SERMON: The Hospitality of Lydia, the first European Christian

The Hospitality of Lydia, the first European Christian – a Sermon Preached by Graham Low on the Sixth Sunday of Easter at St Mary’s (26.5 19) 

The heart of the gospel we proclaim is that God so loved the whole world. Several of the four readings set for the various services for today have the peoples and nations of the whole world in view. In them weare reminded that God has always had a love which is cosmic in scope. They remind us that we so often tend to think of God acting only in defined ways and acting in areas in which we are personally involved in some way or other. Our perspectives are often very narrow. It has sometimes been said that if you wish to hear God laugh, tell God your five-year plan! We all know the dangers of long-term planning in every part of human life. God will surprise us at a time and place and in a way we do not expect.

In the opening verses of tonight’s reading from the book of Acts we can see how the human plans of Paul, John Mark and Barnabas fall apart as they continue their missionary journey. They had originally intended to go east or north in Asia, but in visions they are discouraged from doing so by the Holy Spirit and so they go through Phrygia and Galatia before attempting to go to Bithynia, a key strategic Roman province, and an obvious place for missionary activity. But again we read that the Holy Spirit does not encourage them to go there. And so, during the night while they are at Troas, Paul has a vision about a man in Macedonia pleading with him to go and help there instead. Paul had no intention of going westward to a region of Greece. But this divine intervention alters Paul’s plan drastically, giving him a new vision, and leads to his entry into the edge of Western Europe for the first time. As a result of this move to Macedonia the first churches of the west are born, and indeed from this base the whole of western Christianity is born.

We heard that Paul was called to the city of Philippi in Macedonia by a man. But who is he? There has been endless speculation about who he may have been. Whoever he may have been Paul regards the voice as the voice of God and follows it without delay. Once Paul and his companions reach Philippi they wait until the Sabbath day, when they search for devout Jews. We know nothing about the synagogues in Philippi but it seems clear that the first Christian sermon in Europe ispreached here in a synagogue, since Paul is a rabbi who would have a right to speak there. Instead of hearing about the Macdonian man we are told about Lydia, an independent business woman from Thyatira, a manufacturing city close to where Paul had come from. Lydia is wealthy and deals in purple cloth, dyed with madder root found nearby. She is not a Jew but has joined other women and, having heard Paul’s message, returns with her household for baptism. Lydia becomesimmortalised as the first Christian convert on European soil. 

The biblical accounts of Paul’s ministry strongly suggest that the most receptive people to it are Jews. They seem most aware of God’s compassion and justice and are alert to God’s expectations forhumanity. This is an important point for all who are involved in any aspect of bringing new people to Christian faith. It is rare for a new commitment to come out of the blue: almost invariably matters of the heart have been stirred or prepared in some way or other long beforehand.

Lydia is so very responsive to Paul and his companions that she asks them to visit her home. She does so in a manner which makes their response a test of their confidence in her; “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”. She is saying “I have believed in you: now show me your confidence in my faith”. We can easily forget that those who are new to the faith need continuing positive affirmation from those further along their Christian way. A further important point that emerges from this text is that the first recorded preaching of the gospel in Europe leads to a woman being the first convert. There are still many European churches which deny women full and equal participation in their life. Though full and equal participation of women is accepted in our parish, we need to remember that this is not universally accepted either in the Church of England, or in the Anglican Communion as a whole, let alone in the free and house churches, as well as in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, in spite of the fact that the European pilgrimage in which we are all engaged was pioneered by a woman!

Had Paul gone north east into Bithynia in Asia, as was his intention before being given a vision from God, he could well have become caught up in a difficult and unrewarding mission. From other accounts written at the time, such a move would probably have been not only wrong in geographical direction, but also in time.

If we are given directions for our own Christian journey, either in the form of some kind of a vision (unlikely as that may seem) or through our intuition, we should pay careful and positive attention. As a recent commentator has put it, we are not a compass unto ourselves.

After her baptism, Lydia’s desire was for hospitality. It seems likely that the gift for making people welcome was a key to the foundation of the Philippian church, which was so dear to Paul’s heart. It also seems likely that Lydia was involved in setting up the church in Thyatira, which wascommended for its life-enhancing love and service. Hospitality has always been a foundational part of mission.

As we follow in the footsteps of Paul, may we respond to vision and intuition coming from God, with love, thanksgiving and also, like Lydia, with whatever hospitality we can offer.