Uniform Lesson for February 28, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 16:11-15, 40; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
We come to the end of our study of call in general, and the call of women in particular, with the story of Lydia — a worshipper of God, a dealer in purple cloth and an early convert to the Way of Jesus along with her household. Like many of the women we’ve encountered thus far, she not only has gifts for listening and discernment, but she joins the band of women (before and after) who make the mission of Jesus and Paul possible. There are not many who can “prevail” upon Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. But “she” (feminine, singular, third-person pronoun) is one!
Acts 16:11-13 — A precarious position
At first glance, Lydia might appear to be one of the outsiders the author of Luke/Acts loves to champion. She and her fellow worshippers gather outside the gate of Philippi, perhaps collectively lacking either the means or the mechanisms for securing a place of worship inside. Their specific site is simply “by the river,” an undesired spot where Paul and his cohorts “supposed” there might be a “place of prayer.” Her congregation is hazily described as “the women who had gathered there,” an ecclesial structure that seems to lack sufficient polity or permanence to gain much attention from the Philippi Chamber of Commerce, which may indeed be the point. Paul picks a group of women gathered beside the river outside the gates of Philippi to begin his Macedonian mission. This seems like worldly foolishness indeed.
Acts 16:14-15, 40 — A person of prominence
However, despite the marginal status of this site and situation, there is a ringer in the crowd! Lydia is an expatriate from the city of Thyatira (in present day Turkey), a vital urban center known for its trade in textiles. She has credentials of a professional kind. She is “a dealer in purple cloth,” positioned at the high end of her market, like a dealer in diamonds or derivatives today. She is engaged in commerce of the most lucrative kind. Lydia is already a “worshipper of God,” a distinction that gains her the same kind of religious credibility as the earlier Ethiopian eunuch who encountered Phillip on his way home after going to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27). She is a God-fearer of the most laudable kind.
When we read that the Lord “opened her heart to listen,” we think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:32). Lydia is a follower on the Way. When she decides to be baptized, no male figure is mentioned before the whole household joins her. Lydia is the spiritual “head” of her household. When she invites Paul and his party to “come and stay at my home,” she, like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5), is judged not only to be sufficiently responsible in terms of faith but sufficiently responsible in terms of finance to serve as Paul’s base of operations in Philippi (just as Prisca did in Corinth). While Lydia’s place by the river that Sabbath day may have seemed precarious and marginal, her place in the spread of the gospel is anything but. Lydia joins the ranks of the women we have been studying, from Anna on, who had a gift of prophecy, who could hold their own in theology and who demonstrated a kind of generosity and gumption and resilience that put the men to shame. Lydia may have seemed the “least” in the kingdom that first day in Philippi, but she is revealed to be one of the “greatest” in the Acts of the Apostles, when all is said and done.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31 — A perplexing pairing
For all these reasons, it is more than a little perplexing that the editors of this series chose to end our lessons with Paul’s quote from the Corinthian correspondence. Paul reminds the Corinthians that not many of them were wise or powerful or noble by human standards. But what about Prisca? And what about Lydia? The only way to read this passage at the end of our study is by repeatedly stressing Paul’s use of the phrase “in the world”: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world … to reduce to nothing things that are.” For by the end of our study, it’s clear that “the world” did a pretty poor job of noticing the work and witness of the women who have been part of this story all along. Thank goodness there is a little more wisdom in Scripture — at least for those who have the eyes and the hearts to see.
For discussion: Is Scripture the only place where women sometimes go unnoticed and nameless today?
RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.
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