Parish Eucharist 26th May 2019
'Here Am I': Lydia and Women in the Church
Acts 16. 9 – 15
Revelation 21. 10, 22 – 22. 5
John 14. 23 – 29
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Last Monday, Bishop Sarah came to the North and South Camden Deanery Synod to spend an evening talking about a huge range of topics that have been on people’s minds and hearts. Children and young people. Interfaith dialogue. Climate change and the environment. The importance of focusing on a community’s roots and its soil rather than just expecting wonderful fruit to spring up and being confused or disappointed when it doesn’t. Taking care of each other and knowing, in the simplest and most honest way, that it is genuinely fruitful to build communities who want to dwell with God together and invite new people to join them, instead of putting up defences and barriers to exclude, or merely tolerating each other without daring to go a bit deeper and really live the Gospel together.
When a community’s love for God and for neighbour are evident, when the Holy Spirit’s loving guidance is deeply heard and cherished for the common good, glorious things can happen at the level of personal relationships and international political and religious transformation. It takes trust and confidence to build that kind of community. Acts, which we’ve been reading in these Eastertide weeks, tells us what this community looks like and how it behaves. This was the passage that Bishop Sarah shared with us a few days ago: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.’ There can never be too much prayer and fellowship in a community bound together through our shared life in Christ, one Body because we all share in one Bread at the Eucharist. Awe. Wonder. Inspiration from a community daring to risk being truly open to God and to each other. This is not an easy utopian vision. This is hard work, like any truly meaningful relationship. Those words from Acts have stayed with me, helping me to see even a tiny bit more clearly and more joyfully what work the Holy Spirit is doing in each of us.
And that text is in conversation with our reading from Acts today. God’s vision invites Paul to Macedonia. There, a woman named Lydia is among a group listening attentively to what these counter-cultural subversive foreigners have to say about Jesus. Her faith in God is present, her interest is piqued. As a community leader and head of a household, she would have been profoundly radical alongside her high status. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Lydia often makes me think of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose activism and top-level social justice initiatives made her a powerful figure in her own right. She once said that ‘A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.’
For the first to hear and embrace Jesus’ message, there is a risk in even listening, never mind following, leading, teaching, supporting, proclaiming. Even to be present for what Paul has to say brings its complications. Lydia has substantial status, significant resources, and a leading role in her community. Purple cloth, as the biblical scholar and Vice-Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral points out, was more valuable than gold in Paul’s time. Gooder also notes, crucially, that Paul’s vision, which results in traveling to meet Lydia, takes him out of his geographical comfort zone in the east of Asia Minor into the lesser-known west, and eventually to Rome. He goes to a completely new place, with all the challenges that brings, inspired by the Holy Spirit’s invitation. When he responds to God, not knowing what the journey will bring, the first person mentioned by name who begins to follow Jesus is a woman. Lydia.
For Lydia, because of her status and prominence, following Jesus would be visible, scrutinised, and – hopefully – respected and inspirational. But, complicated and exposing too. Our reading gives us two things about Lydia’s active response to her new-found faith in God. First, not only she but her whole household – and she is the head of this household – were baptised. Second, she expresses her new identity through hospitality. Offering her home is an enormous gesture of trust and respect, and makes the connection with earlier descriptions of these followers of Jesus who share what they have in common and support each other as equals together in Christ.
Writing of another woman mentioned in Acts, Junias, the early Christian theologian John Chrysostom, observed:
‘Even to be an Apostle is great, but also to be prominent among them, consider how wonderful a song of honour that is, for they were prominent because of their works because of their successes. Glory be, how great the wisdom of this woman, that she was deemed worthy even of the Apostles title.’ It is important to see that as we focus on these women through our reading of Acts today, we are part of a long tradition, too rarely seen, that celebrates women’s leadership, teaching, and proclamation as an intrinsic part of our biblical faith.
25 years ago, the Church of England began to ordain women as priests. There have been many ways of marking this important anniversary, including a service at Southwark Cathedral yesterday at which Bishop Sarah presided and Paula Gooder spoke. There is also a new exhibition at the Oxo Tower on Southbank. Impactful black and white photographs by the artist Jim Grover document and express the life and work of 12 priests in Southwark who are women. As Harriet Sherwood describes them: ‘Joyce Forbes looks after her grandson five days a week and campaigns for affordable housing. Susie Simpson absorbs the anger and pain of young men locked up in prison. Helen Harknett fights for social justice and LGBTI inclusion. At 92, Ann Gurney lives quietly these days.’ These women, and women throughout the Church of England, Bishop Sarah among them, have given their lives to God so that they might bring the light of Christ into the heart of the world. There are so many ways to do that. Lydia found hers. The women of Southwark are working out theirs. Every woman and girl in this church is in the process, whether this is on the surface or beneath the surface of your lives, hopes, and questions, of discovering what God’s call is for you. Everyone has a vocation to discover. We can help each other with that, too. Encourage. Teach. Welcome.
‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give to you’, Jesus says in today’s Gospel. Do not be afraid. Trust. Be cradled in the arms of God when the world’s violence, rejection, or suffering become sharp and vivid. In Jesus’ promise of peace, and in the promise of the Holy Spirit, God promises to dwell with us. Not only to be guiding us, or leading us, but living within us and inspiring us, like Lydia, to open our hearts. Who knows what may happen when all of us choose to do that – what may take root, what may grow, what distant travellers will be welcomed into our communities? In hope and faith, we know what God’s promise to dwell with us offers in the New Jerusalem described in the radiant imaginative language of Revelation: healing, life, freedom from suffering, and the radical prospect of seeing God face to face. The promise of resurrection within the perpetual light of the holy source of light, in absolute unity with God’s love. Amen.
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