Today’s First Reading is one of those “Meh” readings from Acts. We often read Acts like it is a historical chronicle. I get to a scene like today’s I’m thinking, “Luke just wrote down everything, didn’t he?” One day Paul had a dream, we took off on an uneventful boat ride, at Philippi we met a worshipper of God who sold purple cloth, baptized her, stayed at her place a few days. Whoop de do. But I don’t think Luke just wrote everything that happened. Luke selected his stories and their structure and the order in which he told them for theological ends. Luke has a point in sharing this story. The story revolves around Lydia, the purple cloth dealer and worshipper of God. What is a “worshipper of God”? If we answer that, we might get a sense of why Luke told us the story.
A “worshipper of God” is not a Hebrew but participates in some Hebrew worship and shares Hebrew beliefs. Hebrews kept the law (to one degree or another) and believed in the God of Israel. Pagans, properly speaking, neither kept the law nor believed in the God of Israel. The group called “worshippers of God” lived in the space between these two groups. They were familiar with scripture and believed in the God of Israel. They attended synagogue services. The wealthier ones even patronized synagogues. Their official status, however, was pagan, just like most people in the empire. So they lived and moved like most people. Part of being Roman was sacrificing to Rome’s gods. Hebrews didn’t have to do this because of their special protected status, but everyone else did, and Hebrews had their own taxes and sacrifices. God worshippers like Lydia did sacrifice to Rome, and because of this could believe and live as they pleased. Add to this Lydia’s occupation as a dealer of expensive purple cloth, and we get a picture of a powerful and influential woman, who lived an upright life by Roman standards and believed in the God of Israel.
Lydia puts all of this in peril when she is baptized. Christians don’t sacrifice to Rome’s gods and they don’t enjoy Hebrew protected status unless they are Hebrews. Lydia is not converting to Judaism or promising to keep Kosher. She’s gone rogue, we might say. The state religion in that world justifies the existence of the state. I don’t mean that the Emperor and his buddies sat down and invented a religion. Rather, societies and cultures made stories about gods inhabiting their cities, and the life of a city or empire became wrapped up in the worship of its gods to the extent that political and civic life existed for the sole purpose of worshiping the gods. Failure to worship was treason. Lydia’s baptism made her a traitor! Traitors in Rome might end up on crosses. It is quite a drop from being a well-connected, well-respected, dealer of purple cloth to being on the short list for people to blame and crucify next time there is a crisis. What makes Lydia do this?
I think the answer may lie in one of the Bible’s most enduring stories, one we didn’t hear today: Genesis 3, the Fall. We remember the gist of it: The snake says to Eve, “C’mon, eat the fruit. God’s afraid of you, and that’s why God said, ‘don’t eat.’” Eve thinks about it, eats, gives some to Adam and he eats. They decide to make shorts for themselves. God asks Adam, “What the heck?” Adam says, “The woman you gave me told me to!” God turns to Eve, “You can’t possibly have an excuse as lame as his.” Eve says, “The snake tricked me.” God says, “I stand corrected.” So God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” That curse is more complicated than putting a hex on someone or claiming the Cubs don’t win in October because of a goat. It carries connotations of damnation or a ban, being cut off. Alienation. Adam must toil on the land and nonetheless he is cut from it, alienated from it. He is not at one with it, and it could yet fail to produce. Lydia is not Adam and she is not a farmer; she experiences alienation in her own way. Maybe she feels great love for her purple cloth, great pride in its make, love for her business, joy and excitement in haggling and closing the deal, affection for her employees and slaves, love for her friends…and nonetheless severance from everything and everyone. She experiences the alienation, being cut off, the ban, the damnation, the curse.
Perhaps Lydia places her life in peril because she receives a promise. Perhaps in Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified and risen Lydia receives a promise of reversal. God reverses the curse upon the ground. The promise of connection and wholeness where once there was alienation and brokenness runs throughout the New Testament. New Testament scholar Craig Koester suggests this is how we should understand the passages of today’s Second Reading which mention enforced absence of things “unclean” or “cursed” from God’s holy city. It is easy to read lines like “nothing unclean will ente r[the city], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood,” or, “Nothing accursed will be found there any more,” and think it is talking about our enemies finally getting what they deserve, or to think it is condemning us and saying, “read this because you sure won’t ever be there to see it!” But the reason nothing there is accursed is that God reversed the curse. The reason nothing there is unclean or abominable is that God has cleaned everything. The people gathered around the Lamb at the center of the throne no longer feel alienated from their own life and work. They are connected to their life and their work and to the Lamb. The New Jerusalem, where God is all in all, is a place where we are connected again with the world. In a word, it is Peace. The Peace of Christ may be enough for Lydia to risk everything.
Christ’s peace is risky. It is countercultural, neither assured through force of arms nor enforced through societal pressures. And it isn’t idle. It is not peace as in absence of conflict, peace as in “nah, I don’t have the energy to cause trouble.” We live in Christ’s peace by keeping Christ’s word: “Just as I have loved you so you should love one another.” That’s “keeping” in the sense of causing activity to continue. We have to keep Jesus’ Word because the man himself isn’t here to talk. In today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that the word-keeping will work. He is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. Rudolf Bultmann calls the Holy Spirit, “the power given to the community.” She is the power given to the Church to love one another as Christ has loved us. In other words, Christ called his contemporaries to live for God in their neighbors. Today, the Holy Spirit repeats that call and empowers us to live for God in our neighbors. We do not yet enjoy the connection to others as described in Revelation; we can in the Holy Spirit enjoy the connection to others now, today, minus the New Jerusalem and end of time stuff.
It may just be that in the Church Lydia feels like she can keep Christ’s word, to love her neighbors most fully, and to enjoy the fullest possible connection to her purple cloth, her business, her friends, and her world. We learn infuriatingly little about Lydia. She vanishes from Acts and isn’t mentioned in any of Paul’s biblical letters (though some have tried to suggest that one of the women Paul names is actually Lydia by a different name). So I cannot tell you what her life as a Christian looked like. Except to say that protected status was gone. Lydia was no longer living an upright life by Roman standards. She placed her power and influence in peril by giving her life over to loving God in her neighbors. She placed her power and influence in peril by letting the breath in her lungs be the Holy Spirit who breathes in the lungs of the Church; the Holy Spirit who calls us into the world, to the powerless, the oppressed, the targeted, to our neighbors whom society has placed on its fringes or under its thumb; the Holy Spirit who through us advocates for others just as she advocates for us, who makes us the voice of the voiceless, the dignity of the ashamed, the purity of the stigmatized.
Today’s First Reading—one of those “Meh” readings from Acts—is no less than the story of someone who had everything to lose, and said, “To hell with it.” It is the story of a life given over to being the advocate for those who need one. Lydia answered the call of the Spirit. The same Spirit breathes here today at Trinity, calling us to feed the hungry, house the homeless, welcome those whom society drives out, and to advocate for each other as she advocates for us. Just as we don’t know what happens next to Lydia, we don’t know what will happen next to us. But we do know we can answer the call.