The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Sixth Sunday in Easter
It’s a rags to riches story.
Lydia grew up in Thyatira in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. Her early life is lost to us, but we do know where she got her name. “Lydia” is where she’s from. If you were named after the land you were from, you were probably a slave at some point. So Lydia probably grew up a slave, as a servant in someone’s household. At the bottom of life’s ladder.[i] As little as you can get in terms of rights, respect, and the ability to make choices about your own life. Lydia’s life began as low as you can go.[ii]
And we’re not sure how, but she somehow clawed her way up and out. Her home town Thyatira, was known for its purple, and its high-quality, top-dollar textile industry. They produced expensive, sought-after purple dye, and from that, they made expensive, sought-after clothes. Purple clothing for the wealthy of the Mediterranean, and especially the Roman Emperor. Purple was so popular with the upper classes that “Purple” was slang for “rich.” It’s why those who tortured Jesus tossed a purple robe on him to mock him as a false king. It was the colour of royalty.
Purple was Lydia’s ticket out of the lower class. Like so many upwardly mobile people, she made her fortune as a merchant. In the world of trade, people care less about your social class than they care about what you’re sell. Same deal with the fact that she was a woman. In Greco-Roman society, women were kept in rigid household roles. But here she was, a skilled saleswoman. Rubbing shoulders with her purple-hungry customers, the elite and wealthy. And at some point, she set herself up in the bustling port city of Philippi, in Europe, Macedonia across the Aegean sea. And she did pretty well it seems. Because by the time she pops up in Bible, she has her own house—unlike most other people. And she has her own servants and employees—unlike most other people, too. And as far as we know she wasn’t married. We don’t know if she had kids or not. But we do know that she had done pretty well for herself. She was successful, comfortable. Not bound by her low station of birth as a slave.
Lydia, you could say, was a self-made woman. She transcended her station, and made a career and money, and found comfort and social influence. She climbed that ladder. You could say she had arrived.
Lydia had gone from poverty to plenty and was living the dream. Which makes her conversion all the more surprising.
In this morning’s reading we find Lydia on the outskirts of town. At a prayer meeting, it says, by the river. It’s on the sabbath day, so it’s a Jewish prayer service. The Jewish population is teeny-tiny, so there’s no synagogue to go to in town. And not only that, but Philippi itself is a super-Greco-Roman city. It’s hostile to religions and cultures that don’t fit the Roman mould. If you want to see how hostile, just finish the rest of chapter 16. All-in-all Judaism really isn’t a cool thing in Philippi. So they have their tiny Sabbath services on the outskirts. Away from prying eyes, and suspicious townspeople.
And this is where Lydia apparently hangs out on Saturdays. Lydia, this well-connected, well-to-do merchant hangs out with other women in what amounts to a Jewish prayer service. I mean, what would her customers think if she found out she belonged to this strange middle-eastern cult? There’s no social advantage, in fact, there’s a social disadvantage to this faith she’s adopted. Sounds like going to church in 21st century British Columbia, but more so.
And things get even more surprising. Two dudes, Paul and Timothy, show up at one of their prayer services. Earlier, Paul had a vision where a Macedonian man begged him and Timothy to come over and help them. So Paul and Timothy immediately took a boat from Troas in Asia Minor to Philippi in Macedonia. Normally, they head for the first synagogue they can find, but since there isn’t one in Philippi, they end up at the prayer meeting.
Paul and Silas are Jews of course. So that part makes sense. But they’re a weird kind of Jew. They’re Jewish Christians. They believe that the God of Israel has raised this crucified peasant Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. And they believe that this changed everything. That through Jesus God is making all things new, bringing about a whole new world out of the ruins of the old one. (And you thought Judaism was weird!). For gentiles, for Romans, this is even weirder than Judaism, which is pretty weird. These guys, Paul and Timothy are Jews, one kind of weirdo. But they’re not even the mainstream kind of weirdos. They’re Christians—a weirder sect-within an already weird sect.
So these weirdos arrive at this prayer meeting. And crazy thing is, somebody lets them say a few words. They even let Paul preach. Lydia’s there, it says. And she’s listening intently, hanging off every word. And while Paul’s speaking, something funny happens. Things move really fast. The Lord, it says. God opens Lydia’s heart to hear what Paul has to say. And before you know it she’s getting dunked in the nearby river. She’s baptized alongside her whole household. Which might mean children, but it definitely means her servants, and employees. You thought your boss was demanding.
And further, as a demonstration of this new-found life, she opens her house to Paul and Silas, fresh off the boat and no doubt ripe from the journey. And I love how it says that she “prevails upon” them to stay. She did that whole “I insist” church grandma thing. One of those offers you can’t refuse.
That’s the surprising thing. This successful, self-sufficient, self-made, well-to-do, well-connected woman. One who maybe dabbled in a little Judaism before. Suddenly she’s literally plunging head-first into this strange foreign religion. And she’s letting two complete strangers, two male complete strangers, stay in her luxury townhouse. She’s all in. And incidentally, the first recorded Christian in Europe. All based on a few well placed words from a traveling preacher.
Why? A lot of the stories we hear in the Bible, and stories people tell in life, are stories about hitting rock bottom. About being poor, being sick, about losing everything. Stories of conversion are usually stories of turning to God in desperation. But Lydia’s at the top of the world. This woman had everything she wanted, she had what all of us want. So what more could she need?
I’ve been reading books by this author Chad Bird lately. He was a successful Old Testament scholar and seminary professor. On the top of conference speaker lists, jet-setting all over the world. A real superstar in his conservative Lutheran denomination. He’d clawed his way to the top. Kind of like Lydia.
That is, until everyone found out about his extramarital affair. And before he knew it, he lost his job, his reputation was destroyed. And his wife took the kids to live with her parents in Texas.
His latest book is called Upside-Down Spirituality: the Nine Essential Failures of a Faithful Life. In it he talks about his road to experiencing some kind of healing. He talks about how the success was never enough. When he got what he wanted, there was always more. Our culture’s motto is to strive, excel, climb the ladder, make the money. Build the career, take the chances, rise above. Get the house, lease the cars, find transcendent sexual fulfilment. And if you’ve got kids make sure they turn out perfect, as you painstakingly craft the perfect social-media profile. That’s what Chad believed. Until he was buried by his own ambition and pride. Some of us are burdened by our failures. But some of us are imprisoned by our drive to succeed.
And yet, he says, that what has saved him was coming to the realization that the Christian message actually flies in the face of our understanding of what it means to live a full, authentic life. Neither failure, nor success are the things that define us. Instead, the Good News, he says, the good news is that:
“We are free in Jesus to fail at being extraordinary. We are free in Jesus to fail at being ambitious, at making a name for ourselves, at ruling the world. We are free not to be supermen and superwomen, breaking barriers, earning trophies, and rising above our competitors. As the Father’s children, as those who are secure in his love and acceptance of us in Jesus, we have nothing to prove to anyone. We have the approval of God himself. And, as Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).
Instead, he says. “True greatness is found in being the Father’s son or daughter. True freedom is found in serving others, considering them more important than we are. And true success is found in the failure to find meaning and purpose in something we do, accomplish, build. Rather, our identity, our meaning and purpose, is not something we work for but receive from the hand of our Father.”[iii]
We don’t really know for sure—in the Bible we never hear what people are thinking. But I think that it the message that unburdened Chad Bird was the same one that made Lydia’s heart fertile ground for the gospel. [slide] She had everything she ever could have wanted. She made her way to the top. But still came up short. And yet, on account of these two weirdos from this extra-weird Jesus movement, she discovered that her life, her worth, wasn’t measured by her accomplishments or her striving. But a gift from the beating heart of the universe.
And because of that, she was free to be ordinary. Free from the need to strive and succeed. She was justified not by her works, no matter how impressive they were. But by grace, by the unmerited, one-way unconditional love of God. And in receiving this identity as a beloved child of a merciful parent actually transformed her into the kind of person who would open up her home to complete strangers. Free to be the kind of person who would share what she had for a couple people in need. Free to be the kind of person who would risk everything she’d built to do what’s right. All because of who God is, and what God had done for her, what God had given her in Jesus. To paraphrase Archbishop Desmond Tutu: she was good because she was loved. Not loved because she was good.
We don’t know for sure. But that’s what I think appealed to Lydia. And I think it’s what I think we, as modern, accomplishment driven people, imprisoned by the myth of the self-made life need to hear, too.
In God’s eyes, we are already worthy. By God we have already been declared good, made righteous, worthy of love simply by the fact that we are her children. We are enough as we are, we don’t have to earn our reason to breathe, we don’t have to justify our existence to anyone. As children of our loving Father, Mothering Spirit, and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we are rescued from drowning in in our failures, and liberated from striving ourselves to death. From this beginning place of grace, we, like Lydia, can simply be still and rest in the Love that’s already ours. We can stop aiming our eyes to the top of the ladder, and instead focus our resources, our energy, and God-given skills towards love for our neighbors.
So, friends, the Good News is this: you can stop exhausting yourself by scrambling to the top and build the perfect life. Because you are the recipient of a wondrous gift. One that, like Lydia, is given to you to share with all those who are hurting and exhausted by striving. Fullness of life isn’t to be found in how well we do by the world’s terms. It’s found in recognizing ourselves as already fully loved in a depth beyond our knowing. And free to love the world in that same way.
If you believe this good news, and receive it, people might think you’re a weirdo. As a member of some kind of strange, foreign sect offensive to our modern sensibilities. But I assure you, and Lydia assures you. Chad Bird assures you. It’ll make you the right kind of weirdo. And it’s all worth it in the end.
[i] Allan J. McNichol, “Lydia,” in The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, rev. ed., ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 632.
[ii] The following reconstruction of Lydia’s life is gleaned from several commentaries:
Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
William H. Willimon, Acts: a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
[iii] Chad Bird, Upside-Down Spirituality: The 9 Essential Failures of a Faithful Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019) Google eBook.