Monday, April 29, 2013

Common Conversion

The story of Lydia's conversion in Acts 16:9-15 actually includes a number of parallels to the story of Cornelius' conversion which I preached about last week. Just as Peter's journey toward Cornelius began with a vision, Paul makes his way to Philippi, where he meets Lydia, because of a vision. Like Cornelius, it seems likely that Lydia is a gentile but one whom Luke describes as being a worshiper of God much as he described Cornelius as being God-fearing and devout. Like Cornelius, Lydia is the head of a household that is converted along with her. Lydia also offers hospitality to Paul and his traveling companions after her baptism, just as Cornelius did for Peter. But for all that commonality, there is one glaring difference: Lydia's story is really plain and uninteresting!

Luke's telling of Lydia's story is just downright commonplace. Think of the dramatic gift of the Spirit to Cornelius' household. Consider the controversy that followed when Peter returned to Jerusalem. There is none of that in Lydia's story. And it is not for lack of opportunity for such controversy. Could Luke not have made a bigger deal out of the fact that Paul's first convert in this city was a woman who was the head of her own household (and perhaps even the head of her own business)? Such a woman would have been an anomaly in the ancient world to say the least. Surely there should have been some controversial discussion about whether or not the Spirit could really work in this way just as there had been with Cornelius' conversion. But Lydia isn't even the most discussed woman in this chapter! Immediately following on the heels of Lydia's story is the story of a slave girl who has an evil spirit that causes her to proclaim to anyone who will listen that Paul and his companions are servants of the Most High God. Paul casts out that spirit which leads to them being thrown in prison. The dramatic story of their release from prison by an earthquake follows, as does the conversion of their jailer and his whole household. By comparison, Lydia's story seems plain and ordinary.

In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a less interesting story in the entirety of the Acts of the Apostles. In a book filled with miracles, dramatic conversions, exorcisms, riots, imprisonments, conflict, and shipwrecks, Lydia's story actually stands out for all of its plainness. Its unexceptional quality is the exception. Yet Luke still finds her story important enough to include in his account of the early church.

We love stories of dramatic conversion; the addict, the criminal, the hopelessly lost now found. And with good reason. They are exciting and it is encouraging to see how drastically God can change someone's life. We love these stories at least in part because they are the exception to what it otherwise often very predictable human behavior. But I think Luke's conservative and restrained telling of Lydia's story reminds us that just because the story of an encounter with Jesus isn't dramatic doesn't mean it isn't a story worth telling.

Lydia's story is a simple one. The Spirit opened her heart to the word Paul was sharing, she responded by being baptized, and then demonstrated faithfulness in that response by offering hospitality. This is the story of so many Christians. In many ways, it is my own story. There is even an argument to be made that it is the story on which the church at Philippi, possibly Paul's most faithful congregation (if his letter to them is any indication), is built. Given that Lydia was Paul's first convert in Philippi and that she was able to offer hospitality to him and his companions, there is a decent chance that she hosted the church at Philippi in her home. There is a decent chance that her leadership in that church was the very reason why Luke included her in Acts. In that case, her very simple story would be one of faithfulness begetting faithfulness. Such is the story into which we are called to live as the Church.

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