Sermon May 9 2010

Acts 16:6-15

A story that happens during a mission journey by the Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers.

A little before this we read a passage from the book of Proverbs (31:10 y 24-31) about a woman who is admirable for her work, her integrity and her character. The passage comes at the end of Proverbs and speaks of an ideal woman who manages her house and her business well. Despite this vision, in bible times women were often not taken seriously.  Many times they were relegated to a position inferior to that of men. In many cultures they were considered a man’s property, among the many other things he owned.

However, the vision in Proverbs is of a responsible woman, who takes into her hands the things she needs and prepares them. This would be a vision of Lydia, the woman that Paul met in the city of Philippi. 

When the church began, they were a group of people similar to each other, all of the same ethnicity as Jesus. They proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and they had in mind that he was sent to them and their people.  This Messiah was to come and lead his people to a superior place in the world.  God would bless the nations, but it would be by blessing the Jews.

As time passed, they realized that they had to reach out to others as well. We have already mentioned the visit of Peter to Cesarea and the reaction of the believers in Jerusalem when they knew of it and criticized him.

Also, when Paul began his ministry, there was much discord among the churches as to who should receive the good news of God’s love.  Generally, Paul would visit the places of worship where the Jews met, even when he was in a Gentile city. In his journeys he went through many parts of the province of Asia proclaiming the message, but he always went to the synagogue where the Jews met on the Sabbath.

Something interesting happened in order for them to arrive in Philippi. They were traveling through the Roman province of Asia and for some reason they could net go to Bithynia, or Phrygia, or Galatia, or Mysia, which are all part of modern Turkey. In all these places there was an indication, we do not know what, that they should not go there and do their mission work.  Something told them not to go.  Finally when they arrived in Troy, Paul had a vision, a dream of a man who said “Come help us.” He was on another continent, in Europe, in Macedonia which today is Greece, a land unknown to Paul and his companions. But the next day they set out for that place. 

Finally they arrive at Philippi.  There they had to look for a new way to work, because they did not find a synagogue or any other building where the Jews gathered. But a rumor came to them that on the Sabbath a group would go to the river to meet and pray.

The Paul and his companions went there and found it as had been told them, mainly a group of women. We do not know whether in Philippi as a Roman city, there was persecution of the Jews, or whether they were seen in a bad light, but the majority of people meeting were women.  Maybe the men were afraid, or maybe they did not want to risk their position in society ad so they did not go to the place of prayer.  Or maybe they did not consider the riverbank, out in the open, a decent place to gather for prayer.

Among the women, there was at least one who was not Jewish. She was of another race, an alien, but she was a God-fearing person. Such people who were not Jews had to go through a process to be received as the people of God, and she had not taken those steps. Maybe she thought that to believe in God was enough. She had not formalized her membership among the Jews. But she continued to meet on the Sabbath in that place. 

This was no ordinary woman.  The purple cloth in ancient times was a luxury item. To make it, first many tiny mollusks had to be collected from the sea, shellfish from which the dye was made. It was difficult to collect the shellfish, and they were so small that a great many were needed to make the dye, so that dying cloth this color was very expensive. 

Lydia was a dealer in this cloth, a woman of great influence.  This Bible does not mention a husband. It seems that she was in charge of this business.

That day she had come to the riverbank expecting a time of prayer.  What a surprise that there were visitors! Paul began to speak with them about this Messiah, the Promised One of God who had come, Jesus of Nazareth. The more Paul spoke, the more Lydia felt something different, something new, something important in her life. Though she had not made a complete commitment to faith until that moment, the bible says that the Spirit impelled her to listen.

Many things could have happened to prevent this encounter of Lydia and Paul. As we have seen, Paul wished to go to other places to visit, and Philippi was not on his list. But in some way he arrived at this place.  Many things could have prevented Lydia from being at the riverbank that day.  She was not of that race, or that faith, or that belief, but she came that day as well.

We have to conclude that the Spirit of god was acting in this case.  The authors of Acts mentions it again and again. In 16:6, the Holy Spirit sent them to another place.  In 16:7, the Spirit of Jesus prohibited them from going to another place. In 16:9, Paul had a vision of going to a new place. And in 16:14, while Lydia listened to Paul’s words, the Lord moved her to accept what he said.  

And finally, Lydia also put Paul’s belief to the test, as she said to him and his companions, “If you believe that I am truly a believer, come to stay in my house.” She offered her home as the base for their work in that city.  We do not know what consequences resulted from that decision, whether people were offended, whether Lydia lost business for that. She did not take that into account but offered her house and hospitality. As Paul and his companions had welcomed her into the faith in Jesus, so she welcomed them into her home.

The vision God has for our lives and our work does not necessarily fit our plans.  Sometimes as humans we have the idea of what we are going to do.  We think this is the best way to achieve something.  We always have to allow that God may have other plans for our life, something different from what we had constructed as the future

There is another teaching here, too, that Paul and his companions learned. When one wants to serve God, one does not always begin with one’s own wishes. If one wants to respond to God’s calling, and carry out the mission that God has given, one has to look at the need that exists in the world. What is lacking?  What are people seeking? What do they need? In that way we seek the will of God, trying to discern in the face of the  person beside the face of Jesus, trying to seek the way that God responds in this situation, and taking the steps to follow God in the same way.

The hospitality that Lydia offered to Paul and his companions was what she had to give. And when we go into the world to carry out what God has entrusted to us, it is not simply that we take something to give; we also go out expecting to receive. The place to which we go is a place where God is already present. When Paul and Luke and the others arrived in Greece and entered Europe, they could have been thinking “We are bringing God to these people.”  But that was not the case.  God was already there. God was already at work in the hearts of the people. It was God who brought the women to the riverbank where they encountered Paul. It was God who moved Lydia’s heart and prepared her to receive a greater message from Paul.  God was already there. 

When we go out to respond to the needs of the world, we know that we will find not only a mission for us but also that we will receive something from the people we encounter and from God. It is a journey in which God travels by our side, developing us.  That is why it is useless to make the excuse that “I can’t serve God because I have not reached the level I need.”  The excuse is not valid, because God takes us and God prepares us and gives us what we need, and even then continues to teach us, encourage us, and direct us. 

The central theme of this passage is not a series of coincidences, nor is it something that should surprise us. It is the action of God’s Spirit. When God acted in Paul and Luke and the others, and in Lydia and the other women, they all grew and they all learned. When Lydia gave her invitation, they could have answered, “No, we can’t do that.  We must look for a house with people like us, of our race, of our religion.  We cannot stay here.” 

Who do we accept? Who do we receive as part of the body of Christ?  The United Church of Christ has a saying, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”   It is not a welcome that we give just because we are nice people.  It is a welcome that we can offer because we have been welcomed by God, with open arms, to be part of God’s family, part of God’s reign, part of God’s ministry on the earth.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, in this church, in the name of Jesus the Christ, you are welcome here; to come, to be received, to go from this place to the ends of the earth with the peace, the hospitality, the love that God has given us.


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