Tuesday, May 12, 2015

St Lydia of Thyatira: a reflection for a Mother's Union end of year service

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our readings from Sacred Scripture this evening are the ones set out in the Revised Common Lectionary for celebrations of Holy Communion for this day; by which I mean that I did not choose them especially for this evening's End of Year service for our local Mother's Union branch, but that they are the ones being read wherever the Holy Eucharist is being celebrated today. And so I was rather interested to see that the appointed reading from the Acts of the Apostles concerns that of the conversion and baptism of Lydia and her household by St Paul as it seems to me to be a particularly appropriate one for such an occasion as this.

The incident takes place during the course of St Paul's second missionary journey. He and his companions, Silas and Timothy, have travelled to the city of Philippi, a Roman colony in the Greek territory of Macedonia. They pass some days there – perhaps they spend the time working, as they often did, making awnings or some other items from canvas, for St Paul as we know was a skilled tent-maker. Then on the Sabbath day they set about preaching the Gospel. Now St Paul's usual practice was to go first to the synagogue and begin with the Jewish residents of whatever city he happened to be in; this time instead he goes outside the city. Why we can not be sure. Perhaps there wasn't one in this place; or perhaps, if there was one, it had already been made clear to him that he would not be welcome to visit; or perhaps he was impelled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that it was outside the city on this day that he would find fruitful ground in which to sow the Word of God.

They went outside the gate to the river to where they supposed there was a place of prayer. Often, we know, if there was no synagogue in a town or city, those wishing to worship the one true God sought out a spot near living water. And there, we are told, St Paul and his companions found a group of women. They were led, it seems, by a woman called Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a city of Asia Minor, which is modern day Turkey, and she was a dealer in purple cloth. Purple dye and purple cloth were expensive luxury items; so it appears that this Lydia must have been a business woman, and a person of some means. She is called a 'worshipper of God' – in other words what was known as a 'God-fearer' someone who even though they are not Jewish have come to believe in Judaism's understanding of who God is. Her household seems to make up a large part of the group of women who are there that day to pray and worship, if not in fact the entire group.

It is Lydia's heart whom God opens, and she listens eagerly to what St Paul has to tell these women. And her heart having been opened, and water being nearby, it is not difficult to imagine Lydia saying to the Apostle words similar to those spoken by the Ethiopian Eunuch to St Philip in the reading we heard some Sundays ago – 'here is water; what is to prevent us from being baptised?' The 'us' in that phrase is because it is not just Lydia who is baptised, but her household with her.

Who is this Lydia who became the first recorded European convert to Christianity? Other than what I have said, we do no know. Because she is running a business and appears to be in charge of things in her life – for example, there by the river, without consulting anyone, she invites St Paul and his two companions to come and stay in her home; and later, after St Paul and his companions having been arrested and freed from prison, it is back to her house that they return, her home apparently having become the base of operations for his ministry in Philippi - it has been speculated that she is either a single woman or a widow; the thinking being that if there was a husband on the scene inviting a group of unknown men into the home on her own authority would be unthinkable.

But in truth, we do not even know that. Women in the ancient world often had much more control over their own lives than we like to give them credit for, especially women of reasonably high social status as Lydia appears to have been. So she might have been single, she might have been married, she might have been a widow. If one of the last two, then among those of her household who were baptised might have been her own children; certainly if she had children of her own she would have wanted that for them – for who would want their servants to enter the saving waters of baptism and not wish the same for their own children?

Because of her association with purple cloth and dye, Lydia became the patron saint of those whose work involves dying cloth. But I wonder if she might not also have been a good patron of the women of the Mother's Union? She is a prayerful woman, seeking God and seeking to do his will, her heart ever open to be led deeper into his truth; a woman who is hard-working – she could hardly be a successful businesswoman if she were not; and caring for others, both in material terms, shown by the way she opens her home to the Apostle and his companions, and in a spiritual sense, as we can see from the way she led her household to prayer by the river on the Sabbath, and helped bring them to faith in Christ and be baptised into the Church along with herself. A woman who I think would have fitted in quite comfortably into any group of Mother's Union members – women who are strong, independent, hard-working, prayerful, and willing and able to help others both materially and spiritually.

I began by saying that I did not choose this passage for tonight's end of year service. But that is not the same as saying that I think was read here tonight by chance or accident. God speaks to us through his Sacred Scriptures; I think he speaks to us tonight by reminding us of the life, work, and witness of St Lydia. And I pray that your hearts, like hers, will always be open to eagerly hear what it is that God has to say to you all, this night and always. Amen

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