Acts 16: 9-15

I wonder if you noticed how, in the hymn we sung before the Scripture readings, the last two lines ran:

                   til we become the place
                   in which the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.[1]

The word in Greek for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is in the feminine gender.  So the last line in this couplet could quite properly read in which the Holy Spirit make her dwelling.  I mention this because today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles begins with Paul having a vision of a man from Macedonia asking him to come to that country and proclaim the Gospel; and yet it is a woman, Lydia, whom he encounters, and through whom he establishes a new community of faith.

What does this interesting juxtaposition of him/her, male/female tell us? Last week, you may recall that when I was reflecting with the children early in the service, I spoke about the passage from Acts in which Peter comes back to the disciple group in Jerusalem and is castigated by them for engaging with Gentiles and sitting down with them at table fellowship.  And you will recall that Peter’s response to the Jerusalem church was that the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles just as it had come upon the disciples in Jerusalem at Pentecost; and that if they had been gifted with the Holy Spirit through Christ just as the disciples had been, who was he, Peter, to stand in the way of God and not include them in the community of the faithful?[2]

Now the interesting thing here is that Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, spoke of his confrontation with Peter in Antioch, in which he says he defied Peter to his face on the grounds that Peter had been happy enough to share hospitality with the Gentiles, but had subsequently withdrawn that hospitality when criticised for doing so by James and John.[3]  So there’s an element of disparity, of disconnect, between the account of Peter given in the Acts of the Apostles and that rendered in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. And we have another resonance of this disparity in today’s reading: Paul receives a vision of a man summoning him to Macedonia; but it is through a woman, Lydia, that he establishes a church in that country.

In terms of the Church’s historical approach to women, Paul is in many ways a difficult and problematic figure.  The claim is often made that Paul had “issues” with women; some even allege that he was openly misogynistic and hostile to women.  And, of course, in this regard reference is often made, for example, to Paul’s assertion in the First Letter to the Corinthians in which he argues that women should remain silent in church and not hold any authority within the community of believers.[4] And yet, in today’s reading from Acts, we have an example of Paul actively collaborating with a woman – who is also clearly an authority figure – in order to bring a Christian community into being.

What are we to make of these apparently irreconcilable dichotomies? It seems to me that what is highlighted here is the essential brokenness of human nature: our inability, on the one hand, to live up to our noblest intentions and standards; and, on the other hand, our strange capacity to be noble and intentional even while holding less than commendable attitudes. For Paul may indeed have had “issues” with women – issues that might very well have arisen from Paul’s grounding in the Pharisaic Judaism of his religious heritage, as well as the Greek patriarchal culture he imbibed as a citizen of the Hellenised Mediterranean world of his time – and yet despite this religious and secular enculturation,  despite the difficult and even objectionable things he may have written about women, Paul was clearly capable of working constructively and positively with women – even authoritative, powerful women.

Now, it could also be that these different accounts of Paul and Peter also reflect different traditions and alternate understandings within the early Church of what happened and who was responsible for what.  This would hardly be surprising, given we see such alternate traditions playing themselves out in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Paul’s Letters are the earliest known Christian documents; the earliest of them date from within a little more than a decade or so of Jesus’ death.  By contrast, the Gospel According to Luke and its sequel, The Acts of the Apostles, were written perhaps thirty to forty years later.  And as a document and a tradition within the early Church, The Acts of the Apostles is not always sympathetic to Paul – probably because the author came out of that disciple group in Jerusalem with whom Paul often found himself in conflict.  And yet in today’s reading it depicts Paul in a way that contradicts Paul’s own self-representation in many of his Letters.[5]

But that there should be so many contradictions and conflicting images should really come as no surprise.  In part it is because it is human nature to be contradictory; none of us is perfectly consistent – a fact that is often lost in the opportunistic point-scoring of political debates, or when we are inclined to be judgemental in our dealings with others.  However, it is also a part of our working with one another: Paul himself said that when he was among Jews, he was as a Jew, righteous before the Law; and when he was among Gentiles, he was as a Gentile and not a Jew.[6]  Some might view this as Paul simply engaging in cynical, opportunistic ingratiation into whatever context he found himself at any given moment: this is Paul the superficial chameleon. On the other hand, we might also regard it as emblematic of Paul the multi-faceted, complex individual who defies our simplistic stereotypes and dismissive assertions; a Paul who, despite whatever personal opinions he held or particular enculturation to which he was subject, was nonetheless possessed of a wideness of vision and heart that enabled him to do things and enter into relationships that rubbed against the grain of his encultured wisdom and received tradition.

So it could be that what we are seeing in today’s reading is an example of the kind of transformation, the kind of change within that we often talk about as being central to the life of faith.  This transformation is one that, far from making us pristine idols and plaster saints, actually enters into the messiness and complexity of our humanity.  It doesn’t stop us being human and holding prejudices and possessing the brokenness that is embodied within our internal contradictions; but it does enable us to be not captured by them and being captive to them.  And I think in many ways Paul is the greatest example of that: because in many ways, Paul was stubborn and arrogant and argumentative, he was very sure of himself and of his own authority under God.  But even at his most argumentative and contentious, Paul often qualifies himself by saying that a teaching he has just rendered is his opinion or viewpoint on a matter, and ought not to be confused with the Word of God.  So even Paul was able to overcome the things within himself that were broken and problematic.

It seems to me that’s what transformation is really about.  It’s not about us becoming perfect and angelic; it’s actually about us not being bound by the things within us that are less than perfect, and sometimes all-too-human.

And in the figure of Lydia, we have an extraordinary individual.  Today’s reading tells us she was in charge of the trade in purple cloth.  Now, this is actually really significant: because at this time, purple could only be produced as a dye by grinding the viscera of shellfish[7], into which cloth would then be soaked in order to be coloured purple.  And purple was the colour of the Emperor: and only the Emperor could wear garments that were completely purple.  Governors and senators and other members of the Imperial aristocracy could wear clothes with varying degrees of purple, depending on their rank.  Anyone else who did so would be guilty of treason, of purporting to be an Emperor.  And so the trade in purple cloth, like the salt trade, was a state owned industry, subject to close regulation by the Imperial administration.  Not just any old person could trade in purple cloth.

Meaning that Lydia was a person of considerable importance in her own right, long before Paul turned up on the scene. And she is an authority figure in a cultural context that quite literally said a woman’s place is in the home; indeed, not just in the home, but in a restricted part of the home, shut away from the important work and conversation being transacted by men.[8]  So you have the contradiction of a culture that is oppressive to women, in which a woman, Lydia, operates a highly sensitive and restricted trade.  Lydia is clearly a remarkable human being; and I don’t think it is by accident that it is to her that Paul gravitates, and with whom he collaborates.

Now, there may have been an element of practicality on Paul’s part, given Lydia’s obvious status and influences.  But equally clear in today’s reading is the fact that Lydia was not someone who was merely receptive to the Word of God, but who had been graced with the Spirit.  And for Paul, who is in many ways a dyed-in-the wool traditionalist – no pun intended! – this is what is paramount: Lydia is, for him, a person of spiritual authority who is more than a merely passive recipient of the Gospel.

And that’s remarkable, because even here, there’s an element of brokenness, of problematic contradiction.  Lydia being a person of local power and authority also becomes the head of the local Christian community.  So even at the beginning of the Church’s history, long before the alleged creation of “Christendom” by the Emperor Constantine, you see an unfortunate association of secular and religious power.  The irony, of course, being that, historically, such a conflation would almost always occur through men holding positions of power.  Nonetheless, today’s reading tells us that Lydia prevailed upon Paul to accept her hospitality – and Paul was not a person easily prevailed upon.  And yet, despite what he may have written, whatever he may have thought, whatever attitudes he may have held, Paul accepts her hospitality – and with it, the implied leadership of a household which her invitation contains.  And he also accepts her spiritual leadership, her authority to be the one through whom a Christian community will be established.

Ultimately, it seems to me that what today’s reading points us toward is, firstly, that there is no basis and no grounds for anybody anywhere at any time to say that any particular person or category of person is barred from the exercise of spiritual leadership, or is excluded from the grace of the Spirit.  And there is no category – race, gender, sexual preference, political opinion, whatever grounds you might want to think of – by which such an exclusion might be justified.  Secondly, today’s reading tells us that transformation is not a matter of “perfection” or measures of piety and righteousness.  Rather it’s about the reality of our brokenness not being a cage that restricts and defines us as a community of faith.  Paul, for all his undoubted shortcomings, was able to recognise – and, dare I say it – submit to the direction of God as manifested in Lydia’s spiritual leadership.

And we are called on to do likewise.  We are called upon to recognise and acknowledge that God’s love and grace extends to all; and that the first thing we need to do is become aware of, and to overcome, the assumptions and presuppositions within ourselves that establish categories of exclusion.  The second thing we need to do is that when those categories keep re-occurring in our lives, to remember the abundant grace of God that de-legitimises those categories and declares them to be null and void.  We often assume that by proclaiming the Gospel, we will liberate and free others; but today’s reading proclaims a Gospel by which we are ourselves liberated and set free, and are no longer prisoners to the brokenness within.

[1] Come Down O Love Divine. Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams. Lyrics: Bianco di Siena (d.1434), trans. Richard Frederick Littledale.

[2] Acts 11: 1-18

[3] Galatians 2: 11-14

[4] 1 Corinthians 14: 33b-35

[5] Loader, William “First Thoughts on Year C Acts Passages from the Lectionary: Easter 6”. Located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CActsEaster6.htm, accessed 29.4.16

[6] 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23

[7] As the Emperor Marcus Aurelius tells us himself in his Meditations, XI.13

[8] The Latin word gynaecium come from the Greek gunaikeion, meaning, literally, “women’s house/household”. This was the part of the house to which women in ancient Greece and Rome were restricted.

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