Most often we think of heroes or heroines as persons who singularly stand out and apart from others in their community through their courage or moral example. And there is a place for recognizing the singularity of exemplary lives. Hebrews 11 is such a list of biblical “heroes of the faith.” This summer your faith community has been looking at such heroes of faith. But, the truth is, we can only understand heroes or heroines in connection with their communities. No hero or heroine stands alone and apart from their community. We cannot fully understand Dorothy Day apart from her Roman Catholic community and particularly the Catholic Worker movement. We cannot fully understand Martin Luther King Jr. without also understanding the black community of which he was a part; its traditions, practices, music, style, struggles, hopes, dreams, and religious expression. The story of a hero or heroine is also the story of a particular community or communities.
The story of “Lydia” in the book of Acts is not only a story about a unique individual, although “Lydia” is not a personal name. In reality her name is a province of Thyatira, possibly indicating she was a former slave without a given Roman name. Her story is also a story about her own communities. In only a few verses of chapter 16 in the Acts of the Apostles, we learn something about Lydia and the communities of which she was a part. First, we will examine three of her communities to better understand Lydia as a distinctive person. With each identified community we will dialogue around one reflective question to connect her story with our own story and that of our own communities.
The first community we encounter in the story of Lydia is the synagogue. According to Acts, the missionary practice of Paul was to find a synagogue in the cities to which he travelled as the first place to preach and teach the message of Jesus as Messiah. I don’t think his travels to Philippi were any exception, though it has been disputed. On the Sabbath Paul and his missionary companions went outside the city gate to a river, where they supposed there was a “place of prayer.” If their custom was to look for a synagogue on the Sabbath, then it would seem that what they were expecting to find alongside the river was a synagogue. The word translated “place of prayer” (προσευχη) is a synonym for “synagogue.” The reason it has not been translated as “synagogue”? First and foremost, because it was an assembly of women! How can you have formal worship when it’s just a bunch of women? Also, there must not have been any Jewish males in Philippi, goes the reasoning, to form a synagogue. It must simply have been a cozy women’s prayer group meeting in a bucolic setting down by the riverside.
All evidence points to this being a synagogue community located by the river; 1) the fact that this whole scene was parallel to Paul’s other city encounters; 2) the language of “gathering,” “sitting” and “speaking” indicating teaching and preaching; 3) that 10 men were not required to form a synagogue, and 3) the preponderance of evidence that the word for “place of prayer” refers to a synagogue. That being the case, Lydia was involved in a Jewish synagogue in Philippi composed primarily of women!
What do we learn about Lydia from this community? Lydia is described as a “worshipper of God” or “god-fearer,” a term for a Gentile proselyte to Jewish faith. Gentile women were particularly attracted to the Jewish faith. There must have been something in the faith that affirmed their identity as women. There were in the ancient world women who were even heads of synagogues. In Philippi, we have what was probably an exceptional case of a synagogue primarily made up of women. Imagine how this unique community shaped and formed Lydia as a person of faith and as a woman!
What might someone learn about you as a person and a Christian from understanding your community of faith?
The second community we encounter in Lydia’s story is the household. Lydia listened eagerly and her heart was open to hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed to the women of the synagogue. This led to the baptism of her whole household. This ancient Mediterranean household was not the same as a modern household, understood as a nuclear family, although ancient and modern households have both been typically understood as ruled and owned by the paterfamilias, or father of the family, until most recently. This ancient household was the basic economic unit of society, economia (literally “household management”) being derived from the word for household (οικοσ). As well, the household was a place of worship. The household was not based solely on blood kinship, but also included slaves and freed persons, who assisted in the family work.
No “partriarchal family” structure is mentioned in the text, no male head of the household. It appears that Lydia was the head of her own household, which does not necessarily mean she was a widow. It does mean she was the leader of her household; its work, economics, and worship life. Although untypical, there were households ruled by mater familias, or mother of the family. It is possible that Lydia’s household was composed primarily of women. The production of cloth was the work of women. She must have transferred her business to Phillipi from Thyatira, which was known for the manufacture of dyed cloth. Some of the women gathered at the synagogue may have been part of Lydia’s household and business.
It is not necessary to conceive of Lydia as an “independently wealthy business woman” or “rich cloth merchant,” as has been the traditional interpretation. Production and sale of purple dyed cloth was not necessarily a lucrative business for all persons in the industry. It’s production was a rather disgusting, smelly process. It’s possible that Lydia and those who worked with her together made a subsistence living. In this picture Lydia must have relied upon the communal work of her household to maintain economic sustainability. Only through shared work was the household community economically sustainable in a peasant society with very small elite upper class and no middle class.
How might households in the church work together collectively to address the economic sustainability of persons within the household of faith (the church) and in the larger household (economy) of our communities?
The third and final community we encounter in the story of Lydia is the church. Upon the baptism of her household Lydia urged Paul and his companions to come and stay at her home. Her invitation is a sign of hospitality. Not only was hospitality a customary and expected practice in the ancient world, it was the means by which the early church was established and grew. Churches were not buildings, but the people who assembled together (ekklesia=called out, a political term). And their first meeting places were in the household of converts, such as Lydia, the first European convert to Christianity. By the time we get to verse 40 of Acts 16, Lydia’s home appears to have become a house church, the center of Christian life in Philippi. Directly out of prison Paul and Silas come to Lydia’s household and encouraged the brothers and sisters, familial titles given to members of the Christian community. Lydia is the patron, and even possibly the leader, of the Philippian house church.
Lydia’s initial invitation to Paul was prefaced with these words: “if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my home. And she prevailed upon us.” The indication is that she has indeed been accounted faithful in her baptism. Her baptism and fidelity to “the Lord Jesus Christ” places her and the other converts in a new community, in an alternative society that stands over against the society and those faithful to Lord Caesar and the Roman imperial order. There is a hint of danger in Lydia’s compelling appeal “prevailing” upon Paul to come to her home. The possible danger is narrated in the story of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas. Lydia practices risky hospitality. A person entered this new community at Philippi at some risk and danger.
Describe what the church today would look like as an "alternative community" or "contrast society" (e.g., living in faithfulness to Jesus as Lord) to our surrounding communities and society.
Lydia’s three communities---synagogue, household, and church---help us understand what made her a distinctive person. Here was a unique woman who was shaped by these three different communities. A Gentile worshipper of the Jewish God among a community of strong women forming a synagogue, the head of her own household, leader of a business which was sustained economically by a solidarity in work, the first European convert to Christianity, a patron and possibly leader of the Christian house church in Philippi, a community that shaped a new people together resisting the empire of another Lord. Here was a woman formed by her distinctive communities. As we have listened eagerly to Lydia’s story may these words be the call of her life to radical faithfulness for each of us and our communities …and she prevailed upon us.