“Blessed to be a Blessing”
Have you ever heard a sermon about Lydia before? I haven’t ever preached one, nor have I heard someone else preach one either. Perhaps that’s just because the Book of Acts doesn’t go into much detail about the business-woman from Thyatira who sold purple cloth.
Other than the fact that she was among the women that Paul met down by the river outside of Philippi, we don’t know much about her. But those few details, combined with the important points that she became a Christian, that her whole household was baptized, and that she provided support and hospitality to the apostles in Philippi is actually quite a lot!
Of course, we might get distracted by the somewhat miraculous way that Paul and the others decided to go to the city of Philippi. During the night, Paul had a vision. I expect it was a dream. There stood a man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” He was already wondering where to go next, looking for somewhere where the people would be receptive to the good news, and the strange dream gave him confidence to sail for Philippi – a leading city in the district of Macedonia.
It sounds like it took a while before they had any success bringing the gospel to Philippi, as we are told that they remained there for some days. Those of us reading the story today may remember that one of Paul’s great epistles is a letter written to the Church at Philippi (known as Philippians) so we know that their patience and perseverance will eventually be rewarded.
But the apostles may have been surprised by how it actually took place. After all, there was no “man from Macedonia” there to welcome them with gratitude for their message and their coming over to help him and his community. Instead, there was a group of women who didn’t really seem to need much help.
On the sabbath day, Paul and his friends decide to go outside the gate of the city where they expected there to be a place of prayer. They don’t go looking for poor and hungry people to assist them. They don’t approach powerful leaders either to challenge or to correct them.
Instead, they go to a place where women gather informally to worship God and pray together. They find their way to a community of people of faith who are doing their best to live well day-by-day, and they begin to talk with them in their place of prayer by the river.
It strikes me that compared to many of the people that we meet in the stories of the Bible, Lydia and the women by the river may be among the most like us. Lydia may also be the most like many of our friends and neighbours in Western societies today.
Business-people, professionals, folks with skills and competencies, assets and resources, people who are connected to families, friends, and communities with whom they go through daily life and pause to reflect, share, and support one another along the way.
We don’t get to hear exactly what Paul said to Lydia by the river that day, although we can assume that it was something about Jesus. Paul approached a woman who already seemed to love God and her neighbours and sought to live righteously in her community, and I expect that he told her about the One sent from God to fully show us God’s Way of love in the world. He must have told her how Jesus’ Way brought joy and peace into the lives of his followers day-by-day, combined with the assurance of life everlasting because of God’s love and power over death itself.
The text tells us that “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
It wasn’t that Lydia was in desperate need. She wasn’t starving. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t a terrible sinner who longed for forgiveness. But I think there was something in Paul’s message that blessed her, that allowed her to go deeper in relationship with God, that added hope and purpose to her life, that convinced her to invest her time, energy, and resources into the mission of the apostles in her community.
And that’s exactly what she did. Lydia and her whole household were baptized, perhaps right there in the river. And immediately, Lydia began to use her resources – her home, her money, and her time and effort to provide hospitality and care for the church’s mission.
If you keep reading along in the Book of Acts, you’ll see that the apostles soon get arrested for performing a healing that causes trouble for an important person in the community. Of course, that also creates an opportunity for them to share the good news, leading to the conversion of the jailer and his family who all get baptized too.
But after they are released with a pardon by the magistrate, they go back to Lydia’s house again. It’s not exactly clear why the magistrate was willing to send them on their way, but it makes one wonder if Lydia and her household had something to do with it. Was she there in the background, using her reputation and influence in the city to protect them from harm?
Certainly, Lydia’s story points to the fact that the Christian Church has been blessed by the participation and leadership of women from the beginning, even if in some times and places we’ve been granted only a second place after men. But it also reminds us that the ministry to which God calls us as followers of Jesus is a team effort.
Sometimes it’s only the preachers and the pastors who are given credit for carrying out Christian ministry. We’re the ones who often represent the public face of ministry with our collars and our sermons and our official leadership roles. But ministry is not something that the clergy are called to do for the laity. It’s a shared endeavour, as all the baptized people of God are called to use our various gifts to share the good news about Jesus with the world.
Lydia gives us a wonderful example to follow. When she experienced God’s blessing in the message of life and hope that Paul and Silas brought to her and her household, her immediate response was to offer what she had to make sure that message kept spreading to others. She insisted on providing hospitality to the apostles that very day, and I imagine that her generosity was a huge blessing to the church in Philippi and beyond as it was established and began to grow.
As many of you know, I was in Ottawa for several days this week attending meetings of the Governing Board of the Canadian Council of Churches. On Thursday evening, we visited a local Ukrainian Catholic Parish, St. John the Baptist, where we participated in evening prayer in the Eastern Rite and received some lovely hospitality from the worshipping community there. And then they shared with us about their current work with Ukrainian refugees who are beginning to arrive in great numbers from their war-ravaged home communities.
Many people in Ottawa and across the country are working hard to provide welcome and hospitality to the newcomers. We met a chaplain from Algonquin College who is helping new students to get settled and assisting with special needs that they experience. We heard from a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress that is coordinating settlement efforts, receiving and distributing funds from generous donors, and connecting those who want to help with those who need assistance.
And then Bishop Bryan Bayda encouraged the gathered church representatives from all our diverse denominations, cultural backgrounds, and geographic locations across Canada to join in the ministry of hospitality and welcome. He said that it’s like there’s a giant puzzle on the wall and each one of us has a piece. We need to work cooperatively to put it together, and each of us is invited to examine the piece we’ve got in our hands and look for the place where it belongs – where we can offer our gifts for the sake of the big picture of what God is doing in the world.
Whether our mission is to assist with welcoming Ukrainians to Canada, to provide humanitarian aid to others in Ukraine, or to engage in other important ministries in Canada or beyond… whether our part is to preach or to give, to teach or to set a table, to advocate or to become a friend, to listen or to provide practical assistance, to heal or to advise, to reach out or to pray… the ministry of Christ is a team effort.
And I, for one, am deeply grateful that all of you are on the team. I rejoice in the many ways that God has blessed you with the good news of the gospel, and with gifts, resources, skills, talents, and time to share.
Like Lydia, may the Lord open all our hearts to listen eagerly to the good news of Jesus that is shared with us week by week and year by year, and may we follow her enthusiastic example as we insist on sharing our gifts and we become a blessing to the world.