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Here in the 16th chapter of Acts is the only place in scripture where we are introduced to this disciple named Lydia who could legitimately be called the "mother" of the church in Europe - she was the first recorded convert on that continent. We meet Lady Lydia in this encounter by the river as Paul and Silas join her and her friends for worship. Then we meet her again at the end of the chapter following the missionaries' release from prison; they head to her house following their incarceration in the Philippian jail, the incredible midnight earthquake, and the miraculous conversion of the jailer and his family.
Lydia herself is a person of some historical mystery. In the interest of full disclosure, we are not absolutely positive that "Lydia" is even her name. Acts identifies her as being "a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira." OK. Thyatira was, in fact, a noted center for the manufacture of purple-dyed products. But the city of Thyatira was located in a region known as Lydia. Could this woman who hails from there have the name of the region as a nickname? Possibly. But for simplicity's sake, let us go with "Lydia" as her name and leave it there.
Now, this reference to PURPLE. For my generation purple gets its importance from the first line from that wonderful poem by Jenny Joseph - "Warning...When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, with a red hat, which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me." In Lydia's world, the color purple was significant because purple clothing was the mark of wealth and royalty -- to be dressed in purple was to boast of influence and power. The more purple the better. In fact, in the Roman empire, the only one permitted to wear an outfit that was exclusively purple was the Emperor Caesar himself. Lydia had a close connection to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Lydia had a home in Philippi but apparently she also had one in Thyatira, the seat of her business. The two cities are about 250 miles apart. So, what you have is a picture of a woman who is running a high-end purple fabric enterprise, headquartered in Thyatira, but with an outlet at least in Philippi and who knows how many other locations. It is certainly likely that she had other operations throughout the vicinity as she traveled up the coast and around from Thyatira to Philippi.
This second home in Philippi must have been quite large - large enough for herself, for her whole household which would include servants, children and parents, plus the space to house several itinerant missionaries as well. Obviously, Lydia is a well-to-do woman. To own one large house would indicate some level of wealth, but two (or more) is significant. There is no mention of a husband, so we are left to think that she has come to this position on her own. In a world in which women did not share anything remotely like an equal playing field with men, she must have been something special.
What makes her MOST special, as far as we are concerned, is her religious sensibility. Scripture says she was a "worshiper of God." Scholars are not certain if this expression is being used in the technical sense of a Gentile who worships the God of the Jews but has not formally converted to Judaism. Perhaps she had not converted because there was no Jewish community in Philippi anyway - the reason they were worshiping down by the riverside quite possibly was that there were not enough Jewish men in the city to form a minyan, the quorum of ten that were required for official synagogue worship. One way or the other, this was obviously a woman of faith who was anxious to learn. And because of that, "The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message." She and her whole household were baptized and she followed that up with an invitation: "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And, as the text has it, "she persuaded us."
As time would go on, Lydia's home became the center of Christian mission activity in Philippi which explains why Paul and Silas would head there following their jail experience. In fact, the church in Philippi becomes one of the strongest in the New Testament. No doubt, Lady Lydia had a great deal to do with that.
This Philippian church held a special place in Paul's heart. Sometime later, during his imprisonment in Rome, the Apostle would write to his friends. He said, "as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only." (2)
One more note: in the second chapter of Revelation, you find a letter to the church in Thyatira. Paul never went to Thyatira, yet there is a church there. How could that be? Well, one possibility is that as Lydia traveled back and forth from her business headquarters in that city, she shared her faith and a new church was born.
This brief story of Lydia is remarkable for two things, the first, less obvious, perhaps, than the second. First, this is the story of the conversion and faithful discipleship of a WEALTHY woman. In our time we have heard over and over and over again of God's "preferential option" for the poor. Indeed, scripture does talk more about the poor and our responsibility toward the poor than almost anything else. You could take some scissors and attempt to cut out all the references to the poor from scripture and you would be left with a mish-mash of spaghetti. But the story of Lady Lydia lets us know that the gospel is not meant ONLY for the poor.
Just as the gospel is meant for both Jew and Gentile, so it is meant for both poor and rich. In the Old Testament, Amos was a wealthy landowner, Isaiah was welcomed in the court of kings. In the New Testament, that rich rascal tax collector Zacchaeus becomes the focus of Christ's attention, (3) and Luke tells us that wealthy women supported the mission of Jesus and his disciples out of their own pockets. (4) Lydia is just one more example.
No question, wealth can be a huge stumbling block on the road to faith - Jesus said it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. (5) Impossible? Not with God. But be aware, it CAN be done, but it is very tough on the camel. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (6) Lydia reminds us that the good news of Jesus Christ is given to rich and poor alike. We have only to receive it.
The second issue of note in this brief account is, as we mentioned earlier, there is no mention of any husband in Lydia's life. She is the head of her household, a woman. Lydia is but one more example of the importance of women in the sharing of the gospel.
Strangely, in an era when women were not second-class citizens but maybe twenty-second-class, the early church seems to have risen above its own cultural milieu and accorded them a respect that later generations lost. Paul, for example, instructed women in the Corinthian church to dress properly when they led public prayers or preached, (7) but then subsequent periods of Christians refused to allow women to preach at all - indeed, in some churches, women are still kept back. To the church in Galatia, Paul declared that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. (8) No gender distinction. Lydia says AMEN!
Years ago, Hal Luccock, one of a previous generations' great teachers of preachers, wrote about this scene:
It must seem at times that Paul made a poor return for the help given him by the Philippi Ladies Aid Society. He seems so slow to recognize the contribution, real and potential of women to the cause of Christ. Whatever may have been the causes for his attitude to women, unquestionably his mind had a blind spot there. The church inherited that blind spot. It has accepted the great and unceasing material contributions of women, but it has been stupid in failing to avail itself of their measureless resources for spiritual work. It has exploited women for money-making. Again and again, thousands of times over, women have come to the church with Paul's question on their lips, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" The church has answered, "Bake a chocolate cake or make a quilt." (9)Truth be told, whether women held official leadership roles in the church through the ages, they led anyway. In our nation, women have dominated American churches from the beginning; church records from the early colonial period document largely female congregations. The weeping and wailing about the lack of men in the pews that we have heard in recent years is really nothing new. In the 1830's, the Rev. Sebastian Streeter observed, "Christian churches are composed of a great disproportion of females." And historian Ann Douglas notes in "The Feminization of American Culture," the "19th-century minister moved in a world of women." By the 1920's, the 60-40 gender split that is more or less the norm today was firmly entrenched. (10) Is that a problem? Perhaps. But the point is the church would have closed down long ago were it not for the faithfulness of women. Thank you, Lady Lydia.
In 1892 William Jennings Bryan was a freshman congressman. Bryan was famous for his silver-tongued oratory but one day he was stumped when a woman debated him. It was the first time anybody saw William Jennings Bryan speechless. He had been speaking that day on the Pilgrim fathers.
A lady named Mrs. Henrietta Szold pointed a finger at the young Congressman and said, "Mr. Bryan, have you nothing to say about the Pilgrim mothers?"
Bryan asked, "Why? What about them?"
She stood tall and replied, 'The Pilgrim mothers ought to be saluted. They not only had to endure the same things the Pilgrim fathers did; they had to endure the Pilgrim fathers as well."
Happy Mothers Day, ladies. And thank you for all that you do.
1. HOMILETICS, May-June, 2007, p. 19
2. Philippians 4:15
3. Luke 19:1-10
4. Luke 8:3
5. Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25
6. Luke 12:48
7. 1 Corinthians 11:5
8. Galatians 3:28
9. Halford E. Luccock, The Acts of the Apostles in Present-Day Preaching, (New York : Harper & Brothers, 1938), pp. 110-12
10. Christine Rosen, "Church Ladies: Women dominate America's pews. Is that a problem?" Wall Street Journal, 10/21/05