Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Acts 16:9-15Psalm 67Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5John 14:23-29

By Russell Pregeant

Despite the strong emphasis on women in the gospel of Luke, in the book of Acts stories about women are few and far between. We can speculate that this anomaly is largely the result of the lack of such stories in the author’s sources, however, since at a few points the inclusion of women re-emerges as a theme. One of these points is the story of the conversion of Lydia—a woman described as “a worshipper of God,” which suggests that she was a “God-fearer”, that is, a Gentile attached to a synagogue. Although the narrative is quite brief, Lydia does have a speaking part and the incident plays an important role in the plot. As Ivoni Richter Reimer comments regarding v. 13, moreover, “[it] is truly astonishing that, within the framework not only of androcentric language, but of patriarchal relationships, we learn something about the existence of a group of women.”[1]

Hans Conzelmann notes in his commentary on Acts how strange it is that in v. 13 the narrator identifies the place of the incident as “where we supposed there was a place of prayer.” But Conzelmann finds it “even stranger that only women were there.”[2] He and many other commentators have thus concluded that in the term proseuche which often means “synagogue” in Jewish contexts, must refer to an informal gathering spot (hence NRSV: “place of prayer”), probably in the open, since it was outside the city gate near a river. After extensive examination of the linguistic evidence, however, Reimer draws the following conclusion: “The proseuchein Philippi that is mentioned in Acts 16:13-16 can be no different from all the other proseuchai mentioned in the literary and inscriptional evidence. They are all synagogue buildings in which the Jewish community of a particular town or city gathers, primarily on the Sabbath, to worship God.”[3]

If Reimer is correct, then we have in this passage a story about a synagogue in which women exercised leadership, which does in fact seem strange in light of what we think we know about restrictions on women in this period. Richter, however, cites Bernadette Brooten on the fact of considerable ambiguity in the rabbinic sources, some of which “contain information about women’s active participation in religious life”—which leads to the conclusion that “women could study Torah, and demonstrably they had leadership functions in the synagogue.” [4] V. 13 also states specifically that the incident takes place on the Sabbath, which reinforces the impression that the women were indeed conducting a service of worship. And the fact that only women are mentioned suggests that both the service and the synagogue itself were composed exclusively of women.

Another typical judgment of most commentators that Richter challenges is that Lydia must have been a wealthy woman. This judgment rests in part upon the references in v. 15 to her oikos, which presumably means “household” in the first instance and “house” in the second, in part upon the notation that she was “a dealer in purple cloth,” a product often associated with the upper classes. Richter grants that Lydia’s status was probably not that of the lowest rung of society. She points out, however, that the term oikos had a range of meanings, from “house” to “cabin”; that purple goods were not exclusively associated with the wealthy; that merchants were not generally regarded as among the elite; that there was no large-scale production of textiles at the time; that there is no evidence that “the production and sale of purple goods ever played an important economic role in Philippi”; and that such production was in fact considered both “dirty work” and “the work of women.” She therefore speculates that Lydia and her household ran a small-scale, subsistence-level operation, near the river (v. 13), since water was needed in the process, where the cloth was both made and distributed.

Richter also finds it likely that least some of the women gathered at the synagogue were members of Lydia’s household—which was probably composed mostly of women. Nor is it necessary to assume, as many commentators do, that Lydia was a widow. Richter therefore argues that Lydia and her workers constituted what she terms a “contrast society” within the Roman colony of Philippi—that is, a self-sufficient household, composed at least mostly of women, operating without the supervision of a pater familias (it is Lydia’s house!), which necessarily put it at odds with the prevailing social pattern.

The story of Lydia’s conversion plays an important role in the narrative structure of Acts. In 16:6-8, the Spirit intervenes in Paul’s mission by prohibiting two intended journeys. Then, in v. 9, Paul has a vision of a man asking him to come to Macedonia. The geography is significant. To go to Macedonia means to cross the water from Asia Minor into Europe, which signals a new stage in the progress of the mission. By divine guidance, then, Paul and his entourage find their way to Philippi, “a leading city of the district of Macedonia.” And on the Sabbath, they repeat the practice described earlier in their mission (13:13-14; 14:1) of preaching in the synagogue. The story is brief, and Lydia’s speaking part miniscule, but the significance of the story is attested in two ways. First, the missionaries accept Lydia’s invitation to her house (16:15), which she interprets as a sign that that have judged her “faithful to the Lord.” Second, they return to her house before their departure from Philippi and “encourage the brothers and sisters there.” Thus, as Robert Tannehill observes, the references to Lydia and her household bracket the entire Philippi sequence. And this emphasizes the significance of “a patroness of the community and hostess for the missionaries in the founding of a church.”[5]

We thus have a story that portrays an independent woman as the first convert in a new stage of the Christian mission and the key figure in the founding of the first community of Christian believers there. And if we can accept Reimer’s characterization of Lydia’s household (which seems to have become a house church by 14:1) as a “contrast society,” then we can take the story as an endorsement of the Christian movement as a kind of “counter culture” within the empire. It will not play by the “rules” of the patriarchal society. And, although close analysis of Paul’s letters show that his churches included members from various social classes, with the exception of the ruling elite, it appears that Lydia’s household might have been composed primarily of persons of fairly lowly status.

The gospel reading is a portion of the farewell discourse section of John, where Jesus prepares his followers for his absence. Earlier in the chapter (14:18), Jesus foretells his death; he promises, however, that he “will not leave [them] orphaned” but will cometo them. When in the next verse he says that they will see him, but the world will not, we may naturally think of his final return in glory. In 14:23, however, we have an example of the way in which this gospel tends to reinterpret futuristic eschatology into existential categories—that is, into symbolism that represents the experiences of persons of faith in their present lives. Thus, as Bultmann observes, when Jesus says that he and his Father “will come to [those who keep his word] and make [their] home with them,” the reference is not to a “realistic” second coming.[6]The promise of the parousia at the end of the age has rather become a promise of divine presence in the lives of the faithful. The quality of this life that is graced by divine presence is further described in terms of experiencing God’s love.

It is unfortunate that the lectionary selection excludes v. 22, which states the immediate question to which the verses that follow are an answer: “Lord, how is it that you reveal yourself to us and not the world?” Although Jesus does not answer this question directly (characteristically of the gospel as a whole!), Raymond Brown points out that v. 24 provides an oblique answer: the world cannot “see” Jesus (14:19) precisely because “it refuses to hear the word of Jesus since it does not love Jesus.”[7] Thus, it is specifically (and only) those who love him and keep his word who will receive God’s love and with whom Jesus and God will dwell. Some things are visible only to “the eyes of faith.”

The promise that Jesus and God will dwell with the believers is supplemented in vv. 25-26 with the promise of the Paraclete/Holy Spirit, who will both “teach [them] everything” and remind them of all that Jesus has said. These are particularly significant verses, because they make a point that should resonate with process-oriented interpreters: that is, they stress both continuity with what Jesus taught when he was in the world and openness to new dimensions of truth. To that extent, they constitute a more compact anticipation of 16:12-13: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Thus Gail R. O’Day describes the work of the Paraclete as two-dimensional: “On the one hand, the Paraclete’s role is essentially conserving,” enabling the “Christian community, at any time in its life, to reach back to the teachings of Jesus and ‘remember,’ to bring Jesus’ teachings to life afresh with new understanding… On the other hand, the Paraclete’s role as teacher is also creative,” enabling “the word of Jesus to move forward from its moment in history to the present life of the church” and give “new meanings to the teachings of Jesus as the changing circumstances of faith communities and the world demand.”[8]

The gospel reading thus offers a fascinating possibility for using one part of a passage to interpret another. That is, the reference to the Spirit/Parclete’s role is in part to “give new meanings to the teachings of Jesus,” and what we see in v. 23 is actually an example of that process: it reinterprets futuristic eschatology as the abiding divine presence! This aspect of the text could provide a starting-point for sermons on contemporary issues that are treated so simplistically by some segments of the church—e.g., ignoring the ecological crisis on the basis of apocalyptic texts, denying gay marriage on the basis of passages in Paul; or opposing the ordination of women on the basis of the Pastorals. V. 23 is in fact a good text for reflecting on the reasons that some ecclesiastical traditions are able to embrace tradition, reason, and experience as authorities along with scripture. For what we have in this endorsement of the Spirit’s creative role is actually a scriptural endorsement of extra-scriptural authority and the process of continual re-interpretation!

Regarding Jesus’ conferring of “peace” in v. 27, Raymond Brown comments that in John this term does not mean “an end to psychological tension” or “a sentimental feeling of well-being.” It is rather parallel to other terms such as “joy,” “light,” and “truth” as an aspect of the salvation Jesus brings and thus an equivalent of “eternal life.”[9] We should remember, however, that “eternal life” in John is a quality of life and not just everlasting life, as 17:3 shows: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” And C.K. Barrett is surely correct in pointing out that the second part of v. 27 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled…”) “shows that peace means absence of fear and perturbation of heart; and that it is the gift of Christ alone.”[10] Granted that “peace” here is not simple-minded euphoria, it does appear to be a deep-seated sense of well-being based on one’s experience of divine presence in everyday life.

The reading from Revelation provides a fertile counterpoint to the realized eschatology of the gospel text that can be mined to good effect. It is a prime example of the futuristic eschatology that undergoes partial demythologizing in John, but it also contains elements that complement the Johannine passage. The opening verse, 21:10, depicts the “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” thus indicating that the “new earth” envisioned in 21:1 is in fact a renewal of the “first earth,” which has “passed away.” Thus, the eschatological reality is neither simply heaven itself nor an utterly new reality replacing the present earth but rather a union of earth and heaven. The hope it holds out is neither for a “pie in the sky by and by” nor for a present sense of shalom experienced by the individual or the believing community (as in John).

It is rather a historical hope for the reality envisioned in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is, however, literally eschatological and supernaturally wrought; and to that extent it also stands in need of reinterpretation. From a scientific perspective, because the earth will one day come to an end and will not be renewed, the hope for peace and justice on the earthly plane does not exhaust what we mean by the kingdom of God. But this text nevertheless reminds us not to give up our hope for a better world in the here and now.

Other elements in the reading underscore these points. The fact that both “the kings of the earth” and “people” will bring into the new Jerusalem “glory and honor” shows that in the end, despite the negative judgment Revelation renders regarding the Roman Empire, it does not in fact reject human civilization altogether, as some interpreters have charged. Its vision is one of transformation, rather than utter destruction, of the institutions human beings have built. And the marvelous vision of the tree of life, whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” is a ringing declaration that the vision of the new reality is in fact one of peace and reconciliation. Despite all of the horrifying images of judgment and punishment earlier in Revelation, its ultimate vision is not that of revenge but of justice and healing.

Psalm 67 resonates with the text from Revelation by virtue of its affirmation of the earth. As Marti Steussy notes, “[v]erses 2 and 6 speak of the earth as a place for the knowledge of God and agricultural increase.”[11] And the second half of verse 7, “let all the ends of the earth revere [God],” stands alongside the declaration in Revelation 21:24 that “the nations will walk by [the new Jerusalem’s] light” as a reminder that our ultimate hope is not for the triumph of a nation or a religion, but of the Rule of God—that is, of peace, justice, and the integrity of creation. This is a point, moreover, that is subtly indicated by Revelation 21:22. There is no temple in the eschatological city! The plot of Acts involves the extension of the Christian message to “the ends of the earth,” but the readings from Revelation and Psalms help us to see that the point of the mission is not to extend the reach of the church for its own sake but to bring God’s shalom to all the world.

[1] Ivoni Reimer Richter, Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 72; emphasis original.

[2] Hans Conzelmann, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 130; emphasis added.

[3] Richter, 90-91.

[4] Ibid., 91, 82 citing Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues (Chico, CA: Brown Judaic Studies, 1982), 94ff., 35ff., 73ff.

[5] Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 196.

[6] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribner’s, 1955), 2:84.

[7] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 197), 648.

[8] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 777; emphasis original.

[9] Brown, 653.

[10] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), 391.

[11] Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 143.