Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Purple (11/05/09)
TITLE: The Color of Grace
By Bill Schwan
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Things had begun so well. He and Barnabas had traveled throughout Asia sharing the gospel and founding churches in every community they visited. But they returned to Jerusalem to harsh criticism for sharing the good news with and even baptizing Gentiles. And then he and Barnabas had a falling out over John Mark, had separated, and he and Silas had become a missionary team. So much drama for such a simple message, he thought. And then, each time he felt a desire to return to Asia to confirm that the small communities of faith he had played midwife to were remaining true to the gospel, circumstances changed so that it became impossible to follow through. The reversals had been so sharp that it almost seemed as though God himself was preventing Paul’s return.
He learned in a dream that God had other plans for him when a man of Macedonia had asked Paul for help. And so he was here, in Philippi. He rounded a stand of trees and saw nothing more than a small group of women by the river. Most of the women were Jews and had gathered for prayer, but they were happy to introduce Paul to a woman who had some time ago been accepted into their worship.
“This is Lydia. She is a woman who fears God,” an elderly matron said by way of introduction.
By referring to her as a woman who feared God, Lydia was automatically identified as a Gentile, albeit a Gentile who had a healthy regard for the God of the Hebrews. Further discussion revealed that she was a merchant from Thyatira who dealt in purple fabrics, and Paul was impressed that the business was her own. Far from being an ornament on the arm of a successful husband, Lydia was involved from start to finish in the processing of the shellfish that provided the pigments, the application of this organic dye, making business contacts and then delivering the finished product.
As a seller of fabric that was affordable only to the rich, it was obvious that Lydia was also well off, and Paul thought it odd for him to be in her company. Here he was, a man who had never been rich, talking with a woman who was both rich and confident in her abilities while he seemed to have every reason to doubt his own, especially given the melodramatic nature of his own ministry in recent days.
Over the next week he had several occasions to speak with Lydia, who maintained a residence in Philippi as well as in Thyatira. At some point he decided to risk stretching her understanding of the religion of the Jews by introducing her to the Jewish Messiah. And to his astonishment, she received the news with such readiness that he felt certain the Holy Spirit had been preparing her for this very discussion.
As the days and weeks passed and Lydia became the lynchpin of the emerging church in Philippi, Paul got a sense of the next stage of God’s plan. Thus far his story had been one of a journey. He took the gospel from Jerusalem to Asia, to Greece, and now to Macedonia where he met this seller of purple, the color of the elite, and in particular the Imperial elite of Rome. Senators adorned themselves with purple but only the emperor could wear a toga made entirely of purple. Was this the direction God was leading him in his ongoing journey?
The conflict between the gospel and the power of Rome began here. Not on the battlefield but in the heart of a woman who sold luxury goods to the powerful and the elite, but who also knew there was something more to life. In the heart of a woman who was prepared by the spirit to receive the gospel and who sold a color that to Paul would now forever represent the color of God’s grace.
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