Dyers of Purple Cloth

One day, as they had many times before, a group of women gathered by the river to pray. Among them was Lydia. Scripture tells us she was a dealer in purple cloth, meaning she was a businesswoman. Her name is the same as the name of the state from which came the dyers of cloth, allowing her to act illustratively as a connection between people of business and people of faith. Lydia is not poor. She has no disease from which she needs healing. She hasn’t had 7 husbands. She does have a business and a household to run. Even with these responsibilities, she takes time out of her day to meet with other women to pray.

Paul arrives in Philippi looking for someone to talk to about Jesus. He is told that there is a group of God Fearers who pray by the river. A God Fearer was someone who wasn’t Jewish–or a worshiper of the gods in the Roman Pantheon–but one who sought to know the one God more. Paul walked over to the women with Timothy and Silas. The women looked up from their prayers. Allowing the interruption, they welcomed them, and asked them to speak.

Scripture does not record the men’s words. Instead, it turns us towards Lydia. At first, we are told, she heard their words. The Greek word used is the usual one for hearing. But there came a time when Timothy reports, “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” The word behind “listen eagerly” is prosecho, meaning to turn one’s attention and mind towards. There has been a change: Lydia’s heart opened, and she awoke to a new way.

We do not hear details of her baptism. Here the sparse writing matches a down-to-earth, get it done attitude which may be the way of Lydia. Scripture gets on to business: ”When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful, come stay with me.’ And she prevailed upon us (Luke 16:15).”

(The only other time someone prevails upon another in Luke/Acts is when the two men who unknowingly walked with the resurrected Jesus to Emmaus urged him to stay and eat with them. And, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened.)

At first glance, it seems as if Lydia is merely being hospitable, allowing the small group of evangelists to stay with her. But just as there is silence between Paul’s visit to the river prayer meeting and Lydia’s whole household being baptized along with her, so there is silence between the time she welcomes Paul into her home and the last word we have about her. It is as if the writer of scripture throws up his arms and admits not knowing how Lydia could do what she has done.

While Lydia operates beyond our vision, we watch as Paul gets into trouble when he, in frustration, sends away a spirit of divination that had made a woman following him around in the marketplace quite the pest. His exorcism angered the unnamed woman’s owners who enjoyed profits from her spiritual gift. A crowd gathers, Paul is accused of disrupting city life, and Paul and Silas are thrown into jail. Many know the oft-told tale of Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight, the chains falling off them, the jailor’s baptism, and the Romans’ official release of Paul and Silas. It is a story worthy of the many sermons that have been written on it. But, when Paul is released, how many of us remember where he goes?

Here’s a clue–there is a ministry in St. Louis called Lydia’s House; it provides transitional housing to women coming out of prison.

Acts 16: 40 “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home….”

To do what? To collect their belongings? To get a good meal before they left?

Perhaps both, but here is what we are told: “When they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Brothers, in Greek, is a way of naming those who have become part of the family of God through Christ, by whose spirit Paul says, we are adopted. In short, Lydia had founded a church. She brought people into a life with Christ, those who were looking for a spiritual home and a way forward with God.

How did she do it? How do we do it? It isn’t all spelled out in this scripture, but there are general clues. First, Lydia had a group of women she met with regularly to pray. Prayer and community were already a part of her life. Second, she allowed the Holy Spirit to take hold of her, to open her heart, and help her listen attentively. She was present, leaving behind her worries, allowing what God wanted to give to her to enter in. Finally, she sought to be a person of faith. She didn’t invite Paul into her house based on what she had there, but rather on what she had shown herself to be. With all these traits in place, she got to work without fanfare or arguments about a woman’s role, doing what God would have her do in the name of Jesus.

Whether you are a woman or a man, as we enter into Advent preparing for the coming of Christ, it seems like a good plan.

In Christ,

Heather