Response

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 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 worshipper 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.

Acts 16:11-15

 

For many reasons, scripture is amazing.  In particular, I am always delighted to discover those subtle ways that in scripture relatively simple literary structures are used to underscore more complex theological claims.

 

The story of Lydia from the Book of Acts includes just such a structure.

 

In the recording of the encounter between Paul (and Silas and Timothy) with Lydia in Acts, the missionary apostles go outside the city walls to find Lydia (and other women) who had gathered for prayer.  Lydia listened to Paul; her heart was opened; she and her whole household were baptized; and, then, she opened her home to her new friends in the faith.  Within this short story, there is a wonderful oscillating rhythm. 

 

First, Paul goes out.  Then, Lydia invites Paul into her home.  This out and in movement might seem insignificant. Yet, when viewed within the larger events of Paul’s missionary work in Acts, this little story embodies the dynamic and programmatic call of the gospel.

 

Recall that immediately before speaking with Lydia in the Acts narrative, Paul and others have just succeeded in convincing the early church leadership in Jerusalem to embrace missionary work among the Gentiles.  The church, ready to risk something new, is plotting a novel trajectory for the expansion of its mission.  The success and validity of that decision is still very much in doubt.  It is in this uncertain yet pivotal moment, the Paul has a dream, calling him to Macedonia.  In other words, at the very moment that the church has decided to consider the importance of risking the gospel message outside the relative safe and known world of their Jewish communities in Palestine, Paul senses a call to go to a most definitively non-Jewish place, Macedonia. 

 

Macedonia, particularly Philippi, was a Roman colony in Greece with a very small, virtually nonexistent Jewish community.  The Jewish community in Philippi was so small that they did not even number enough to form a synagogue congregation.  Instead, this small community gathered outside the city walls at some convenient place for prayer.  To demonstrate the paucity of the Jewish community’s presence in Philippi, Lydia is counted among their number. As her Greek name and origin betray, Lydia was not even a Jew but a “worshipper of God,” i.e., code for a Gentile believer but not a formal convert.  In this subtle way by including Lydia in the count, the writer of Acts discloses that Jewish community in Philippi and their non-Jewish supporters were so small in number that combined they still did not constitute a large enough gathering to justify forming a synagogue. 

 

If there ever was a test for the newly sanctioned expanded missionary policy of the early church, Paul’s arrival in Philippi marked that test’s beginning.  Paul was well outside his and the Jewish church’s theologically and culturally familiar territory.  Paul, his mission, and the gospel were exposed and vulnerable.  And, the narrative structure of the encounter with Lydia helps frame this reality. 

 

Yet, countering the weight of their vulnerability, Lydia’s positive response to the gospel message and her unexpected and disproportionate invitation to Paul and Timothy validates their mission’s initial risk with the offsetting abundance of Lydia’s hospitality, welcoming the gospel and the gospel’s messengers into her entire household.  Said another way, equaling Paul’s vulnerability of being out of his comfort zone, her hospitality to the gospel and receiving its messengers included a comforting invitation of Paul into her own home. 

 

As much as Paul was going out, Lydia was letting in.

 

If the image of Paul and Lydia meeting outside the walls of the city paralleled the predominately-Jewish church’s movement outside its mission field and its own people, Lydia’s unexpected and fruitful invitation into her life parallels the larger success of Paul’s missionary work among a people initially considered by the church to represent unlikely/unworthy converts.  

 

As the story with Lydia in Acts is immediately proceeded by a larger story detailing the church’s vulnerable movement out, the story of Lydia in acts is immediately followed by a story of unexpected success found within. 

 

After staying with Lydia, Paul and his cohorts find themselves before the magistrate because of an economic encumbrance that resulted from Paul casting a divining demon out of a slave girl whose masters relied upon her divination skill for income.  As a result, Paul and his companions wind up on prison.  And, it is there, in the inner most cell of the prison, that the vulnerable message of the gospel finds a hospitable new home in the seemingly inhospitable confines of a prison guard’s heart. 

 

In this way, the story of Lydia serves a microcosmic role in exemplifying the macrocosmic character of the gospel.  That is, for the gospel to be the gospel, it must stop being the possession of the small few who struggle to keep it contained.  The gospel must be opened, exposed, put out there, and made vulnerable.  Equally, for the gospel to be the gospel, it will find hospitality in the lives and communities of the very ones those responsible for the gospel’s wellbeing thought unready, unable, or inappropriate hosts.

 

Counter intuitively, the greater risk, it seems, is not exposure but protection; its greatest reception is not found in the familiar but in the unfamiliar.

 

For me, this Lydia story is the essence of the good news that is the gospel.  This story is that essence because it discloses the very central character of the gospel of Jesus Christ by pointing us toward the divine virtues of vulnerability and hospitality emblematic of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  If the story of the incarnation is anything, it is the story of God’s risk at going outside comfortable expectations to seek hospitality in presumably inhospitable places. (The irony of this notion is not lost on me as we enter the week in the life of the church that we commemorate the vulnerable Christ’s inhospitable dispatch by a less than welcoming humanity.)

 

Yet, we, the caretakers of this message of good news about a vulnerable loosening of control and an unexpected welcome, all too often forget Lydia’s story of going outside to come in, of risking vulnerable exposure to find innovative hospitality. 

 

On the one hand, how often do we refrain from seeking justice or providing mercy or speaking truth to power because these acts demand us moving beyond what is predictable or comfortable or judged acceptable?  How often do we choose to hold onto the reassurance of what has worked at the risk of denying the possibility of what might work?  How often have we found ourselves called out to a new land or place or people or idea or method or medium or movement only to retreat behind our own walls of conformity and comfort, security and certainty, rigidity and righteousness? 

 

Or, on the other hand, how often have we assumed that the good news of God’s loving presence that we have to offer is not wanted or not deserved or not needed or not appropriate?  How often have we assumed that those people are not our people, that those people in that place believe and practice and live in such a way that we  and our God’s love cannot possibility find a home, share a life, experience hospitality, or become friends?  How often have we chosen not to risk loving others or assumed that others do not wish to be loved? 

 

Importantly, what I am talking about here is not some simple repackaging of (neo)evangelical theology.  Rather, what I think the Book of Acts is suggesting is something much more incarnational, intentional, material, and practical than the plain, predictable verbal declaration of Jesus.  Paul and Lydia seem to be suggesting a complex risking of a new kind of life together.

 

I could go on and on, but I think the point is made:  the gospel described in Lydia’s story is a good news that demands not to be contained in a box of our expectations but demands the liberating and dynamic freedom inherent in a message embodied in a man that was all about risking vulnerability for the sake of sharing hospitality in some of the least expected places.   

 

May we be such people.  May our lives be lives of uncontainable love that regularly risk reaching outside the wall when our walls seem so seductively useful and that chance entering into places where we presume love to be conspicuously absent or unwelcomed.

 

I return to my starting conclusion, scripture is amazing.

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