The readings for the eight Sundays of the Easter season each include a passage from the Acts of the Apostles – as our thoughts are focused on the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the young Christian church, in the early days following the resurrection of Our Lord. The Easter season encompasses Ascension Day, which is next Thursday, and it concludes with Pentecost, in two weeks’ time; before we move on to the Trinity season, and think of those long, warm summer days – hopefully.
I am occasionally asked what is my favourite book of the Bible. It’s a difficult question, but I suppose as a historian I have always been drawn especially to the Book of Acts with its vivid outworking of the Christian faith in the lived experience of the early Christian church, rooted in place and time.
I’m going to focus on our passage from Acts this morning. But let’s first remind ourselves of the context for this particular narrative, and see how it fits in with the main story-line of Acts. Acts, which was written by Luke, is sometimes called part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. It takes up the Gospel narrative straight after the resurrection, and begins with the disciples of Jesus witnessing Jesus’ Ascension. It describes how, under the leadership of Peter, the disciples become a community filled with the Holy Spirit, witnessing to the Christian faith, and suffering persecution. The Book of Acts moves on to describe how this movement spread outside Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching multi-cultural Antioch. It features the story of the conversion of Saul, and of the role of Saul (now re-named Paul) in the spread of the gospel.
The whole of the Book of Acts is carefully constructed, and Luke skilfully reinforces his central theme of the expansion of the church into the whole world, across every barrier – whilst at the same time dealing with the numerous practical difficulties faced by the young church as it grew and developed.
Though there is a clear historical framework to the Book of Acts, historical details for Luke, whilst important, are secondary to the theological message of what constitutes the mission of the church. But the work of Christian mission is not simply one of founding new churches. Young congregations must be nurtured in the faith. So Paul, and his travelling companions Silas and Timothy, set out to nurture the congregations which have been founded. After a while, Paul receives a commission to travel westwards, to plant the Christian faith in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea and Corinth, before he moves on to Ephesus, in the eastern Aegean.
At this point in the narrative, there is a startling shift in Luke’s style of narrative, as he starts to use the first person plural. Now, there are various theories about this, the most popular of which are that Luke himself accompanied Paul on parts of his journeys; or that Luke incorporated narrative material from Silas or Timothy. Whatever the explanation, the use of the “we” form gives these sections of Acts a sense of drama and immediacy; and it makes the narrative particularly compelling.
Our reading this morning tells of the call to Paul, in a vision, to take the good news of the Gospel to Macedonia – which had once been the dominant power in the Greek world and Western Asia under Alexander the Great, but which was now a Roman province. And so Paul travels via the port of Neapolis, to Philippi, some ten miles inland.
So let’s now picture the scene at Philippi, on the sabbath day, with Paul and his companions down by the river The little community at Philippi didn’t appear to have a synagogue, for which a minimum of ten men were required, but it did have a place of prayer outside the gate, by the river Gangites, and so a group of women were gathered there for their sabbath devotions. There Paul finds amongst his listeners, Lydia, a worshipper of God, who responds to Paul’s message and is soon baptised – along with her household – and she invites Paul and his companions into her home. So Paul’s words were addressed to a group of women, and Lydia became one of the first women to embrace the Christian faith.
So Lydia immediately responds to the gift of faith by offering Paul and his travelling companions hospitality in her home. The very fact that Paul consented to stay in her house, as recipient of her hospitality, shows the extent to which the barriers that divided male and female, or Jew from gentile, did not hold sway in the church. Admittedly Paul’s teaching elsewhere (in the Epistles) on the role of women may strike a jarring note, but it perhaps reflects the way that the early church struggled to square the cultural assumptions about women with the experience of the significant role of women in early Christian communities.
The story of Lydia is interesting in a number of different respects. First, the narrator makes clear that her conversion is due to the work of God, and not to Paul’s undoubted missionary skill. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14).
Second, Lydia is a woman. Perhaps we need not be startled that Paul and his companions are talking to women in public. Luke has already described in his Gospel how the women were present at the crucifixion, and at the tomb; and they were the first to witness the risen Christ – Luke names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women who were with them (Luke 24.9). So Luke has already presented women, who were low on the social scale, as the first evangelists who ran to tell the male disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Third, Lydia was a rich woman. She was from the city of Thyatira and was a dealer in purple cloth. There is contemporary evidence that Philippi was a centre of trade in cloth which was dyed from the juice of the madder root; and so Lydia was a merchant. Indeed, women in Macedonia were noted for their independent character. Luke is often at pains to demonstrate how wealth should be used beneficially as for the good of others.
Fourth, this was the first example of preaching and conversion in what is now Europe. This point should not be over-stated, because the distinction between Europe and Asia would not have been seen in the same way under the Roman Empire as it is today. But it marks a significant westwards thrust in the spread of the gospel. And so Lydia is sometimes celebrated as the first known European Christian.
Philippi was soon to become the home of one of the fledgling Christian communities. And in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, (4.15-16) he recalls
his debt to the young church in Philippi.
In our reading from John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his disciples what will inspire the outreach of the Gospel. He will reveal himself to those who love him, he will make his home with them, and he will give them his peace – a Christ-given serenity which overcomes fear. And the Holy Spirit will equip and teach those who love and follow him. The church is thus called to be a community which witnesses to Christ’s peace, bringing people into a right relationship with God, and preaching the good news of salvation, healing and reconciliation. It is in the fledgling Christian communities such as Philippi that we find these words of Jesus finding practical expression.
In particular, the example of Lydia’s faith and hospitality gives us a model of self-giving and loving discipleship, which became a hallmark of the Christian community in Philippi. May her faithful and loving example continue to speak to us today, and may we speak to others of Christ’s love and his peace.