul?
Text for Meditation
They were convinced / that God had called them to proclaim the good news.
For ideas on how to meditate with the Bible, read our article on Praying With the Bible
There are some times when it's easier than others to figure out what God wants us to do and where God wants us to go. After Paul and his new traveling companion Silas had completed a tour of the churches he had founded on his first trip, they decided to strike out into new territory. However, the verses immediately preceding this week's passage tell us that the "Spirit of Jesus" prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia to preach the gospel (even though they seemed inclined to do so), so they headed to Macedonia, that is, to Europe. How did they decide on Macedonia? Paul had a vision of "a man of Macedonia" asking him to come, delivering a clear message from God, or at least that's the way Paul understands it. Paul Walaskey explains that "Asia" doesn't refer here to what we understand as Asia, but to "a province in the westernmost part of Asia Minor." By going to "Europe" (the easternmost part of Greece), Paul and Silas "set sail," Walaskey writes, "for a challenging mission in the cradle of western culture - the home of Homer and Hesiod, of Socrates and Plato, of Aristotle and Alexander the Great." The path of the great evangelist, then, is the opposite of that of Alexander, who left Macedonia to bring the Greek language and culture to much of the known world three centuries earlier: "Paul is Alexander in reverse!" writes Charles Cousar: "The 'commodity' that this foreigner brings is not warfare, but the good news about Jesus Christ." But the journey is not simply to "Europe": as Walaskay describes it, Paul's missionary activity "leads from Judaism's religious center into Greece's intellectual center, and eventually to Rome's political center."
Paul and Silas' decision to go to Europe rather than Asia may be unexpected, but then we also meet the most unlikely candidate for First Christian Convert in Europe: a Gentile, and a woman at that. Some scholars think that Lydia had children and even a husband, along with her servants, all of whom she brought to baptism (whether they wanted it or not). Others say she was single, or that she may have been a former slave, but most agree she was now wealthy, and used to dealing (literally) with wealthy people, the only ones able to wear the purple cloth she sold. How ironic is it that European Christianity has long prevented women from being leaders in the church, when the first European Christian was a woman?
The ministry of Paul is actually "framed" by this woman, Lydia. The first part of the frame is set when Paul and Silas go looking for devout Jews to whom they might preach the good news of Jesus Christ, and they wait until the Sabbath when they're sure to find an audience among those gathered in prayer. Is there a synagogue? If so, it's a humble one, probably just a gathering of folks down by the river, who pray and listen for a Word from God. These devout, open-hearted people (thanks to God at work in their midst) are women, which somehow doesn't surprise us in a book written by Luke. However, and again, ironically, people outside the gate, on the fringe of social acceptance, who are not traditionally given a voice in the life of organized religion, are often most open and, perhaps, most in need of good news. The audience may be unexpected, and so is Paul's surprising willingness to talk theology with women, something his training as a Pharisee would have forbidden him to do. If Jesus came, as he said in Luke 4, to proclaim good news and the year of the Lord's favor, and we too carry this good news, like Paul, to all the ends of the earth, wouldn't those on the fringes, those outside the gate, be hungry to hear what we have to say? And could it also be that God has surprises in store for us about who's included in the circle of God's grace, and who's part of the great conversation of faith?
Prepared for a God of justice and compassion
It's also significant that Lydia has had "the soil of her heart…prepared" by her participation in the faith of Israel: "It is not accidental," according to Charles Cousar, "that both here and elsewhere those who prove to be Paul's most receptive listeners are Jews, in that they are most aware of God's nature as a Being of compassion and justice, and they are most aware of God's gracious expectations for humankind." Lydia, "a worshiper of God" (a Gentile who was studying Judaism), was drawn to this God, and open to hearing how God was working in the world because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Gail R. O'Day links Lydia, the first official European convert, to Cornelius, the very first official Gentile convert (Acts 10).
Lydia the Unlikely is a "frame" for this story because it is her house, by then a house church, as they did things in those days, that provides a haven for Paul (in v. 40) after his imprisonment. Oddly, while Lydia's whole household was baptized with her, she's not described as the leader of the house church; while she was obviously a "somebody" in her business dealings and her household, she still slips from view (as so many women do) as a leader in the early church. The church at Philippi, we recall, was the recipient of Paul's beautiful letter of joy: "make my joy complete" (2:2) and "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice" (4:4). Whether we gather in houses, or in church buildings, or in "places of prayer" out on the edge of things, or down by the river, have we opened our hearts to the least likely in our midst who are called to share the good news, and to be leaders at doing so?
Paul, but Lydia as well
It's easy, and therefore customary, to focus on Paul in this text: his discernment of God's calling, his openness (and transformation) in preaching to women and even visiting the home of one of them, his establishment of a church in Philippi and his later experiences of imprisonment there, as well as hospitality received from Lydia afterward. But we might also spend some time considering Lydia herself, as a figure in the early church, however elusive and partial her story, and also as a kind of "figure" of women in the history of the church. This is especially significant on Mother's Day weekend, which seems almost like a holy day in the life of many Protestant churches. Of course, we celebrate the motherhood of the women in our lives who have given not only birth but, in a larger sense, life to each of us. But we can also draw from this story, and the story of so many women in the church throughout the ages, inspiration for all who open their hearts and minds and homes and, we might add, pocketbooks, for the sake of spreading the good news. Years ago, I took a course in Patristics, studying the "Fathers of the Church." Alas, there was no course in "Matristics," but there have been plenty of "Mothers of the Church" throughout the centuries, and not just mothers of ministers and priests (although that's an honorable thing, too).
True, Lydia embodies the inquiring hunger of someone who senses there is more to life than what they presently, personally experience. More than money, more than success, more even than the measure of influence she enjoyed--after all, this is a woman who dealt with the most powerful and wealthy in her society, a woman who could decide that her whole household would be baptized--how unusual is that? This is a woman who was willing to go beyond the boundaries set for her in a time when women were seen as property rather than as people who owned property. Ronald Cole-Turner describes Lydia as a woman who "rises from the text and stands before us even today as a kind of narrative icon, contemplative Mary and active Martha in one, her heart set on God even while her work gets done." When Lydia joins the other women down there by the river, this wealthy, powerful woman leaves the circles of influence and goes out to the margins of her society, joining those who undoubtedly had far less power, influence, and wealth than she did. When Lydia encounters the gospel in the preaching of Paul and Silas, Cole-Turner writes, "Longing and grace meet there on the bank of the river." Lydia responds to the gospel with action, with commitment, not only in being baptized but in insisting on exercising the foundational Christian virtue of hospitality, the expression of God's own grace and welcome, to the preachers themselves. Ironic: in her own way, she was preaching to the preachers, through her actions.
Women in the church in every age
The story of Lydia is a story about the early church, about mission, discernment, and hospitality, community, and, of course, the experience of women in the church, often at its edges but never without impact. Gail R. O'Day writes that "Lydia embodies Luke's ideal of women's contribution to the church: to provide housing and economic resources." In that sense, Lydia evokes another memory, of women two hundred years ago, our foremothers in faith, who didn't let their marginalization stop them from being powerhouses for good in the life of the world. Before the first missionary left the United States for overseas, women were key to their work because of their fundraising efforts--a penny at a time, but amazing in their results, which made the travel of the missionaries possible (even though the women were not themselves permitted to be missionaries). On this Mother's Day weekend, we might think, then, of Lydia as an early mother of the church, and remember the wondrous ways God is at work in the world: a story that is, in its own way, a brief but inspiring course in "Matristics."
The journey of Paul and Silas to new and unexpected places, in ministry with new and most unexpected people (women! Gentiles!), is the story not only of the early church but of the church throughout the ages. As we embark on God's mission in our day and in our own setting as well as around the world, we are more, together, than simply the sum of our parts: we are the Body of Christ active in the world that God loves. The power of this relationship exists not just in the story of Silas (or Barnabas) added to Paul's ministry long ago, but in the stories of all of us in the church, in our rich diversity, our unique gifts, and our visions, too, opening our hearts to God's leading: where we should go, even if it's to the most unexpected places; how we should get there, even if the means come from the most unexpected sources; and whom we should serve, even if we find ourselves most unexpectedly blessed by them in return.
A preaching version of this commentary (with source titles) can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
For further reflection
Emily Dickinson, 19th century
We never know how high we are/Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan, Our statures touch the skies.
Meryl Streep, 21st century
Motherhood has a very humanizing effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials.
Maya Angelou, 21st century
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
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