Thursday, May 02, 2013

May 5, Easter 6, Why We Love Lydia

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29

This is the first of two sermons on the resurrection coming to the city of Philippi. Today, the resurrection comes to Lydia, and next week, the resurrection comes to the jailer. So this week let me introduce you to the city of Philippi. The city was the site of a history-changing battle just a century before, when Caesar Augustus defeated the army of the Roman Senate and Brutus and Cassius, and the family of Caesar secured the personal control of all the vast power of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus made the town a colonia, a military town, full of officers and infantry and all their hangers on, and its inhabitants came from all over the Empire. The spirit of Rome was concentrated here, in its pride and prejudice and arrogant aggression. The city worshiped Caesar as a god along with Mars, the Roman god of war. As we will see next week, law and order were heavy-handed and violence was just beneath the surface. There was corruption and exploitation, but also commerce and prosperity.

The woman Lydia shares in this prosperity. She’s an importer of purple cloth, the expensive fabric reserved for the upper class as a sign of rank. She has access to cash and capital, she seems to own a house and property, she’s got enterprise and initiative, and she is not identified by any husband’s name. She is an independent character, and she does not buy the established religion of the empire, even though she depends on its defenders to be her customers.

Caesar was honored in Philippi specifically as "Lord and God," so, in this city, no synagogue was tolerated. Any Jews had to say their public prayers outside the city gates, and apparently only women dared to risk it. But why is Lydia with them? Why should this prosperous Gentile be praying to this strange god of the Jews who in the last hundred years had proven incapable of defending his chosen people against the gods of Rome? Well, the reason for her belief in this God is something the Bible never bothers to explain. But who can ever adequately explain the reasons for anyone’s belief? I have told you that your belief is a mystery even to yourself.

One Sabbath, at the riverside, a stranger shows up. He has a message. She hears the stranger out, and she believes him. Once again, the Bible doesn’t explain why—why her, why not the other women praying there? But she signs up, she gets baptized, and her household too. Just like that. But it’s not that simple, really. Think of the implications for her. When she says that "Jesus is Lord," she means that Caesar isn’t. She is putting her household under the sovereignty of a foreign power, within a city of the gods of Rome. What does she hear in the message, that she should choose to be identified with the followers of a dead man, executed by the very soldiers and officials who would be her customers? What in her self-interest was anything Paul could offer her? We don’t find her miserable and enthralled in sin. She seems to be on top of things.

She must have believed the message that Jesus really had risen from the dead, and that behind this Jesus was the one God of the universe, and that his kingdom of justice and righteousness was spreading in the world, and that she could join up with it. She believed the message and trusted the messenger. I mean she must have known how to size up her customers and when to trust her suppliers. She was used to taking calculated risks, she lived by investing her current capital in long-term gains, and she trusted this stranger and she believed what he told her. Self-interest? Faith is that which looks beyond self-interest, isn’t it. Faith is what brings you out of yourself.

And then she challenges Paul to have faith in her. She says, "If you can judge me to be loyal to this lord, then why not stay at my house." Go Lydia. So direct. So open. This is the kind of lady you’d like to build a church around. And so after this, to find the church in Philippi, you go to her house. That’s where the disciples gather. Not just to listen to St. Paul’s teaching and to enjoy his fellowship, but also to sit at Lydia’s table and break the bread and pray. The Spirit of Jesus is among them. God has moved into her house. She is the host of the church. Her open hospitality will define that church for years to come, as you can read in the Epistle to the Philippians. Her church was always one of St. Paul’s favorite churches.

So, St. Paul. He had come to Macedonia because of his dream, and I’m guessing the whole first week in Philippi he’s looking for the guy in his dream. "Is it him? Is it him?" He never finds the guy. It’s this woman that God has brought him here to meet. You wonder why it wasn’t Lydia in his dream, that would be the normal thing in mystic literature. The Bible offers no explanation. Explaining is just not very big in the Bible. The ways of God are always reported as both sovereign and mysterious, obvious and inscrutable. Which is not to stop you from taking initiative, never to hinder your free will, but the opposite. St. Paul planned for "a" and God did "b", but St. Paul would not have been there for "b" if he hadn’t tried for "a". Which means you can be active and take initiative and exercise your free will, which God will make use of for God’s own sovereign purposes; and if things end up quite other than what you intended, you can be grateful in retrospect. The take-home is that you are free to choose and let God use. You can exercise your free will in the service of God’s superior and gracious sovereignty. Take initiative, God’s purpose welcomes your free initiative, and you must welcome God’s surprise with your initiative.

Now, Lydia. I love Lydia, the businesswoman who is the president of the first Christian church in what is now Europe. You can delight in her, she is an image of the power of the resurrection in your life. This is what it looks like and what it leads to, that little church within her house. How strange that the mighty God of the universe should work this way, compared to the gods of Rome. That this God should contest the other gods, the triumphant gods, the victorious gods, the gods of pride and prejudice, by means of a small group meeting in a businesswoman’s house. How strange, but then how typical, if the power of resurrection always takes its form in grace and love. It never takes form in anything that is not absolutely love.

How lovely, that what Jesus promised to his disciples in John 14 came true so quickly with this Gentile businesswoman and her staff and her Jewish friends, that as Jesus said, "My father will love them, and we will come to them, and we will make our home with them." The Holy Trinity had moved in to Philippi, and was at home in Lydia’s house, in her community of Jesus.

The city had temples for its gods and for Julius Caesar, where you could go to contact them. But if you wanted to make contact with the One God who made the universe, you would go to Lydia’s house, the temple of God in Philippi. To her house would come people from every nation who happened to be in Philippi: Jews, Italians, Gauls, Germans, Dalmatians, veterans, their wives, their slaves, their suppliers, their sales people. Her house is a pledge and foretaste of the city of God in Revelation. A bit of the city of God in the middle of a city of Caesar. And the food on her table was for healing. The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Lydia’s house is a vision for Old First. Why do you keep coming here? What are you looking for? We do offer something real, real contact with God. Not the totality, not the finality, but the pledge, the foretaste, the first-fruit, the witness, never enough to satisfy but just enough to quicken your desire. There are real signs of love here, signs of the love that you may invest in your own world this week. And no matter what your profits and your losses in love this week, those signs will be here again next week, and although they are small and passing, they are real, because they express the love for you of the God who has called you here.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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