Worship | May 22

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.

Sermon | “Outside the gate by the river” 

Text: Acts 16:9-15
Speaker: Joel Miller

After a gathering last month for those preparing to join the church, Leah let me know she’d like to be baptized.  My response was that this deserves its own Sunday.  Baptism is far too rich an event to be crammed into an already rich event of hearing new members’ faith journey stories as we did two weeks ago.  After checking calendars, we settled on today. 

It was a pleasant surprise when I proceeded to peak ahead to this week’s lectionary readings and discovered the featured story: The baptism of Lydia in Acts 16.  It is one of the small but not insignificant joys of preaching when life and lectionary converge.

The practice of baptism connects us today to spiritual ancestors, through the Anabaptists who were determined to reclaim baptism as a conscious adult decision to follow in the way of Christ, all the way back Lydia, and Jesus who was himself baptized.   

The records don’t show who he was speaking about, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words while in prison, 1944: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).

Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the mass murder of Jews, homosexuals – as they were called -and people with disabilities.  He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, arrested and imprisoned, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces. 

In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding. 

Today we walk to the edge of our understanding and celebrate, we witness your baptism Leah, and we remember our own baptismal identity.  Or, if you have not been baptized, you can consider whether baptism is a step you might take one day.  Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?! 

Baptism carried the weight of life and death for the Confessing Church and the early Anabaptists.  And yet for Lydia, the way the story is told, baptism is about as chill and understated as it can get.   

Lydia was a businesswoman.  More specifically, she was “a dealer in purple cloth.”  Her baptism into the Jesus-way was important enough for the early church to include among the limited selection of stories in the book of Acts.  It’s a brief story, and it provokes just as many questions as it answers.  

We’re told that Lydia was from the city of Thyatira, long known as a center for purple cloth production.  To be a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira is kind of like saying you’re a Buckeye fan -from Ohio.  Thyatira was in the region of Lydia in Asia Minor.  So not only are you a Buckeye fan from Ohio, but you are named Ohio.  Lydia is her own person, but there also seems to be this sense in which she is representative of a kind of person for the early church.   

When we meet Lydia in this passage, she is not in Thyatira, or Lydia, or Ohio.  She’s in the city of Philippi, a Roman colony and major economic hub, a couple hundred miles northwest of Thyatira.  And she has a home in Philippi.  She has a house.  She has a household.

And she is about to meet up with another traveling salesperson of sorts, a spiritual entrepreneur.  Paul and Silas and their travel companions are extending their missionary activity the furthest west it has been yet.  They have just crossed the Aegean Sea and landed in Phillipi where they will meet Lydia and other women who are gathered outside the gate of the city, by a river, for prayer on the Sabbath Day.

That location makes this the first baptism to take place in Europe.  The Jesus movement was already spreading through Asia and Africa and now it finds its first home on a new continent.  So if you’re of European descent, Lydia serves as a spiritual ancestor in this additional way.  Although she was from Thyatira, in Asia Minor.  So the first recorded baptism in Europe was of a non-European, and took place well after baptisms throughout Asia and Africa.  I’m pretty sure that doesn’t show up on any of the “About Us” webpages of White Christian Nationalists. 

We are told that Lydia was already a “worshiper of God.” She was a Gentile, a non-Jew, drawn into the worship of the God of Israel – the God of the Hebrew slaves, the God of the prophets, the God of the Judean exiles who kept the faith in a foreign land.  The God of Sarah and Hagar, Ruth and Deborah and Esther. 

On a Sabbath day, gathered outside the city gate and by a river, she’s one of a number of women who hears a message from Paul.  We aren’t told what the message was.  The ways Acts tells it: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said.”  And then, in between that and the next verse, with no narration of the event itself, she’s baptized, presumably in the water of that river, right on the edge of town.  The next verse says: “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”   

Lydia the purple cloth dealer was apparently so accustomed to making executive decisions that she decides to get baptized on the spot without going through a catechism class, gets her household on board to join her, and convinces the traveling evangelists who just baptized them all that she has plenty of room at her place for them to stay while they’re in town.

Paul and Silas will get themselves thrown into prison while in Philippi for disturbing the peace, and the first place they will go when they finally get out will be Lydia’s home.  Years later Paul will be away from Philippi but in prison, again, and write a letter to that little church he had planted in Philippi, a letter which becomes our New Testament book of Philippians, thanking them for the material and spiritual support they sent him while in prison.  Perhaps Lydia’s home was one of the places the believers gathered to hear Paul’s letter from prison read out loud. 

Sometimes your baptism lands you in prison, like Paul, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Sometimes your baptism is your call to be in solidarity with those in material and spiritual need, including those in prison – like Lydia and the Philippian church. 

There’s a lot we don’t know about Lydia.  How does she come to be from two places?  How did she manage being the head of a household in a patriarchal world?  Was she actually representative of the kind of people who were joining the early church, or, more likely, was she the kind of person the early church needed to give itself some stability, and a bit of social legitimacy, because of her wealth and social status?  A story to tell widely and hope for its duplication. 

And what exactly did baptism mean to her if she was already a worshiper of the God Jesus also worshiped?

We don’t know what she heard Paul preaching by the river in Philippi, that caused her to listen so eagerly. But we can perhaps imagine that it was in line with what Paul would write in his letters to those little house churches spread across the Roman world. 

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit,” Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Co. 12:12-13)

“Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Holy One, so we too might walk in newness of life,” Paul writes to the Romans. (Rom 6:4)

And to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (2:1-2a, 5)

Lydia’s baptism was not, as far as we are told, a dramatic event.  The heavens didn’t open up as they did at Jesus’ baptism.  No blinding flash of light that led to Paul’s conversion.  She was already a worshiper of the God who freed slaves, who demanded just businesses dealings, who created male and female in the Divine image. 

In many ways Lydia is representative of many of us.  She was an adult with a relatively stable and prosperous life, a person with resources, who made the conscious decision to take on a baptismal identity.  Something she would have only known in part while it was happening, just like all who are baptized, but something that would continue to take on increasing meaning and power as she lived into this identity.  As she integrated her growing faith with her business practices.  As she opened her home in hospitality.  As she shared her table with those like her who were geographic transplants, or didn’t fit into the patriarchal power structures that defined society.  As she became a friend to prisoners.  As she stepped further away from the religion of her family of origin into this faith that took after a wandering teacher and healer from Galilee who had been crucified by the Roman Empire. 

Today we are receiving Leah in baptism and today we are remembering our own baptismal identity.        

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”


Baptismal Response from Sponser Laurie Zimmerman

I have been baptized and I remember it well.

I was immersed…In warm water…in a white gown,

In a built-in area at the sanctuary front of a different church,

on a Sunday evening.

I joined with my fellow Christians in the promise of Gods love. I took this radical step—this wade into the water—

My memory is that I was just 10 or 11 years old. I asked to be baptized then because I was influenced by others. Then I saw only the outline of baptism.

But God didnt love me any less for this decision. I just didnt know that for a long while.

Fortunately, as I grew older, my understanding of my baptism changed. The outline filled in with my life.

Now I see what it means when I separate myself from Gods good.

Now I see what it means to receive redemption, to feel redeemed from my errors.

Now I know what it means to feel Gods love for me.

I feel it in my soul.

I told Leah that every day I see a quote on my kitchen wall, which is attributed to Mother Teresa—about doing things anyway.”

Despite what others do, we are to

Forgive anyway…. Be kind anyway…..Be honest anyway,

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you have anyway.

It ends with…

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

Now I see it is between God and me and nothing to do with pleasing others or fulfilling requirements.

Now I see that it was only ever between God and me.

As our church membership statement says…Ours is a story of death and resurrection and all things made new. I was made new. Each day I have the chance again to be made new.

Now, Leah, you become part of the flow of those—all of the many, many generations of those before us—You, like them, respond to Gods love. You make it between you and God only—you wade into the waters of baptism—you are made new.  Blessings.