Sunday, February 10, 2013
Paul traveled throughout ancient Greece, what is now called Turkey but was then Asia Minor, and Rome. He was evangelizing and started churches and he had a team that included Timothy, Silas, and Luke. The story of their stop in the Macedonia city of Philippi is found in the fifth book of the New Testament, the book of Acts, the narrative of the first Christians after the resurrection of Jesus. In Chapter 16, the apostles come to Philippi.
Paul always started by finding the Jews in the city and telling them about Jesus. In Macedonia the Jewish community was so small there was no synagogue and the leaders were women. Jewish practice required at least 10 men to form a synagogue. Lacking that, a handful of Jews, gathered for prayer on the Sabbath.
Where did they meet? Paul and his companions were unsure. The Roman authorities governing this Greek city would not permit a Jewish gathering within the city proper. The author of Acts and Paul’s travel companion, Luke writes, “We went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there” (16:13).
In Jerusalem, eyebrows would raise. Why would a group of men, itinerant religious teachers, speak in public to a group of women? It was the Sabbath and they were gathered for prayer. In a gentile city, far from the city of David, ethnic and religious solidarity were sufficient reasons to buck social conventions.
Still this Philippian Jewish prayer group was different. It dominated by woman and one woman in particular; a Greek woman who had turned to Judaism. Her name was Lydia. The euphemism rendered “worshiper of God” as rendered in the NRSV is how Luke indicated that this woman was ethnically Greek but was practicing Jewish worship. Lydia was truly a seeker. She knew she had not found God in the pagan practices in either Philippi or her home town of Thyatira. So, she turned to the foreign religion, the religion of the Jews. She turned to monotheism.
She and the rest of this prayer group uttered the Psalms and contemplated the Torah and sought God each Sabbath. A group of men from out of town now joined their Sabbath worship time. In the group was a man named Paul who had Pharisee training and amazing knowledge of the scriptures. The Philippian Jews listened as Paul told them that the anticipated Messiah had come. It was Jesus and he was actually God in the flesh. In his death, he took on himself the sins of the world. In his resurrection, he conquered death and invited all who would follow him to enter his kingdom and to go throughout this world spreading his gospel.
The Philippians listened as Paul, Luke, Silas, and Timothy talked about Jesus. These apostles showed how Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. It’s likely that these Jews in Philippi had heard about the events of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit of God on the followers of Jesus. As Paul told them the Gospel story, they had a frame of reference. They knew some of what he was saying and his sharing filled in the blanks.
This is especially true of Lydia. She must have been one remarkable woman. She’s the only one Luke mentions by name. She was probably a widow because no husband is named. She was probably also at least affluent if not very wealthy. She managed a household which would probably include resident servants and children. She had a business, which is probably what drew her from Thyatira to Philippi. She sold fine purple cloth.
In a male-dominated world, Lydia was a woman of power. It’s likely that her business earned her such respect in the community that no man or no one tried to horn in on her operation or her wealth. The community would not allow it. Her customers could not afford to allow anything to interrupt her work.
After the prayer and teaching and conversation by the river outside Philippi, as the Sabbath was waning, Lydia did what she often did in that community. She took the initiative. She invited Paul and his evangelistic band to come and stay at her home. The home of Lydia the dealer of purple cloth became Paul’s base of operations. I don’t know how the apostles felt about this woman’s invitation, but Luke writes, “She prevailed upon us.” It is as if they could not say no.
We never read of Lydia preaching a sermon. Much of what I have said about her is pieced together by her situation. Many facts are not known, but the circumstances and way Luke writes the story lead us to the scenario I have laid out. Luke never records Lydia convincing another person to believe in Jesus. But he tells us she was a business woman, a homeowner, and a woman with a persuasive personality. And we can clearly see that the Gospel would not have taken hold in Philippi if it had not been for her.
From Paul’s later letter sent to the Philippian church, we realize that not only did this small church grow. It became one of Paul’s most trusted and beloved churches. It was a persecuted church. While Paul was in Philippi, he drove a demon out of a girl. The demon had enabled the girl to forecast the future. She was a slave, so she made her owners extremely rich. When Paul vanquished the demon, the owners were enraged.
They incited the town officials against Paul and Silas. The apostles were flogged and thrown in jail. What happened to Lydia and her budding house church while the founders were locked up? How would the frustrated owners of the now former fortune teller continue venting their anger? Would they attack the purple cloth dealer and church based out of her home?
Luke’s telling of the story stays with Paul and Silas. We don’t know what took place at Lydia’s house. A midnight earthquake led to Paul’s freedom. It also opened the way for him to witness to the Roman who ran the jail. That rough and tumble warden was reduced to kneeling and weeping before Paul who led him to Christ. The entire household of the jailer came to faith. Before Paul and his group departed from Philippi, they had to make one last stop at the church. They had to see Lydia one more time, just to encourage her. I suspect they were also encouraged by her. I also suspect the jailer who previously never crossed Lydia’s path now came to her seeking to join the church of Jesus Christ in her house.
How does all this happen in the life of a woman in the male-dominated first century world? It happens the same way things happen in your life and mine. It happens at the prompting of God. And the prompting of God comes within the circumstances of our lives.
We have seen six ways we can be equipped to tell people about Jesus and invite them to consider the salvation he offers. Today in the life of Lydia, we have a seventh. When we maximize our own circumstances, we will have opportunities to share our faith. It won’t be identical to Lydia’s situation, but we can gain good perspective by looking at her a bit.
First, she was committed to excellence in her work. That she was able to succeed in a competitive mostly unregulated marketplace in a society that afforded limited protection to unmarried women speaks to her inner strength. I also think it implies that her business was notable. Why doesn’t Luke describe any other person in Philippi? She stands out. My speculation is that if she her purple cloth was anything short of superior she would not have lasted. But because she had a reputation for excellence in this area, people would listen to her speak on other topics; topics like religion and theology and spirituality.
A modern example of this is former football coach Tony Dungy. He took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC championship game. In Indianapolis, his teams won 11 or more games every single year. They went to multiple AFC championship games and won Super Bowl. He is a committed Christian who has given up his football coaching career to write Christian books, to found an organization that promotes good parenting practices, and to mentor young men in prison. People listen when Coach Dungy talks about Jesus because of his excellence as a coach. If his teams went 4-12 instead of 12-4 every year, he might not have the same platform.
What is our purple cloth? What is it that we do with such commitment to excellence that people notice? It may be your job. You do the little things to make sure you are doing your work to very best of your ability whether your work is waiting tables or doing research. It may be a relationship. You commit yourself to being an outstanding, attentive, involved parent and others notice your efforts in parenting. First they ask about your approach to parenting; that conversation can transition to a conversation about other topics, and you are respected because your conversation partner respects your parenting so much. Or your commitment to volunteering. Or your excellence in your work. What is the purple cloth in your life, in mine, that gains for us credibility?
Second, Lydia opened up her home. Many people in our church family do this also. If you love having people in, follow the model of Jesus, and go beyond inviting just your friend. When the church announces a need for housing for visiting musicians or ministers, volunteer. Volunteer to host small groups and special meetings in your home. Look for opportunities to use the gift of hospitality God has put in your heart.
Not everyone has a great home for hosting large groups. Not everyone has the temperament or spiritual gifting. What are other ways we can practice hospitality? We can proactively go out of our way to meet people for lunch or coffee. I have discovered my neighbors are surprised and delighted when I say, “Hey can we get together during the week? I’ll come to where you work.” The offer is unexpected and they like the idea of meeting socially, without professional or home pressures. You may not have the time flexibility I have. But there are Saturday mornings. There are Sunday afternoons. It might require some creativity, but it is worth it. For the sake of inviting people into our lives and hearts, we need to discover how we create space to meet that is unthreatening, peaceful, and inviting. This leads to the possibility of conversations about matters of deep importance. And what is more importabt than Jesus? How can we practice hospitality?
Third, she was courageous. We have mentioned how Lydia had to be a woman of great strength to achieve all that she did in her life. We have looked at the initiative she showed in hosting the prayer meeting of Jewish women, even though she was a convert. And she saw her assertiveness in getting the apostles to stay in her home. After Paul exorcised the demon from the slave girl, the church was persecuted and she had to endure that. Yet, the church carried on as the letter to the Philippians can attest.
Our context is different, but speaking evangelistically still sends shivers up our spines. We might do all that we’ve talked about in this series and still get to that point where it is time to share Jesus and we wilt in the moment. It could be because of circumstances or a particular relationship. We might shrink because of our own sins. But we are covered. Jesus has declared us innocent, justified, right in God’s eyes. He has taken away our sin and makes us new creations.
What is our purple cloth? We do we do with a commitment to excellence? How can show hospitality? Where in life do we need to show courage? When we answer these questions, we are in the process of maximizing our lives, and we are positioned and equipped to share the gospel.
I close our series remembering an experience I had. I was invited to do the chaplain service for a high school football team on game day. I shared a story from Mark’s gospel. I talked about courage and character. When I was finished, the head coach got up.
He was respectful to me, but I could tell, there was something he wanted to be said, and I had not said it. This was a public high school, but the chaplain service was voluntary, so he could say what he wanted to say. He knew these players extremely well. They were in the midst of an outstanding season. He got up after I had finished and with passion in his eyes said, “I love you guys. I want you to be in Heaven. I want you to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior because nothing matters more than that.”
All that we have said about evangelism builds to the moment where people we pray for give their lives to Jesus. This theme will continue to be a core part of what we do at HillSong Church. I pray that you will know the blessing of sharing your faith and that our church will be known as a church of people who, gentleness and love, share Jesus with the world.