Sunday, 5 May 2013

Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth

Here is my sermon given at St Laurence Pittington this morning, on Acts 16:9-16:

The New Testament is full of walk on parts. Characters that we hear about briefly, maybe something amazing happens to them, or they have a conversation that we overhear, and then we never hear of them again. We have two of them this morning - the paralysed man by the pool of Bethzatha - and Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth and one of the earliest house church leaders.

I want to focus first of all on the story of Lydia. It is a brief story, but full of significance for us.

For someone with one of these walk-on parts in the New Testament, we actually know quite a lot about Lydia. For a start, we know her name: that might not seem much, but its quite a contrast with the story of the paralysed man in John, where we are told the name of the pool, but not his name!

We know what she did - she was a merchant, specifically a dealer in purple cloth. It wasn't particularly unusual for a woman to run a successful business in the ancient Roman world, and the writer of Acts doesn't make anything of her gender. Purple cloth was the elite fabric of the day, rather like being a dealer in silks or fine wine rather than just running a dress shop or off licence. The implication is that Lydia was a fairly wealthy woman.she was certainly well off enough to run her own household, and for it to be big enough to house Paul and his companions, and later be used as the local church meeting place. After Paul and his companions are imprisoned and then set free, at the end of this chapter we learn that they went to Lydia's house, and met with the still very new Christian community there.

We are also told that Lydia was a 'worshipper of God'. That is, although she was a Gentile not a Jew, she was one of the many gentiles who were attracted to the Jewish belief in one God, and worshipped with the synagogue without going so far as to formally convert to Judaism. Historians think that this was a very significant group of people at the time that Christianity began to spread. It may well be that the presence of so many people who believed and worshipped God, but without wanting to be part of the official religious institution that was Judaism, was a major factor in enabling Christianity to spread so far and so fast.

I wonder what this might mean for Christianity today? We certainly encounter a lot of people who say they believe in 'something out there', or God, or 'a higher power', but don't feel the need or desire to join the old established churches. Is this an opportunity, rather than a threat, just as it was for Paul and the other early Christian missionaries?

But back to Lydia.  On this particular day, a Saturday, the Sabbath, she had gone out to the riverbanks wand met there with some friends. We don't know what they were doing, but Paul finds them there because he supposes that there might be a place of prayer there. It seems that there weren't enough Jews or gentile adherents to Judaism in the town for it to run to a synagogue. Paul's strategy in Acts was normally to go to the synagogue to proclaim Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. In this case, in the absence of a synagogue building, he and his companions have put their heads together and thought - if there are some Jews, or some Gentile worshippers of God, in this city, where might they gather on the sabbath? And the first place they go to look is outside the city walls by the river, because such groups often apparently liked to meet near running water, and they strike gold. So the assumption is that Lydia and her group have indeed met for prayer and worship or some sort of spiritual discussion together in this spot. They presumably are delighted to welcome some Jewish visitors to their gathering, and Lydia at least listens with attention and enthusiasm to what they have to say.

And she takes it to heart. She and her household are baptised that same day, and she invites the missionaries to her house and wont take no for an answer. Within a few days or at most a few weeks, there is an established house church under her leadership, and Paul goes off to the next town leaving her to get on with it, as is his pattern.

There are two particular things that I think this story has to say to us today, two questions to ask ourselves. The first is about mission, the second about conversion.

The first thing that leaps from the page for me today is that Paul and the others went out to the river, where they thought there might be a place of prayer. When they got there, they sat down, and began to listen and talk with those they found there. Its the same pattern as Jesus follows throughout the gospels, and in our reading today: going to where people are interested in and hoping for healing, community, peace, though they certainly aren't expecting the version he gives them.

The question this leaves me with is, where are these places for us? Where in the places we live, or at work, do people go to talk, in the sort of conversations that might be open to faith being mentioned? Where and when do the people you know mention that they are worried about their mums cancer, or their daughters marriage, or discuss the reiki they saw on telly last night that Jordan had tried, and whether it works? All of those are the conversations of spiritual seekers but maybe without the vocabulary and concepts, certainly without the constraints of knowing what the right answers are meant to be according to the church.
Were do you hear those conversations, or where might you seek them out? Your kitchen table? The coffee room at work, or the water cooler? The gym? Smokers corner? The pub? On the golf course? At the knitting group?

(Just spend a minute or so discussing with your neighbour where those conversations happen for the people around you, either in this village, or at work, or among your family and friends.)

The challenge for us is threefold. to deliberately decide, like Paul, to go to those places;  to listen and genuinely join in with the conversations we hear there, and to speak explicitly of how what we have experienced of Christ is relevant to them.

(The congregation were then each given a piece of purple velvet, to keep in a pocket or handbag, the idea being that when they come across it there it will remind them of Lydia's story and remind them to ask if there is an opportunity to speak of their experiences of faith.)

Secondly, Lydia's story gives us another question, focused on ourselves rather than on others.

Lydia hears the message, is baptised, and immediately invites - well nigh forces - the evangelists to come and base themselves at her house. Within a very short time she is running a house church, the church in that place, and Paul and his companions leave to start again elsewhere, trusting the new Christians to get on with it.

There are echoes here again, like a shadow, with the healed man in our gospel reading. As so often in Jesus ministry, he is healed without any or hardly any show of interest or engagement on his part. He then goes off and we hardly hear of him again, except that later we are told he recognises Jesus teaching and tells the temple authorities that is the man who told him to break the Sabbath, and so contributes in a small way to Jesus' becoming a marked man.

As soon as Lydia is converted, she starts shaping and changing the future of the church, as happens again and again in Acts. As soon as someone encounters Jesus they start being part of its future story. Lydia's story shows very clearly that there is no time-served qualification for being a Christian who makes a difference, no sense that it should be left to the professionals or those who have been around longest.

Which leaves us with the question: how is the church different because you are a Christian? How does the fact that you come here week by week change this community, this church, or the world? Or if you don't think it does, how might it?

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