Romans 16:1-16 (NLT)
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.
Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.
Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.
It takes people to make a church, and each person has a story.
As Paul commends and greets several people near the end of of his letter Romans, it is possible to find the outlines of a few of their stories. In the process, we can learn quite a bit about their social status and how they liked to gather. Paul’s words also give us some critical insight into the role of women in the development of the church.
We begin with Phoebe. Now, Phoebe is the one person we’ll talk about today who is not a member of the Roman church. Paul is “commending” her, essentially establishing her credentials so the Romans will accept her when she arrives in Rome. He calls her a “deacon,” using the word in a formal sense, indicating he sees her as a servant leader in her home church in the Greek port town of Cenchrea.
Scholars who focus on word studies also note she is described in Greek as a prostatis, meaning she was a “patron” or “benefactor.” All this seems to indicate she was a wealthy businesswoman, using her money to support the church and its missionaries. Why she was traveling to Rome, we don’t know. I wonder if she carried a copy of her commendation, or maybe even the very letter we have been reading!
Following this recommendation, Paul begins to greet people in Rome, and compared to other such letters, the extent of his greetings is remarkable. At a minimum, Paul has spent a lot of time with a few people from Rome and has learned of others there, taking an interest in their lives.
As I mentioned last week, Paul also knows he is going to need their support later, and mentioning key people by name certainly won’t hurt his cause. Paul certainly was a loving Christian, but he also wasn’t afraid to do a little politicking to accomplish his mission.
Priscilla and Aquila are known to be a couple, wife and husband. We know from Acts 18 they had to flee Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews for a time, but by now had returned home. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade, and worked with him in Corinth and Ephesus.
They also clearly had a strong grasp of Christian theology. We’re told in Acts 18:26 that they helped bring Apollos to a better understanding of the faith at a time when his basic doctrine had a few gaps. It’s possible this couple directly impacted Scripture; Apollos is one candidate in the ongoing debate about who authored the book of Hebrews.
We also can assume Priscilla and Aquila were at least somewhat wealthy. We hear they hosted a “house church.” That means they owned a place big enough for a significant number of people, maybe a few dozen, to gather in worship together.
Skipping over some people we know little about, we next have “Andronicus and Junia,” the latter name dropping us into the center of the centuries-old debate regarding the role of women in the church. Junia is female, but she also is described as having a relationship to the “apostles.” Some translations, like the one we are using today, make it clear the apostles at least had enormous respect for her, but another strong possible reading of the Greek is that Paul was actually calling her an apostle.
There’s no way to settle the controversy to the satisfaction of all denominations, but one thing becomes clear as we work through Paul’s greetings. Women were extremely active in shaping the early church, leading either by example in ministry or in formal roles.
I personally am very comfortable with women in professional ministry; it seems a natural progression from the radical inclusion women were finding in the early days of Christianity, a time when women seldom had much in the way of status in society.
Next in the list of identifiable people, we hear references to the “household of Aristobulus,” to “Herodion,” and to the “household of Narcissus.” These are likely people who were freed slaves, or their descendants. They were associated with or took on the names of powerful families they had served.
In this, we’re reminded that early Christianity was enormously attractive to those on the lower end of the social spectrum: the slaves, as well as the outcasts, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. Yes, as we’ve seen, rich people understood Christianity, too, but the best of them, the ones we remember today, imitated Jesus in reaching out to the people on the edges of society. Their wealth simply became a tool to better include those in need.
The last one we know anything significant about is Rufus. I wish we knew more. He likely was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
As we read in Mark 15:21: “A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)” Did the father’s story of bearing the cross alongside the bloodied Christ contribute to Rufus’ conversion?
There also is this matter of greeting each other with the “holy kiss.” When we pass the peace in worship, greeting each other “in the name of Jesus Christ,” we are practicing a vestige of what Paul is referring to here. In early Christianity, men kissed men and women kissed women on the lips in greeting. (Men and women were separate during worship.)
I guess we’re just more comfortable shaking hands in our culture. Plus, it’s getting near cold and flu season.
As we better understand these people, we see a deep, intimate connection. We see people filled with hope despite lowly circumstances. We see people with resources using them for the benefit of the kingdom. We see commitment to core Christian principles, and a willingness to correct each other in love as they all grow together spiritually.
As we look at them, I pray we see ourselves.
It’s impossible for me to develop a sermon with this much historical context unless I have some scholarly help. This week, I’m particularly indebted to Douglas J. Moo’s “The NIV Application Commentary: Romans.”