9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:9-15 ESV)
The Good News of Jesus Christ is spreading and continues to spread today. We, today, nearly 2,000 years since the resurrection of Jesus know this to be true because we are Christian or we know people who say that they are and the statistics point to an estimated 2.5 billion followers of Jesus today. For all the people who stop following Jesus there are still many who follow him. And if we want to be nuanced then those leaving the Church may not be leaving Jesus so it is rather complicated. Nevertheless the claim of the last few decades that religion is dying out and irrelevant is increasingly regarded as simply false.
In our liturgical calendar – the 6th Sunday of Easter – takes us to those first few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection when the group is keeping a low profile, going fishing, meeting and learning from Jesus. We are in a waiting time before Jesus’ ascension and then Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment that changed the world as those disciples went out. This is what Jesus promised on the last night before his arrest and execution.
And in our Bible readings at this time – particularly our first reading – from Luke’s second letter to Theophilus – we hear how the early church grew and developed as we follow Peter and then Paul and what they did in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.
So we hold in tension three time frames – calendar time – today in England where we are now; liturgical time – repeated each year as we focus 6 months on Jesus and 6 months on discipleship – and we are coming to the close of the Jesus’ emphasis because his ascension is near – and then there is Bible or historical time and today we are in the 50sAD in northern Greece and following Paul – plus Silas, Timothy, and Luke – and we meet another woman – ‘Lydia’ or ‘the Lydian woman’ (because she comes from Thyatira in Turkey which was part of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia) – but I’m used to thinking of Lydia as her name so let’s stick with that today.
And why is Lydia mentioned? Well because the Good News of Jesus is spreading and she would be the first European convert – and there has to be one – so, since all we have is Luke’s Acts of the Apostles – it is her.
We know little about her. As a business woman dealing with the purple dye and goods from Thyatira and seemingly in charge of her household, she is assumed to be either single or widowed (and generally regarded as widowed). She is assumed to be a migrant now living in Philippi and regarded as a God-fearer, ie. a Gentile who seeks to follow Judaism and has found herself in a place with less than 10 Jewish men and so there cannot be a synagogue but those who wish to meet and worship on the Sabbath – presumably more women than men do so outside the city gates and say the Sabbath prayers. And Paul and companions join them because his strategy in every new place is to start at the synagogue – his message is first to the Jews – and then to everyone. And they do what followers of
Jesus have been doing ever since – telling Jesus’ story and at some point the history becomes news when he says ‘Christ is risen!’. [He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!]
The past is drawn into the present by the telling and in Jesus it doesn’t remain the past because the good news is now spoken today. The story of Jesus is not a story about bread but becomes bread for the hungry; it becomes grace for those who are lost in meaninglessness or shame or guilt; it becomes hope for the day – and courage for the future. The story of Jesus no longer is a story about Jesus but becomes a story about me.
People don’t decide to follow Jesus as such. That’s still me now and Jesus in the past and I’m clever enough to realise that he is right. What actually happens is that we discover that Jesus has already loved us and that sacrifice, that grace, that mercy, and his presence draws us to him and we receive this news as truth – it is true for me, we say – and yes, if we are adults there is a rational component here – but our response doesn’t make our relationship with God because this is what we discover that we didn’t choose Jesus but rather Jesus has chosen us and appointed us to go and bear much fruit – which is agricultural language for ‘live and live well’.
This work of God – particularly the Holy Spirit – is hidden work but we get glimpses or hints that God is working in Jesus – in those early historical years – in our liturgical time – and also today – when we hear that Paul only left Turkey and crossed the Aegean Sea because of Paul’s vision and the belief that God was calling them to Macedonia. Luke is clear about what is happening to Lydia “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (v.14). It is Jesus that commands baptism and we learn in the earlier chapters of Acts how God teaches the Church when it is to be performed for both the Jews and the Gentiles and by this stage Paul knows what is to happen and Lydia – and her household – again no details but in one sense you don’t need details about how gifts are given – you just need to know or hear that the gifts are given.
And then the actions follow – faithfulness to Jesus and service – and in this case Lydia persuades – prevails – constrains – this is more than a take-it-or-leave-it invitation – to be their host and the nucleus of the congregation that will form. Who gave Lydia the words for the invitation and winning? Who gave Paul and companions the insight to accept? Luke doesn’t say but we know the answer.
History is now news. The past has crashed into the present. Strangers before are now related in Christ – they are now united in Christ – new living, new relationships have begun and life isn’t the same again. In fact if you read the rest of Acts 16 – please do! – you will see that Paul and Silas have a rough time in Philippi – this new life in Christ is not without its troubles in this old dying world that snarls, mocks, fights, attacks, and kills the new life in Christ – but on this occasion Paul and Silas have a vindication that is seen – all followers of Jesus will be vindicated but they may not live in this world to see it – and when the Philippian city officials had apologised – grovelled might be a more apt description on this occasion – Paul and Silas return to Lydia’s house and relate to those there – they are called ‘brothers’ – a family term – what happened and then they depart. God is doing a new thing in Philippi – a new community has formed – a new people of God – the living God, the one and only God, the one revealed by and through and in Jesus. The Good News of Jesus is spreading.
Who are your favourite authors? Can you list some? I dare say you can. You might like murder mysteries, fantasy, horror, romance but I think we have our favourites so even if you like a genre we still pick and choose whom we read. What is going on here? We think we’ve chosen the authors that resonate with us when in reality – ask publishers – it is authors who find their readers – in fact more than that because of the power of words, authors create their own readers.
Why is the history of Jesus not lost in the annals of history? Because his story is both history and news and people encounter him today.
Now it might be pointed that many world religions are more than a hundred or so years old. Some are thousands of years old and they have their sacred texts and people believe and follow them. Any
sociology of religion will show you that religions on this planet are most similar in their ethics, in their behaviour – being good rather than not in essence – and what is good is what we can understand – what makes sense to us – and those sacred texts are read to discover ways to behave. They may present their deities and their mediators, prophets, gurus but these intermediaries are pointers, teachers, guides to the mystery beyond.
Christians can hear this as well when Jesus is presented as teacher only or guide – making the mysterious Trinity simple for us – but at some point Jesus breaks out of even this straight jacket and the only truth that makes sense is that he is the Word made flesh, loving the world to the point of his sacrificial death, Immanuel – God with us – and alive again to recreate us into God’s people – and yes, I said ‘us’. Jesus still draws all people to himself – the disciples, the rebellious Saul, Cornelius and his family (we heard about last week), Lydia and the emerging church at Philippi right through to us today. We are drawn to Jesus and not to an ethic. That is important when Jesus’ ethic includes taking up a cross and loving one’s enemies – which don’t make sense in this world. But they make sense to those who are in Christ, those who know Jesus.
The Good News of Jesus is spreading. Still.
Now this is the part of the sermon when people expect to hear ‘go out and be missionaries’ or some such message. But that is not what happened in Philippi. Lydia served the messengers and no doubt she still remained a trader in purple. She lived her new life in her old one – in the same relationships she had before – and yes, when the time was right – just as Paul needed a vision to go to Macedonia – she, undoubtedly, would tell of Jesus but first she would follow Jesus, live with him, trust him – and serve those around her. That is the response to history that has become news – living with this Jesus, trusting him, and serving those around us – and that even may mean telling them about why you are the way you are.
Yes, the Good News of Jesus is spreading still. Thank you, Jesus
- Acts 16:9 - 15