May is Asian Heritage month. The term Asian indicates inclusive and diverse customs or people who come from the region. Asia denotes broad areas such as East, South, Central and Southeast where different cultural heritages are celebrated. As you know my cultural background is Korean and we at West Point Grey United have many people with Chinese cultural heritages; we also have people of Japanese and Philipino ancestry. We share a similar cultural heritage in which a wholistic way of thinking is celebrated among the people. We are different yet we are similar in many ways because of regional and cultural affinity.
In the month of May there are many occasions which reflect our attention to personal relationships. In Korea, for example, many days are set apart to celebrate our relationships, Children’s Day (May 5), Parent’s Day, fomerly Mother’s Day (May 8) and Teachers’ Day (May 15). These celebrations remind us that we are surrounded by many people who give us joy and nurture our growth. In the month of May in Canada we are invited to embrace Asian heritage so that our society may become more open to other cultures, appreciate our differences and learn how to work together for the common good.
With this in view, let us return to today’s scripture reading. The story presented by Luke, writer of Acts, is about a woman of strength and courage, named Lydia. Lydia plays a major role in this passage. She also re-appears at the end of the same chapter. Lydia is a businesswoman who deals in purple cloth. Purple material was a luxury because of the expense of the dye used to make that colour. Her trade depends upon customers of wealth. We do not know whether she is a person of wealth or not, but Acts does identify her as the head of her own household. And it is thought that some of the women who followed Jesus and his disciples around to help them had the means to do so.
Guided by the Spirit of God, the Apostles Paul and Silas go to Philippi, the leading city of Macedonia, the first European city they have ever visited. While looking for a place of worship on the Sabbath, they meet a group of women by the river. Lydia belongs to this community of worshippers composed exclusively of women. This must have been an unusual situation for the men to deal with. It was culturally unacceptable for these Near-Eastern men to worship together and stay with women they did not know, but it was made possible by God’s inspiration that the two men were led by God’s Spirit and also that, “The Lord opened Lydia’s mind (v.14).”
Along with her household, Lydia is baptized and becomes the first European convert recorded in the Bible. Following her baptism, it is striking to read that she has to persuade and “prevail” upon Paul and Silas to accept her hospitality. This indicates that there is some reluctance to do so. Here are Lydia’s words, “Come and stay in my house if you have decided that I am a true believer in the Lord.” Certainly it sounds more like a challenge than a simple invitation. In such a male-dominated culture, she prevails upon these two men, both foreigners. Can we imagine who this woman was?
Besides this aspect of the story, the account of the early Christian community gathering in houses records the beginning of a new church in Philippi with Lydia as its leader. As with so many other women in the Bible, other stories of Lydia’s leadership have gone unrecorded. However, it is clear from Acts 16: 40 that her house quickly became a centre of the church in Philippi. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (4: 2–3) indicates that women played important roles in founding this community. Women’s leadership was an undeniable reality in the early church.
Lydia’s spirit is characterized by her openness and hospitality. Lydia’s heart is open to the voices and the needs of others. As I reflect further on Lydia, my mind goes to Ann Howe. Last week while I was preparing for today’s reflection, Karen Hunter sent a newspaper clip about our church’s “Out of the Cold” programme in December of 2003. In the picture, I was able to recognize familiar faces, including Ann’s. She was one of the pioneers of the programme to open church doors for anyone of any faith who is in need of nourishment or is feeling socially isolated, without family or community during the cold months of Vancouver. Ann as a cook, served delicious and nutritious food for the visitors. This is but one of her ministries; she opened her house for our Asian heritage people for fellowship and companionship. Further, she was a champion for promoting the well-being of Indigenous peoples through First United Church and beyond. I am humbled at her openness and hospitality for others.
As I reflect on the story of Lydia and the life of Ann Howe, I am moved to reaffirm that the task of Christian mission is not simply either to proclaim verbally the good news in Jesus the Christ or to recruit more members for the Christian church, but for transformation. Transformation is the conversion from a self-centered person to a God-centered person. As the spirit of the risen Christ transforms Lydia to open up her heart and her home for the work of God’s mission, may the spirit of the risen Christ continue to transform and convert us so that we open our eyes to see what God sees, our minds to be concerned about what concerns God, our hearts to love what God loves and to do what God loves us to do.
Through the faith of Lydia and Ann, we are gaining a clear vision of becoming an intercultural church where we celebrate different cultural heritages and faith traditions, affirm varieties of sexual orientations, try to follow the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and further develop respect in creation. The task is upon us. As we roll up our sleeves together to build our faith community, we are becoming bearers of God’s love (John 13:34). Amen.