I confess. When I was given the lectionary passages for Sunday May 1 to preach from and discovered that the reading from Acts was the story of Lydia, the first thing I thought of was the muppet version of the song, ‘Lydia Oh Lydia, have you seen Lydia, Oh Lydia the tattooed lady…’.
I was to preach in the historic English Reformed Church (ERC) in Amsterdam. The ERC is a major tourist attraction in Amsterdam as the building dates back to the 16th Century and the present thriving congregation led by Rev Lance Stone was established 1607 (there’s loads of information on their website http://www.ercadam.nl/ ). Married to the Acts 16 reading on Lydia was a reading from Revelation 21 & 22 about the heavenly city into which the kings and peoples of the earth bring the glory of the nations. The combined passages got me thinking about God’s vision for the nations being so much greater than our often parochial nationalisms accentuated by responses to the challenges of migration in Europe today. It also led me to rethinking my view of Lydia.
Most western based Bible commentaries, and most sermons I’ve heard, suggest that Lydia was a successful business woman with servants (her ‘household’) and discuss whether or not she was married or widowed, given that there’s no reference to a husband. Some get into discussions about election on the basis of the reference to God opening her heart. All very interesting, but it struck me as an interesting passage to address in the present European context and important not to ignore the vexed issues of immigration, economic migrants and refugees. It’s reflecting on the present context that challenged my previous comfortable assumptions about Lydia.
What we do know without the need to speculate is that Lydia was from Thyatira in Asia Minor (what we today know as Turkey). It was the centre of purple dye manufacture, so no big surprise that Lydia was in that business. However, we meet her in Philippi, a busy cosmopolitan Roman colony in the northern section of Greece where she has established her life, a home and a business.
Conclusion? Lydia, the first known Christian convert in Europe, was an economic migrant from Turkey who made good. Whatever the locals may have thought of her, God’s grace was upon her and her home was the first known place of Christian worship and hospitality in Europe.
OK, so there are lots of important elements to the migration debate I’m ignoring in this post, but what does the story of Lydia say about how I should frame my attitude to the debate on migration? At the very least it requires of me a humility to recognise that the thing that is dearest to me – my Christian faith – is full of such stories in which God tramples all over the boundaries and identities we establish, cherish and seek to defend.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the Muppets’ rendition of ‘Lydia, Oh Lydia’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHXZA_5XMJ4 )