Sermon of 26 May 2019, preached at First Christian Church of Hampton. Not everything made it into the sermon, like the strong belief that Luke, the author of Acts, was the “man from Macedonia” seen in Paul’s dream – suggested by the change in pronouns in this passage to “we” from they in this text. Nor did I go into any depth as to the joyful relationship Paul would have with the young church at Philippi. So, as it is, here it is… on my late Mom’s birthay!
BOOK OF ACTS 16:9-15 (New Revised Standard Version)
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[c] of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day 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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Who hasn’t gone on a trip? Maybe a vacation to distant ports? Maybe a visit to Jamestown? Maybe just a route for a series of stops using the least amount of gas and time to get errands done?
But do trips go 100% the way we plan?
That hasn’t been my experience in life. Plans rarely survive the first hours… whether it is the traffic, or a sudden phone call, or the line that’s too long, or the friend we run into? There are just oh so many variables.
Who has not heard some variant of the saying that “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!”? Not to hurt our feelings or frustrate us, but because we plan on the basis of what we know. God simply knows all. No wonder the Psalmist wisely concluded, in Psalm 16:9, that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”
And that’s the crux of the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning. Paul had his plan, but as Luke writes the narrative “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them…” Having instead gone to Troas, it is said that “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
I’m actually VERY pro-planning — as my wife will attest, but I also have to recognize that as well-reasoned or as well-intentioned as any plan may be, we often encounter the proverbial wrench in the works! And, when this happens, be it in minor details or larger events, we humans often struggle mightily with the uncertainty or uncontrollable nature of life. When major parts of the plan go awry, we mere mortals push back, rant and rail, and can truly wrestle at times with the concept that God is in the business of changing our plans to His plan – though many times His plan will ultimately result in something much better than we ever dared hope for.
As we have made note of in a previous sermon on Acts, the narrator of the book, Luke, is never accidental in what he includes or excludes of the unfolding story of the Gospel as it spreads following the resurrection of our Lord. Philippi is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. It is a city of proud heritage, respected by the Romans. Founded centuries before by Alexander the Great and named after his father, Philip, it has the major status of a being a Roman colony, and emulates this idea in its imperial presence. Here, the Empire is powerful and popular, and the city IS the heart of the Empire in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extension of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offered to the world.
Arriving in Philippi, Paul, Timothy and Silas go looking for the local synagogue, but the Jewish presence is so small, it apparently did not even have a Minyan – the minimum of 10 men – needed to say the prayers. So, needless to say: there exists no synagogue. Instead, any Jews or God Fearers who happen to be in the town or passing through, apparently knew to meet down by the river on the Sabbath to pray. They head down to the riverside, hoping to preach the gospel to what men are available.
But the plan keeps changing… there are no men either.
Instead, they find only women, with whom, we are told, they sat down and spoke. That might not seem so odd to us, especially as we can look around here or at other congregations and women outnumber men. They are also, typically, the ones getting most of the work done. But for the hearers of the Book of Acts, with two strange men in town meeting with women, it would have been striking, even offensive. Unrelated men and women simply didn’t mix, especially in a relaxed place down by a river.
Amid what now likely appears to Paul, Timothy and Silas be to a slowly revealing plan of God, we are told that “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to them; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” Referred to as a “God Fearers” – Lydia was not Jewish, but, along with some number of others, were so intrigued with the God the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews. Typically, most such God Fearers would have followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision. So right from the beginning of the story, Lydia is described in an unconventional way. Like many around us today in our society, she knew of God, sought to live as much possible by what she knew to be right, and yet did not have that relationship with either Christ or the community of believers. The funny thing is how this plan God has in mind, to plant the church in Philippi, isn’t centered on a local person. Instead, Lydia is actually from some distance away – from a town well known for making the valued purple cloth in which she dealt.
Folks still like purple, but it was no small thing at the time as the most highly valued of colors in that age. Producing the purple cloth took crushing thousands of mollusks – tiny shellfish – just to make enough dye to make a yard or two of purple cloth. So purple cloth wasn’t just very expensive, it was worth its weight in silver. And wearing purple? It was a statement of status and wealth, even more that someone today carrying a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch. Purple was THE power color.
And so she’s not only from elsewhere, but she is independent apparently – the head of her own household, with no man mentioned, and a person of means. This woman is the person who opened her heart to the Lord, listening “eagerly to what was said by Paul.” As a result, she and her whole household were baptized, and she invited Paul and Silas to come and stay with her – thus Lydia became known as the founder of the church at Philippi.
Looking back to a time when we have been led to believe that conventions demanded that women stay out of the public realm, this was simply NOT the case in the early church. The Apostle Paul — who down through the centuries has been widely-quoted for his words to the Corinthian church as to women not speaking in church — in actual practice — PROMOTED the proclamation of the Gospel by entering into all sorts of ministries that were being successfully led by women. Lydia was just one of several women, named and unnamed, who established the first congregations in their homes. Like Joanna and a number of female followers of Jesus during his ministry, these were women of means who saw to it that the church had what it needed to grow and flourish.
Unmistakably for Luke, this is the way upon which God planned the church to walk – to follow God’s call to reach across social, economic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, and to seek opportunities to do God’s work in even the most unexpected places. This puts before us the question that if the Spirit’s movement in Acts reaches across the lines, ought not our own mission paths reflect the same or even deeper enthusiasm?
At the outset, the movement that would be called Christianity FLOUTED normal conventions and DEFIED attempts to CONTROL the Spirit of Christ. It was broadly and proudly inclusive and affirming of the worth of God’s children. So it is that Paul and the others find themselves going where they didn’t expect and speaking to one not on their list. Yet, here was the person and place that God would form not just any church – but the very one that attended directly to Paul and nursed his ministry in the many years to come.
What was that old thing about wearing purple?
Are we — are YOU? — male or female, either young at heart or old enough to throw caution to the wind, to wear purple — with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you?
Do you think you are ready, to make up for all those years of following the so-called rules, the limited and closely defined “expectations, all those admonitions to color ONLY INSIDE the lines? Do you want to go out in your slippers in the rain, or pick the flowers in other people’s gardens, and learn to spit?
Well…… maybe you’re right; maybe you’re not young at heart enough yet or even old enough just yet. But maybe you ought to practice a little now? So people who know you are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly you are old, and start to wear purple. Truthfully, what have we got to lose?
I want today to challenge you to truly LISTEN to the ways the Spirit of God is moving IN YOU. It seems to me that it might just be high time to take a chance together — like Paul and Silas — and mosey on down by the riverside!
Amen and Amen again!
©2019 by Vinson W. Miller, Hampton VA.