Lydia – woman of the living God Acts16:9-15

This monologue formed part of our Morning Worship at St. Barnabas, Darby Green today. If you would rather watch than read it, it’s available on YouTube here, the sermon starting at 26:40. As background, I used various sources, including Elaine Storkey’s ‘Women in a Patriarchal World’, an article in Reuter’s about how the Tyrian purple dye that contributed to the fine cloth that Lydia sold was made. In worship we sang Rev’d Ally Barrett’s hymn ‘For all with heavy loads to bear’ which seemed to resonate, linking our lives with that of Lydia’s.

The spiney whelk shell that I used as a visual aid, as it was the nearest in shape that we have to the muricidae from which Tyrian purple is made. Photo credit: my husband Graham Hartland.

For a long time, I had been convinced that there was more to life than the prosperity granted me by THIS mollusc shell. The know-how that turns the shell and glands of this little creature into something as stunning as THIS purple material may not be purely mine, but having the nouse to turn a local handicraft into a niche business supplying only the finest cloth was definitely down to my own hard work, good connections, international travel and the decisiveness that drives a hard bargain.

In earthly terms, I am a woman of independent means and mindset; someone who in my business dealings has extended the boundaries of our patriarchal society in every deal I’ve brokered. I might ‘only’ be a woman, but no man had yet found that they could make me an offer which I couldn’t refuse if I sensed a better deal was round the corner. Perhaps that was why no-one has yet proved to have the emotional intelligence to become my partner in business, or in bed. Yes, I knew something was missing in my life, some focus or purpose, but not that!

You can put it down to my innate business acumen if you like, but my search for something more meaningful than molluscs and money also relied on knowing which boundaries to break, where and when. That was why I, a Gentile, took the Jewish sabbath as my own, and spent it outside the city walls with women who could match me in their intellect and curiosity to know “the truth”. Here we were safe, outside the city gates that proclaimed a divisive prohibition against freedom of thought where faith was concerned; away from the pagan hustle and bustle of Philippi life, and the machismo of men who make endless sacrifices to polished gods that do nothing more than adorn mantelpieces.

We shared a lot, these women and I. Whatever their status in society or in marriage, their household or their business responsibilities, as we studied and we prayed together, we laughed and we cried, and we cared for each other. Those of the Jewish tradition introduced us to the One who created and directed all things; the One who brought this shell to our shores, and inspired those who had discovered and utilised it’s properties; the One who remained faithful to them even here on the edge of the Roman Empire, some distance from the centre of their faith in Jerusalem. This redeemer God wasn’t a distant, dusty ornament, but as close as THIS cloth and shell; the first, the last, the one true God (Isaiah 44:6) who seemed to be alive, and who I yearned to know better.

We were understandably surprised to see a visiting group of men approach us that Sabbath-day. Apparently, these men know we would be here, not least because the city didn’t have a synagogue to welcome them. They were only too happy to meet us, daring not only to be seen with us, but eager to explain that they had been compelled to come to Philippi by a vision, gifted them by the living Spirit of this One God.

I listened eagerly to what their leader Paul told us of Jesus, his death and resurrection and the power with which the Holy Spirit directed and enabled them to proclaim him as their Saviour and healer, a servant King who taught by example that to serve others was to serve Him. Paul’s friend Silas was also from Jerusalem, and brought assurances to my Jewish sisters, my Gentile friends and I, that Jesus had really come not only to reveal this new covenant to the people of Israel, but to everyone, without fear or favour, whatever our social status, gender, creed, nationality or occupation (Galatians 3:28). Young Timothy, showing a pastoral sensitivity beyond his years, urged us to understand that by placing our faith in Jesus Christ, by loving him with a pure heart and a good conscience, we would be advancing the work of the One, the living God (1 Timothy 1:4-5). I remember one other of the party well; Luke, a doctor and a scribe, as keen to capture and share our stories as he was to bring healing to those ailments that restricted our work and ability to live full lives. Most significant of all, like me he was a Gentile, and yet unwavering in his faith in Jesus, and his desire to serve and proclaim the hope that comes from welcoming the Lord’s living presence into our being.

Listening to them all was unquestionably the most important experience of my life. All that I had yearned for, the aching void in my heart, was suddenly filled with a deep-seated, bubbling joy as I became aware that Jesus had been gracious enough to visit me with this living Spirit, through these four men. I knew life would never be the same again, that all THESE God-given things (shell and fabric) and more, I would now use to serve Jesus Christ, whatever the cost to my previous plans and personal status.

So eager was I to share this news with those who were closest to me, that I hurried home, returning to the now gathering crowd at the water’s edge with my household, keen that those I trusted with my very life should also have revealed to them the loving, living presence of the One who deserves THESE royal robes of Tyrian purple more than I. There on the river bank that day, a holy of holies, Jesus came and dwelt with us all, tearing apart the curtain of unknowing that had isolated and divided us from each other, and binding us together as a fellowship of equals. As the waters of baptism closed over me, I was set free from the selfish desires that my wealth had been dangerously close to overwhelming me with, and rose to the surface, assured that I was now equipped to serve my living Lord through the hospitality and generosity of the God-given gifts he had long-since graced me with.

I knew now that the stakes were far higher than the simple risks of market trading. As I persuaded Paul, Luke and the others to return into town with me, and make themselves at home among my fine furnishings instead of their tents, I knew that my behaviour now jeopardised everything I had worked for; my personal and professional reputation. But those transient gifts of a society I know recognised as being built on greed, were as nothing to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord (Philippians 3:8) and learning more of Him, risen and alive in every fibre of my being.

It wouldn’t be long before the price that would be required of me was made apparent. Within days Paul and Silas would find themselves severely flogged and imprisoned, having freed a local fortune-teller from the slavery of her ungodly gift (Acts 16:18). Yet even the earth trembled in witness to the resilience of their faith, and as they added the jailer and his family to the numbers in Philippi who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, like me. The self-serving duplicity of leaders was likewise made clear when they discovered that in seeking to appease one abusive trader and his friends, they had made themselves vulnerable to more significant charges of injustice against citizens of Rome (Acts 16:37-39).

Paul, Luke and the others went on their way, sharing their news widely, but kept faithfully writing to us here in Philippi to encourage and at times correct us in our new-found faith. On the face of it, not much changed for me, as I still trade between this little corner of the Roman Empire and my homeland in Asia. But now God’s living truth and love dwells HERE within my heart, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The blazing fire of the Holy Spirit has humbled me, burning away the pride I took in being set apart from others by the harassing hospitality I showed the wealthy with whom I haggled for every last penny. Now I practice a less demanding and divisive hospitality, creatively using my property and investments, as well as the art I sell, to welcome and affirm people of every and any walk of life. My insight and decisiveness now proclaims the love of God, as I quietly persevere in works of loving service to others (Revelation 2:18-19), here in Philippi and in back in Thyatira. For me, that is what it means to be in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit; to be a woman devoted solely to the one, true and living God.

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