"And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together."
My mind has kept wandering back to this passage recently. Those three elements: a Sabbath, a Riverside, and sitting down... Makes the whole account seem very tranquil and relaxed. This feels more like holiday Paul then protester Paul standing boldly against the oppressive forces of empire! He was just trying to find a place to pray and talk. He went out of the city, strolled along the river until he found a few women gathering. Whether this was a recognised place for Jewish worship, we don't know. It might have just been a gathering of women by the riverside.
But it was a regular gathering. Over the chapter it seems to point to Paul and his colleagues going repeatedly down to the river to pray (vs.16-18). And it was on one of these trips that Paul got frustrated with a demon possessed girl and healed her (healed someone out of annoyance, rather than compassion! Classic Paul!)
And one of the people he was regularly meeting up with to pray, was Lydia. One of a number of women-disciples who get names and back-stories. Lydia was a merchant (vs.14), a person of some wealth who seemed to be quite the authoritative decision-maker: Getting her whole household baptised, insisting that Paul and others stay with her. She was perhaps not someone to be messed with.
The chapter eventually climaxes with an astounding break-out from prison but for now I am just interested in these simple moments we read before that. This is Paul's first visit into what we'd call Europe, and his approach is one of simple and quiet influencing. He found a gathering of 'god worshippers' (not even all 'proper' Jews) and started meeting up with them regularly to talk, pray and share the story of Jesus. This quiet but committed approach clearly worked on Lydia and probably others. It was only when he unknowingly disrupted someone's source of income that he came into some trouble.
Paul had been called in a dream to visit Philippi - but he never charged in with all of his gospel guns blazing. He only accidentally got himself in front of the town officials, because he was frustrated with a noisy demon. I wonder at what point did he feel certain that the dream from God was correct? That the Lord had called him there? Was it when he was singing songs in prison? Was it when he witnessed the Spirit stirring in the life of Lydia? Or was it simply as he strolled along in the morning sun, down by the river, listening to the birds and noticing the quiet whispers of prayer to Jahweh coming from a small group of women?
Just now I see this passage bringing home a couple of things:
Following God will often mean doing what comes naturally, but just including Jesus in it. Making a decision to actively serve him in your daily life, will probably not mean changing your activities, but instead it will mean carrying on what you're doing whilst being alert to what's going on from a 'kingdom' perspective. It will mean fully joining in with what is happening (being present?) And using that natural position of relationship with others around, to share your message of Jesus.
Serving Him will mean connecting with like minded people. There are a few different reasons as to why Paul often sought out Jews first when starting out in a new place. There were theological reasons but also practical/cultural ones. With a small gathering of Jewish ladies, he had an opportunity to get alongside them, pray with them and share with them, in ways that only a fellow Jew could. He had a lot of common ground with them and so could more easily develop a real relationship with them. So we shouldn't feel guilty about hanging out with people similar to us. The similar ground we share, is an opportunity to more easily help and be helped. We should be worried if the only people we have around us, are exactly the same age/gender/ethnicity but we shouldn't feel bad about accepting our own unique identity and making the most of it.