Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles reports the conversion of Lydia of Thyatira. She is the first European to become a Christian. We don’t know very much about Lydia. She was a gentile, not a Jew. She had her own business – which was unusual for a woman. She was a dealer in purple cloth. Purple cloth was very expensive and reserved for the upper class of Roman society. Only they were allowed to buy and wear the purple clothe. She is also the head of her household which in Roman times would have included family, slaves, and other servants.
We also are told that she is a God-fearer, i.e., she has left the pagan gods and now was worshipping with the Jewish women. She was not a convert to Judaism. But she now believes in the God of the Jews. We are not told why she made this change. One day when she joined the women at the river to pray, Paul arrives at the prayer meeting and preaches Jesus’ way. Lydia is so taken by his message that she joins – converts – to the way of Jesus and orders her household to be baptized.
Later the Acts of the Apostles reports that Paul and his companions are arrested, and when they are released Lydia has the courage and faith to take them into her home. And that’s all we know of her.
If we speculate on why Lydia was interested in worshipping with the Jewish women, we need to consider the religion into which she was born. Lydia was a Greek, and like the Romans who ruled in this area, she would have been a pagan, offering sacrifices to the various Grecian-Roman gods. We envision these gods as statues in various temples with a community of priests or priestesses in charge of the temple.
Lydia may have in time realized that these old gods were only concerned for themselves. These old gods had no particular love for humans in general. A god or goddess may “fall in love” with a human, but that was not some deep spiritual offering, but just one more relationship of a god. A god or goddess could get very angry and make your life miserable. There was no spirituality to speak of among these old gods.
Lydia may have reached a point in her life where she needed to embrace her spirituality, to find meaning in her life that was more than just her business and more than just her social network. And quite possibly she had a Jewish client who had been able to ascend to the upper class. From that client she learned about the God that we take for granted. For her, a God who listens to each individual, who calls people children, who lays down rules to make life a better experience, and who offers a future of hope would have been very appealing.
But she would go only so far in the Jewish community. She would have been always on the edges of it. In order to convert to Judaism she would have to submit to customs of eating, of prayer, and of circumcision for the men in her household that a Gentile would find too much to accept.
But now came Paul with the life and message of Jesus. Jesus did not require the Jewish customs. He required that the people have faith in God alone and that God’s grace – a word never used of the old gods – was available to everyone who accepted Jesus’ way. She would be a full member of this community of grace and hope. And if we read the New Testament closely, women had a prominent role in this community. So like any head of household of that day and age, she ordered everyone in the household to be baptized – if the leader of the household is Christian, so will every one else be Christian.
The ancient Roman religion was more of a political entity than a spiritual entity. Caesar was a god and all the gods supported him. It wasn’t a religion that nurtured a person’s spirituality. It wasn’t a religion that offered a spiritual community of support. It was empty of what we would consider a religion.
But the people were yearning for just such a religion. There were various cults around but none of them would satisfy spiritual yearning. Judaism, though, did offer the nurture of the spirit. But it was a religion of a certain land and certain culture and many Graeco-Romans didn’t want that. But Christianity was rapidly extending past Judaism and found a following in the spiritually bereft gentiles.
Lydia was wealthy and dealt with a wealthy clientele. But she felt the spiritual emptiness of her culture. As unusual as it was that a woman would run a business and head a household, she still would have had her social connections and her comfort zone within the Graeco-Roman culture around her.
Yet she was willing to keep company with a group of Jewish women, most of whom probably were not wealthy and likely struggling with making ends meet. Lydia was willing to step out of her comfort zone and social circle to seek God. And there among these women she encountered the word and life of Jesus. From that moment on, God became part of her life, indeed the driving force of her life. She discerned that God wanted her to open her home to the Christians. There they had their church – even though she had to know that the Roman authorities would object to harboring these strange and peculiar people.
And like Lydia, we need to admit God into our lives. We need to nurture our spirituality to tune into God. We cannot do this alone. I know of people who are “spiritual” but not “churched”. They believe in God and report they are spiritual, praying now and then in their own way by themselves. Some may have personal spiritual practices and so forth. But to really lean into spirituality you need a community of supportive people who are also seeking nurture in their spiritual lives.
God is hard to grasp. We cannot see God with our eyes. We cannot hear God with our ears. We need to learn how to discern God moving in our lives. We can easily overlook the passage of God in our lives if our spiritual life is clouded by mundane concerns and interests. God may be tapping us on the shoulder but we just feel a random stirring in our lives and move on.
But in a supportive community, we can feel that tap and know that it is God … the reality of God emerges out of the community in our common discernment of the divine moving through us. For Lydia those Jewish women provided her with a supportive spiritual community and she was able to discern the spirit moving. Paul arrived and moved her deeper into the spirit – as he probably did a number of the other women.
Life can be ironic. It can take unexpected twists and turns. Often God is to be found in those ironic events. My journey into chaplaincy has been marked by irony. Indeed it began as an irony. I was unemployed. I never considered chaplaincy as a profession. But the director of the Museum at which I am a docent had a cousin-in-law opening a new hospice and needed a chaplain. She called me and here I am a chaplain. I do believe that God set that up.
A recent irony is that hospice has had an impact on how I perceive practicing pacifism. Being a hospice chaplain, I figured that whether I was pacifist or not had nothing to do with caring for the terminally ill. But you never know from what direction God is coming.
My belief that pacifism was the appropriate response to violence and war began during the Vietnam War. Though I was not drafted, like so many others I watched this war unfold on the TV and had relatives and friends in the war. The madness of that whole adventure drove me away from the ideas with which I was raised of what amounted to redemptive violence. I was not particularly religious at the time, but the newsreels were compelling and I began the journey of turning away from violence as a solution. But I wasn’t all that convinced. There were many logical and/or rational arguments claiming the violence was needed, most of which deconstructed into some form of defense … defense of loved ones, nation, etc. over and against some mighty power. Defeating the Nazis was almost always cited as an obvious case. And within the context of secular thought and philosophy, pacifism does fail to meet that need.
But then I married Laurie and she introduced myself to the faith community of the United Church of Christ and some good, radical preaching. As I grew in that faith within what now was my faith community, I came to realize that logic and rationality are not the measure of workable solutions. Rather I found that pacifism sits upon the teachings of Jesus and that faith and faith alone justifies. When Jesus order Peter in Gethsemane to put away his sword, he ordered all Christians into non-violence.
I still stand by that and always will. But now my hospice like many others, are developing understanding and skills to care for Veterans at the end of their lives. On first encounter, supporting Veterans at the end-of-life became problematical for me. After all, were they not the agents of violence and slaughter? How can I work authentically as a hospice chaplain for men and women with such history? But here I am on my company’s committee to provide compassionate and excellent care to them. But even as a pastor intern I was realizing that pacifism, like any other belief, is subtle and not black and white. Rev. Charlie Jenkens was my mentor and he intentionally sent me to listen to one of his parishioners who was a vet. I learned to listen and not judge. Now that I am deeply involved systematically, I understand more of the Veteran’s trauma, both of fear and guilt – and there’s plenty of both to go around. Jesus not only taught non-violence, he taught compassion and embracing all of God’s children. The deeper I go into the study of Vietnam and the effects on the Veterans the more compassion and understanding is needed.
Lydia, even though she held a high and respected place in Roman society and was wealthy, still felt the absence of the Spirit. She encountered the Jewish community and through them the witness of St. Paul. And from that encounter she found a spiritual community that made her life deeper than selling purple cloth … a life that embraced the Spirit even though it was risky.
Similarly each one of us have the opportunity in our faith community to tune to God’s presence and movement in our lives. When an unexpected event occurs in our life, that is often a good time to ask, what is God doing with me in this event? Pray on it. Share it with spiritual friends. You may find that God is pointing you towards a more interesting life, one richer and deeper than you have now.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …