Where Will the Spirit Lead?
Good Shepherd – 7:30, 9, 11, 6 |:| Acts 16: 9 – 15
In reading the lectionary texts for today the first note I made about the text in Acts was that is was too short. It’s a short mention, almost in passing. We know that Luke, the author of Acts, is capturing the development of the early church. A significant portion of this book focuses upon the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. We are given lists of cities visited by the disciples and apostles. When we hear of other people joining the church it is common to only be told of their conversion story, possibly a few significant details about the new converts. The story of Lydia is no different.
Within these seven verses we are told this group of early Christians started in Troas to two cities before reaching Philippi. Then we are told this group stayed in Philippi for several days waiting for the Sabbath, met a group of women gathered – among them was Lydia. She was a businesswoman who was open to the good news, was baptized with her household and offered hospitality to this group of missionaries.
Why is this story even worth noting? It is a short clip in the big picture of the missionary journeys of the early church. Why do we find it within the lectionary texts during Easter tide?
The beauty of Scripture is even within short portions of text wisdom showers forth. Paul and his companions set forth to Philippi based upon a vision Paul had. This trip expands the mission territory already covered by Paul taking it out west. It was not that Paul had a vision that caused this group to leave for portions of the world they had not experienced yet. Rather it was a collective discernment for all involved to be willing to make their journey to the area of Macedonia. Together we see they made this venture.
This missionary journey was not Paul’s, nor was it this group of believers. It was God’s missionary journey. In the text we see God guiding and leading this group through various cities to finally arrive in Philippi. To be the church is to be open to the visions God offers, discern in a group of believers what the visions are leading to, then to make the voyage together.
The text in Acts makes it sound so simple and nonchalant even. No matter how “normal” or simple the text makes this following a vision of a man in Macedonia calling for Paul to help them may sound, I can’t help but believe the leap of faith it takes to trust the guiding of the Holy Spirit never gets to a point where it’s just business as usual. It is humanity responding to the divine – no matter how mundane the act might be it is always holy.
We are sixteen chapters into the book of Acts and are into Paul’s second missionary journey according to this book. The church is expanding and those sharing the good news are having to trust the encouragement and nudging of the Holy Spirit, and one another. No matter how long one believes in God and learns to trust the Holy Spirit the invitation to respond to God’s movement in one’s life never ends.
Paul received the vision but it was through the group’s discernment they began to respond to the Holy Spirit. The act of discerning God’s will for your life, the life of your family, the life of your faith community is a significant act of faith. Paul could have received the vision and kept it to himself. Paul could have shared the vision he had with his companions and they could have said it was merely a dream without giving space for discernment.
When we feel the Spirit moving in our lives it takes faith to respond to God with the time and space to discern what is being stirred within us. Thankfully Paul, along with his companions, chose to respond to the vision with discerning whether it was time for them to head to Macedonia.
Paul and the others are not perfect, just as all of here today are not perfect. Discerning God’s movement in our lives does not make us “good Christians”, either. What it doesfor us today it did for Paul then. It makes us open to what God might have in store for us next. It keeps us open to the movement of the Spirit. Thankfully we do not experience this alone, but within the realm of community.
Following this vision we journey with Paul to Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia, we are told. They follow their normal protocol for a journey to a new city to share the Good News; they look for places of worship or prayer. In this case we are told they went out of the city gate by a river and found a group of women praying. The men sit down with the women and share their story. This is when we learn of Lydia. Not much is told of her but from what we do know we realize her story is quite powerful.
In Scripture women were not identified without a male counterpart being identified, too. Eve had Adam, Sarah had Abraham, Ester had Mordecai, Mary had Joseph, Mary and Martha had Lazarus. Lydia is not connected to a man within this story signifying she was most likely the head of her own household – which was not common in her time. We are also told she was a businesswoman selling purple cloth – allowing us to see she was of some wealth. Lydia’s social status places her within the minority of her society. She also came to be a worshiper of God, how we are not told.
The image painted of Lydia is one of a powerful woman who has gathered together with other women praying to God. She is the one the story focuses upon once the missionaries had shared the Word of Jesus. Much like Paul was open to the vision he had leading this mission to Macedonia Lydia was open to hearing their testimonies of the Good News. Lydia was open to the Holy Spirit moving in her life and responded in faith for what had already been stirring within her.
For Lydia was a worshiper of God but had not become a member of the church when the missionaries arrived in Philippi. Once Paul and the others offered Lydia a next step in what she had already been drawn to she, along with her household, were baptized. With this she immediately becomes an apostle – and the first convert of the western missionary journey of Paul.
She is baptized into the early church but her response does not end there. Lydia then responds with hospitality to these believers she just met. Her offer is not one of “you all should come and stay with my household for the duration of your stay … if you like.” No, she is much more persuasive than that. Lydia says, “if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Talk about an offer they could not refuse.
Lydia had clearly expressed her faithfulness without hesitation and thus the missionaries would have had to deny her faith-filled response if they had said no. Lydia opens her house to strangers out of a desire to continue the conversation with the wiser believers who had brought the Good News to her group of prayerful women.
It took the openness to the Holy Spirit on both Paul’s and Lydia’s parts for the house church in Philippi to be birthed the way it was. This story is not one to praise Paul, his companions, the women praying, or Lydia. It is a story of the Spirit moving withinhumanity and God desiring to spread the Good News and the early Christian churchwith humanity. It is the Holy Spirit undergirding this story.
Layered upon the foundation of this story is the importance of being open to the movement of the Spirit and how humanity responds to divine encouragement and nudging. See, Scripture is robust even within seven verses of one chapter.
Within this text longing and grace meet there on the bank of the river. The longing heart of a faithful woman is opened by the gracious impulse of a faith-giving God in an action that like the incarnation itself, is at once fully human and fully divine. Like Lydia we are astonished when, looking back, we can say only that our steps were guided and our hearts opened.
If we, like Paul, were to talk openly about God’s involvement in our lives, we could not control the plan as we do in strategic planning. On the other hand, if we did share our visions from God, we might find ourselves with open hearts that readily receive the gospel that forever changes us, even to the point of providing hospitality to foreigners and those just freed from prison –
As we see Lydia’s hospitality do again for Paul after he is released from prison in later in this chapter in verse 40.
As tempting as it is to have a strategic plan for our spiritual lives, individually or as a community, being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit can be more frightening or unnerving. But, when we open ourselves the limits are endless for where the journey might take us. It takes courage to leave the calculations we place upon what God has for us aside and step out in faith to be moved by the visions God has for us. It takes communal trust to turn to each other for discernment as we support one another in following the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. .
“Through it all, we the church are called to – and capable of – an obedience born of open hearted hospitality. Lydia, our foremother, shows us the way.”
Paul had no idea the vision of a man pleading for this help to come to Macedonia would have led his group of missionaries to meet a group of women, not in fact a man, and begin the house church in Philippi under the leadership of Lydia. When we allow ourselves to follow the guiding of the Holy Spirit the journey is far greater than any plan we could have set forth ourselves.
Go forth towards the end of this Easter season with open hearts. Be transformed by the endless ways God will surprise, lead, and grant mercy to you and us as a church. May we as a community graciously hear the visions God is drawing forth within our own lives and respond lovingly with genuine discernment – no matter how scary or exciting the vision might be.
Where will the openness to the Spirit lead Good Shepherd? If we allow the Spirit to transform us the options are beyond anything we could imagine.