You may have noticed there is a lot about rivers in the service. A river is featured prominently in both our readings for today. One is an actual river in the ancient city of Philippi, where Paul went to pray, and where he met Lydia. The other river is from John the Divine’s vision of the New Jerusalem, where a river runs through the heavenly city.
Let us take a look at the story of Lydia first. When I start looking at a text to preach, I like to look for clues to fill out the story, because the Bible is often spare in its details. So the first thing that catches my eye in this story is the curious way Paul manages to meet Lydia. I don’t know how you make your travel plans, but I have yet to have the Holy Spirit tell me where I can and cannot go. But that is what happened to Paul. Not once, but twice.
Luke, that’s a good name, isn’t it? (Note: my daughter, who is the pastor of this congregation, had a baby named Luke on Friday). Luke, who was the author of both the Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts, strongly believed that the Holy Spirit guided and empowered the rise of the early church. You can see it especially in his story about Pentecost. In the Book of Acts there is a strange interplay between divine guiding and human choosing. Luke doesn’t seem troubled by any contradiction between God’s Providence and human free will. That is a discussion for a later century.
The story of Lydia’s conversion comes at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey, and is the first time Paul preaches on European soil. Luke understands the Gentile mission as being guided by the Holy Spirit, who Luke sometimes refers to as the Spirit of Jesus. So, before our story today even begins the Spirit has just told Paul “don’t go here,” “don’t go there.”
So where to go to carry out his mission to the Gentiles? How can Paul know? Then at night Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Now Macedonia is not just down the road from where Paul is. Getting there involves a very long journey, a good bit of it across the Aegean Sea in a sailboat. But Paul feels guided by the Holy Spirit, so he and his companions, Silas and Timothy, set sail and go to Macedonia, to the city of Philippi.
Macedonia is in what is today northern Greece. Greece was divided into two Roman colonies, Achaia to the South and Macedonia to the North. The city of Philippi was founded by Philip of Macedon, who was Alexander the Great’s father. He named it after himself, so that was a thing even back then. Philippi was a substantial provincial city with thousands of inhabitants.
Paul and his companions make their way to Philippi, and when they got there, they go down to the river to pray. Rivers were often places of worship in the ancient world.
One of the things we know about the rise of early Christianity was that it was a largely urban phenomenon. Many of the Christian converts were Gentiles that had been attracted to Judaism, by its strong ethical standards and its exemplary family life. They were called “God-Fearers” and today we might call them “seekers.” They made a ready audience for the Gospel, the new Christian claim that the promises of God were now available, not just to the Jews, but to all people.
When Paul gets to the river there is a group of women praying there and Paul addresses them. There are some curious features of this part of the story as well. First of all, we know that before his conversion Paul (who was formerly named Saul) had been a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of the church. To a Pharisee there were strict laws separating men from women that Paul has now abandoned in his new life in Christ. Also, Paul sits to address them, which was how teachers taught in the ancient world, and a teacher of the law wouldn’t address women this way. This tells us that it is a revolutionary story about how the Gospel breaks down the old strictures and customs, as it still does today.
One of the women by the river was Lydia. Remember that Macedonian man who appeared in Paul’s vision? He never shows up again in this story. But Lydia does!
What do we know about Lydia? Not very much, actually, but again there are some interesting clues in the story. First of all, Lydia is a seller of purple cloth, so she is a businesswoman. And in ancient Rome only the aristocrats were allowed to wear purple, so she has a rich cliental. It is also curious that in this patriarchal society there is no mention of her marital status, no mention of a husband. If she was a widow, Luke would have probably put that in the story. What else do we know? We learn that Lydia has a household, maybe family members, but more likely, servants and/or slaves.
We can deduce from these various clues that Lydia is an independent, prosperous woman. We can also deduce from her name that she is a Gentile, perhaps one of the “God-Fearers” loosely connected to the synagogue. We also know that she is decisive, since when Paul shares the good news about Jesus she makes up her mind at once and is quick to say “sign me up.” And she has her whole household baptized then and there.
What was it about Paul’s message that so appealed to her? He most likely told her that in Jesus all the promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were now available to a Gentile like her, and that because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection there was a new kind of life available to all, a life free from the law, and that the symbol of that new life in Christ was baptism.
Perhaps Paul baptized her right there in the river; we aren’t told. But we are told that she offered generous hospitality to Paul and his companions. For Luke hospitality was one of the marks of the early church, and generaous hospitality is still a mark of the church.
So Lydia becomes the first Christian convert in Europe! Imagine that. And here we are two thousand years later still telling the good news about Jesus and still baptizing people into the new life in Christ.
So, the river is a very powerful symbol of new life in Christ in the waters of baptism. But it is also a powerful symbol of something else, and that brings us to our other reading where John the Divine see the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, and describes some of its features.
Let’s review the features. This isn’t just any city, but a heavenly city. There is no longer any day or night, no sun and moon, because God and the Lamb are now the source of light. There is no temple in the holy city, why do you think that is? Why is there no church in the city? Because now everybody worships God directly and in person, and no longer need a religious institution to mediate God to them. There is no church in heaven according to John, no stewardship campaign, no meetings, just direct worship of God and the Lamb. So the church is just God’s provisional plan here on earth!
There is a wall around the city, but guess what? There are twelve gates to the city and they are always open.
And yes, a river runs through it. A river of pure clear crystal water runs right through the city and nourishes the tree of life along its banks and the tree’s fruits are never out of season. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
It is a vision, of course, a holy act of religious imagination, but that heavenly city and its river have loomed large in the imaginations of generations of Christians. An example of that is the hymn we just sang, “Shall We Gather at the River.” And when I was picking that hymn I was originally thinking it was a song about baptism, and that it would tie in nicely with Lydia’s conversion and baptism at the river.
But then I read the little blurb at the bottom of the hymn, and I discovered that “Shall We Gather at the River” is not about the waters of baptism at all, it’s about this other river that runs through the heavenly city.
And I did a little research and discovered that the man who wrote it, Robert Lowry, was a Baptist minister in Brooklyn in the mid nineteenth century, and he wrote it during a deadly heat wave and epidemic that was killing members of his congregation. The picture of cool, clear water as described in Revelation 22 appealed to him during that thirsty time, but the hymn was also asking the congregation “shall we meet again on the other side?”
It is a hymn of comfort to imagine meeting those we love on the banks of the river of life at the end of our life or perhaps at the end of life itself. And when you get to be my age you have as many people you love on the other side of death as you do on this side.
So, in my holy imagination, I picture meeting my loved ones by the river. I imagine meeting my mother again, who died at age 53, when I was 18. She eventually had seven grandchildren, and now four great-grandchildren, and she never met even one of them.
I also picture some of the great saints I have known in the congregations I have served, there by the beautiful river. And I picture so many others I have known and loved, some of whom died too young or under tragic circumstances. It would be good to know that they are all right now in the nearer presence of God. On this Memorial Day I also imagine some of the young soldiers who died in war, so many of them by the river!
And surely Paul is there, with Silas and Timothy. And Lydia is there by the river. I want to meet Lydia and find out more about her. She’s such a fascinating figure in this story.
I want to assure you that my religious faith isn’t particularly other-worldly, despite what I have just imagined with you. I know God loves this world, and wants us to protect it and tend it, wants it to be more kind and fair and just. Following Jesus means caring about all those things, about justice and mercy and forgiveness. It means caring about God’s good earth, and the poor and the powerless. That is what the church is here for and what the church is all about.
Nonetheless, I also take comfort in the religious imagination of John the Divine (or “John the Revelator” as the blues song by Blind Willie Johnson calls him), who envisions a state of affairs where God’s promised reign and realm, the one that we work for and pray for here, is already accomplished in heaven. Where hate and war no longer prevail, and where even death itself has been defeated. Can you imagine that with me?
So yes, I believe someday, by the grace of God, we will gather by the river, the clear, clean beautiful river. “We’ll gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.” Amen.
(I preached this sermon on May 26, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. You can listen to this sermon on the church’s podcast here: https://anchor.fm/sunday-on-the-commons/episodes/By-the-River–Guest-Preacher-the-Rev–Dr–Richard-L–Floyd–May-26–2019-e46vbr))