Easter Sermon Series 2016 - Week Six Preaching Notes
Key Word: Loyalty
Notes for Acts 16:9-15
Since we celebrate Mother’s Day on this day in the United States, I thought it would be a good week to focus on some of the mothers of the Christian faith, and especially Lydia, who is one of the earliest female Christian leaders whose story we have on record. And so once again I have take liberty with the lectionary and moved this passage, which was originally assigned for last week, to this week.
One of my favorite books on the role of women in the early church is Bonnie Thurston’s Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998). As we consider the story Lydia, I will once look to Thurston’s work as the primary source informing my notes on this text.
This story marks the beginning of Paul’s ministry on the European continent, as he makes his way across the peninsula into Macedonia and into Eastern Europe. As a colony of Rome, Philippi is a place of special rights and privileges. One of those special rights and privileges is that women are allowed to participate in the culture with more freedom than in places previously visited by Paul. In this instance, women seem to have special rights and privileges in the synagogue. Thurston states that the word translated as “place of prayer” (verse 13) is a word that, when used in other places in scripture usually refers to synagogues. Since the synagogue was usually the initial point of contact for a visiting minister, it makes sense that Paul would have gone there first. Presuming Thurston is correct about all of this, then it would appear that in this synagogue in Philippi women were allowed to gather for prayer without men present. And in fact, when Paul and his colleagues were invited to sit and speak with them, they were invited to sit in the rabbinic position for the purpose of teaching this group of women who had gathered for worship in this synagogue. Among these women was a woman by the name of Lydia.
Lydia was obviously a person of importance in the community. She was a professional woman, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God, that is, a Gentile woman who had accepted Jewish teaching, but who was not technically Jewish by ancestry, but who had become conversant in the Jewish faith. And finally, she was the head of her own household, which would have been very unusual in this place and time. She was also clearly a risk-taker, in that she invited Paul to come to her home without concern for what effects it might have on her reputation or her business.
The story goes that after hearing what Paul had to teach, her heart was opened to receive Christ and she and her entire household were baptized. So this means that Paul’s very first missionary church on European soil was started by women. This is pretty amazing to think about. As Thurston puts it, “Paul’s first European congregation is made up of women. In Gentile Macedonia there were apparently not ten Jewish men to make up a synagogue congregation, but faithful women met to worship nonetheless, were receptive to Paul’s preaching, and, according to Acts, became the first European converts. Lydia’s home became the meeting place for these new Christians (verses 15 and 40). One wonders of Paul’s letter to the Philippians was addressed to her home. In that letter, as we saw, there was little hint of limitation on women in the Christian community” (Thurston, 124).
The fact is, there were women among Jesus’ first disciples. There were women that traveled with him and heard him teach alongside the men for three years. All four gospels report that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb. Some of the earliest Christian communities were supported by, housed, and led by women. It was only after Christians started being threatened for their radical behavior, which included allowing women to teach and lead, that the early church began to greatly limit the activities and roles of women in the church.
I remember when I was in seminary, I had a really close female friend, and we always talked about how one day we were going to write a book together about what we learned about Jesus as little girls in the church from all those years of standing at the women’s feet in the church kitchen as they worked together to prepare for a potluck, are serve at the coffee hour, or planned and hosted a spaghetti dinner.
Women will tell you that in spite of the church’s oppression of them for more than two millennia, they are the ones who really run the church. They are the ones who volunteer, and who support the church, and who keep things organized and get things done! Women have been doing this in every church, from every denomination, for all of the generations that Christianity has existed. They are the loyal backbone of every Christian community.
What have you learned about Jesus from the women in your church? Is there a story you can tell about a female saint who shared her faith with you in such a way that it changed your life, or opened your eyes to greater and deeper faith? I have told many stories about the women who shaped my faith over the years that I have been writing preaching helps. Last year for Mother’s Day I wrote about my own mother. In my notes for last week I wrote about my Great Aunt Elsie. But there are many other women I could write about, because the truth is, even though most of the women I have known in the church were not preachers, they did more to teach me about Jesus than most of the preachers I have listened to over the years.
As we celebrate the contribution of women to the church of Jesus Christ through the Festival of the Christian Home and Mother’s Day today, let us lift up the loyalty of our mothers to the faith. Let us tell the stories of those who have so graciously taught us by their words and by their example what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for generations, even when they have not been treated as equals by the Christian community.