Early Christian Women

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2024

You all hear me refer frequently to the Greek New Testament. When I mention it, I’m talking about the closest thing to the original Christian scriptures that we’ve got. We don’t have the original copies of the gospels or Paul’s letters or any of the other books. But based the most ancient copies available, there are several editions of the New Testament in its original language—a dialect of Greek called κοινὴ (Koine).

I decided to talk about this today because there’s one particular edition of the Greek New Testament (called the Åland) that went through twelve revisions. Then suddenly in the thirteenth (published in 1927) a change was made. There was nothing in the original Greek text that warranted that change. No ancient manuscript were discovered, and no scholars were clamoring for revision. But suddenly they changed the name Junia to Junias—not only adding a letter, but changing the gender of this person, who was mentioned only once in the Bible.

We don’t know much about this person Junia at all. Some people theorize that she’s the same person as the Joanna mentioned in the gospels, but this is unlikely. What we do know is pretty significant—some would say revolutionary, others might say threatening. That’s because in Romans 16:7, Paul sends greetings to two people named Andronicus and Junia. He calls them compatriots—probably meaning that they’re fellow Jews—and says they were in prison with him. And then he says that they are “prominent among the apostles.”

There were other people named Junia in the ancient world, and they were always women. There were far fewer people with the masculine version of that name (Junias). Actually there were none until over a thousand years later (probably devised by people who didn’t want to admit that there was a woman apostle). But at least they let the Bible stand as it was. But clearly it stuck in somebody’s craw until finally they changed, not a translation of the Bible, but the original—the version that people used to make translations. And they let this change stand for seventy years, until the end of the 1990’s.

Though Junia is the only female mentioned as an apostle in the New Testament, she’s not the only woman that raises eyebrows. If we actually read what the Bible says, the Virgin Mary probably isn’t who we want her to be. We’ve made up all kinds of stories to force Mary Magdalene into whatever compartment we think she belongs in. We avoid talking about the fact the woman at the well was he well—the first person Jesus revealed himself to. And then there are the women who discovered the empty tomb and were the first to share the good news of the resurrection. All these women have been either ignored or had their stories changed in order to make them more acceptable to a church dominated by men, existing in a world where women had few (if any rights).

The Christian church didn’t really fit in this world, because women were important from the beginning, and their stories couldn’t be suppressed. They’re still there in the scriptures—at least some of them.

There’s one story, though, that never really caused much controversy. It’s about a woman named Lydia in the Greek city of Philippi. It’s the one we just heard from the 16th chapter of Acts. But the fact that Lydia hasn’t really been a controversial figure doesn’t mean that she fits into first-century stereotypes, because she doesn’t… at all.

We don’t get to know Lydia really well in this little passage, but we do get to know a lot of facts about her. First of all—and maybe most importantly—she was already a faithful woman. We don’t know where or when or how, but she had already rejected the Greek gods and had come to worship the One God. Paul went to a particular place where he hoped that people like her would gather on the Sabbath. And indeed he was right. He showed up in the right place at the right time, and he shared the good news of Jesus Christ with the others who’d shown up. From what Luke tells us, it seems his first congregation in Philippi, in Greece, indeed in all of Europe, were women.

Next we learn that she was from another city—a city in present-day Turkey (in fact, in an ancient kingdom actually called “Lydia”)—and that she was known according to her occupation. Jobs were very different 2000 years ago than they are today, and Lydia had made a career of dying purple cloth. Not many of us think about dying cloth, and if we need to do it, we can probably easily buy any color we might need. But in ancient times, dyes were much more rare, and the color purple was especially precious and difficult to come by. So Lydia’s job was probably a lot more important and lucrative than most of us might assume.

Lydia was obviously deeply moved by what Paul shared with that congregation, because we learn in Acts 16 that she and her entire household were baptized that day. And her first act as a new church member was a generous one: She prevailed upon Paul to make her house his local headquarters. It also appears that Lydia took in Paul and Silas after they were delivered from prison shortly after that, and the end of chapter 16 finds them back in Lydia’s house, which is apparently where the church in Philippi met for worship.

Notice that Lydia’s house is always her house. Women are usually identified by who their father is or who their husband is. But Lydia is Lydia, independent of any male. And we have no reason to believe that she wasn’t the leader of the church that met in her home.

When the paths of Paul and Lydia intersected that day in the city of Philippi, it probably didn’t seem all that important. But it was. Lydia became the first Christian on the European continent that day. And if you would ever visit Philippi in Greece, you will find on the outskirts of the modern village an outdoor church next to a brook, with the place where Lydia was baptized marked with a cross. She is, in a very real way, my grandmother—maybe yours, too. All of us whose ancestors came from Europe: we may not trace our DNA back to Lydia, but we can trace our faith back to her.

There was an English pastor around the year 1600 named Richard Sibbes who once told his congregation to “see great things in little beginnings.” We seldom know which of our actions, which of our responses will have major consequences for the future. I doubt Lydia had an inkling as she made her way to a certain place of prayer that Saturday morning that her actions would change the face of the world. But she acted in faithfulness, and we remember her love and generosity and leadership still.

As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, let’s remember that we’re not just sharing a meal with those we see in church today. The faithful from every time and place are also seated with us around the table—and that includes Lydia, who moved from Thyatira to Philippi, and that’s where she said Yes to the gospel. May we, too, be faithful in the things we do: Whether we’re famous or not, we will live on in the One we remember when we break the bread and share the cup.
—©2024 Sam Greening.