In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God, now and forever. Amen.
We hear a great deal about conversion these days, and mostly in a negative light: “conversion” to so-called radical Islam, “conversion” to some new religious practice that we easily dismiss as a cult, even “conversion” away from religion to a more secular worldview. For some reason, conversion seems to frighten us. We assume that it implies the loss of some essential personal characteristic or some innate quality. In our highly individualistic culture, strange as it may seem, we are suspicious of people who appear to change who they are, or who want to become something or someone else. It’s actually rather paradoxical. When you think about it, it should be the reverse. We should applaud it. But conversion seems to hit a raw nerve. I’m not sure why, but I would think that it unsettles us because it raises too many uncomfortable questions about our own level of commitment.
Then there’s Lydia in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She was a convert, but the story we are told is so understated, so matter-of-fact, that her conversion doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. Still, Lydia is a fascinating figure.
We know little about her, except that we are told two important things. She was “a worshiper of God” and “a dealer in purple cloth.” The latter makes her sound like the original fashion statement. Yet this apparently innocuous detail can tell us a great deal. Lydia was probably a wealthy woman, since purple cloth was rare and expensive, something worn by the elite of society, including the Emperor. As a trader, Lydia would no doubt have travelled a great deal, which means that she was familiar with the ways of the world. She was a woman of influence and obviously controlled her own household, since they are all baptized at the same time as her, and she prevails upon Paul and his companions to stay at her home, which means that she could afford to house long-term guests. In fact, it is in Lydia’s house that Paul and Silas will find solace and comfort after their release from prison a bit later in this same chapter from Acts. Lydia was a self-sufficient businesswoman, and one whose home became an important centre of Christian living—in a word, a church. Lydia may have been the head of a house-church. She certainly would have had the authoritative presence and the resources to be so.
The other thing we know about Lydia is that she was a believer, a devout Jew. She worshipped God. The story goes that Paul met her by the river where she and others were praying. Perhaps Philippi did not have a large enough Jewish community to support a synagogue, which is why believers gathered outside. In that life-changing encounter with Paul, we are told that “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly.” It’s an unusual turn of phrase. You see, I rather suspect that Lydia already had an open heart, and that the Lord simply pried it open just a tad wider. I suspect that Lydia, being the woman of the world that she was, and also quite naturally curious, would have been intrigued by the words of someone like Paul who had travelled extensively himself, and who brought with him a new way of understanding the world. I suspect that this would have captivated and excited Lydia’s imagination. As a trader, Lydia was accustomed to taking risks of various sorts. I suspect she decided that she would take a risk on Paul’s message, and she won. So converting to the way of this person named Jesus was not a total gamble for Lydia. She probably went into it with open eyes. Her conversion was coherent and consistent with the sort of person that she was. This did not represent a break or a fracture for Lydia, but rather a completion, a fulfillment of who she had been called to be. There was one essential quality, however, that Lydia had to have had: an open and faithful heart. God worked with that to change her, as God still does with us. It was Lydia’s generous heart, her openness to grace, which would have given her a new, or at least an added vocation in life. A trader in expensive goods, she also became a stalwart of the young church in Philippi, thereby putting herself, her gifts and her resources at the service of the good news of Jesus and the building up of his kingdom in her time and place.
How might Lydia speak to us today? How might the example of this first century woman—albeit a woman of privilege—inspire us here and now in our lives as Christians? If Lydia were standing here this morning—preaching instead of me, as she undoubtedly did in her time—what might she want to say?
Let me offer two possibilities. First, I think Lydia would have wanted to remind us of how God can still surprise us, despite what we may think or even want. She would have recounted the story of that morning by the river, when God caught her by surprise and opened her already expectant heart to the promptings of Paul’s words. Maybe she would have spoken of a conversion, or maybe she would have preferred less dramatic language. Either way, the message would have been one of a joyful and unexpected revelation, and a strong reminder that such startling moments continue to happen in our lives. God has not ceased to surprise us, even though we might choose to look upon such experiences with a more jaundiced eye. God can still pry our hearts open. Lydia would have been firm in that conviction.
And secondly, Lydia, I think, would have wanted to speak of the importance of preparing ourselves for that moment of surprise, of what it requires by way of devotion and belief, of mercy and charity, and of hope and conviction. Of how necessary it is to be “a worshiper of God,” as she is described in that passage from Acts. Of how essential it is for one’s entire life to be an act of worship, and not just what happens within the four walls of some special building. Lydia is one of those many women in scripture who are mentioned almost “in passing,” but whose role and impact were determinant for the early church. Lydia would also want to remind us of these women, and of the strength and courage and rock-solid faith that sustained their quiet but influential leadership. (And all in shades of purple.)