It seems that the world has been filled with purple this week in memory of Prince…but for those of us who love stories of women in the Bible, the color purple also belongs to Lydia. And Lydia comes up this Sunday, in the RSV lectionary.
Lydia’s biblical story, recounted in Acts 16:13-15, begins near water outside the town of Philippi, where she has gone to pray. A merchant with a flourishing business in purple cloth, she greets women friends on the riverbank. From there (now modern-day Greece), she keeps up with personal relationships and hears news from travelers near and far.
She is peaceful, yet attentive—good traits for a successful merchant—and she has learned to quickly assess potential buyers and sellers.
In business, one must make quick judgments, synthesizing information. Is this man an honest supplier? Can I trust him? Does this woman have the money to pay me for what she is ordering? Why does that man have shifty eyes? That woman wonders if I need an associate. I do, but is she a hard worker? Wait, look at the stitches in her veil: painstakingly minute. She cares about details; she’ll be fine.
And indeed, Lydia’s instincts are on high alert this morning, for the women are soon approached by a man named Paul and his friends. He tells her how he once persecuted Christians to the death, was transformed by seeing Jesus in a vision, came to know Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures, and now works as a missionary, building communities of faith in Jesus’ name. Communities of faith that reach out…that speak of eternal life…of purpose…of God.
Heart and mind tug at Lydia. There is something so real about him, about what he is saying. He speaks the truth. He knows God. I can see it in his face, in his eyes. This Jesus of which he speaks…he loves me? He knows me? He was there when I was made? He was there at creation?
Within hours, Lydia is the first convert to Christianity on European soil. Baptized at the river with her household, (perhaps she went back to get them; perhaps they had walked with her to the river) she invites Paul and his friends to stay with her while they are in Philippi—making her home one of the first faith communities on distant shores.
Her commitment to her new friends would soon be tested—for shortly, Paul and Silas would be arrested, imprisoned, survive an earthquake in jail, maintain their faith by singing and praying, convert the jailer and his family—and happily head back to Lydia’s home, dusty, bruised, starving and exhausted.
Lydia seems to be a fairly problem-free kind of woman. No demons, no physical issues, no poverty. She runs a prosperous business, she is able to make quick decisions (for example, she heard Paul preach and was baptized the same day), she is well-respected around the region, and she is quick to open her home and purse for the work of God’s people.
She gives Paul a heart to trust within the faith community at Philippi—the recipient of one of Paul’s most beautiful letters, still read regularly in congregations today. In that letter, he says that the Philippians were the only ones who gave him “financial help when he brought the good news and then traveled on…” (Philippians 4:15)
Given Lydia’s character and generosity, the reader might have an inkling of just who Paul meant.
What might we learn from Lydia?
- Heart, mind, intellect and soul—all are worthy and necessary in a life of faith.
- Sharing our talents, time and treasure can change the world.
- Setting aside time for prayer and spiritual companionship opens doors for the Holy Spirit to find us.
- Don’t forego time with friends.
What about Lydia was so helpful to the emerging faith community? What happened first with her that made all the difference?
How would you compare your stewardship of time, talent and treasure to hers? Why would it have not been a good idea for her to go on the road? What could she accomplish in Philippi that she couldn’t elsewhere?
Lydia was responsible for helping God’s mission to be successful in the world. Often times, we think of mission as specific projects to be accomplished in distant places. How did she see it and how do you see it?
Excerpted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014, 2015
Photo: Bud Holland