Romans 16:7-16 “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my relative. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.”
These verses more or less complete the list of men and women whom Paul greets in the congregations of Christians in Rome. There were hundreds of other members but these were the ones he was familiar with. He particularly loved and admired them for their hard work, for caring for him (one woman he doesn’t name except to say that her son was Rufus, had been like a mother to him), for their sufferings for the sake of Christ, for their faith which had been tested and approved in Christ. He and the Holy Spirit honour them in these verses at the end of this epistle. Notice a few omissions by way of introduction.
i] There is no reference in these verses to the particular importance of one gender more than the other. Paul makes reference to something like eleven women and fifteen men, which for a first century document is remarkable. He begins his list with a long description of Phoebe. He mentions Priscilla’s name before her husband Aquila. He mentions the hard work of four different women. A new attitude to women is entering the ancient world. The Greeks of Paul’s day thought very little of women and treated them largely as chattels. Women had no place in public life. The purpose of a wife was to produce children. Other women were for pleasure. Women were firmly under the authority of their fathers until they married and then were under the authority of their husbands. The Romans were only a little more enlightened in acknowledging inheritance rights for widows, and so there were wealthy and influential older women in Rome. This letter of Rome was addressed to both the men and women of the congregation. All listened to it; all were expected to assimilate it and all were exhorted to put its truths into practice in their lives.
ii] There is no reference in these verses to the ages of the people he is addressing. We are told of Andronicus and Junias that they had been Christians for many years, a longer time than Paul himself (verse seven), but there is no other clue as to the age of those he greets. Who were the younger men and women and who were the older? We haven’t a clue. Today the church is under pressure to attract young people. Many congregations in the land have no one under seventy attending and one can understand the enthusiasm for so-called ‘children’s church’ and the way in which teenagers in particular are welcomed and their presence in church cultivated by the leadership of many congregations, but you can search the whole New Testament and find no hint of such an attitude. Leadership in the church is in the hands of ‘elders’ and the word literally means ‘old men’ that is, mature and experienced men. God have mercy on a church which is run by youngsters.
iii] There is no reference in these verses to the class or material possessions or success in society of these men and women. Where is the landowner, the businessman, the intellectual, the property developer, the young upwardly mobile or the slaves amongst the men mentioned in verse fourteen, “Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas”? They are simply all “brothers.” Again this is a contrast to the attitude to churches today with their tendency to elitism. The passion in the New Testament is that a man or a woman belonged to the family of faith, that they read and understood this letter to the Romans and that they gloried in the mercies of God described there. If you divided up the population of the city of Rome into two categories, the “washed” and the “unwashed” our own tendency would be to go after the washed. Our role models in mission tend to be the evangelists who go after the intellectual types with whom you could discuss recent movies and novels, with whom you could have long talks over a good meal into the early hours of the morning. Pastors who are influenced by that spirit are in trouble. If they have a congregation of sixty, and just five of them are professional people they will aim their entire sermons pretty much at the five. I think I have learned from the example of men like Peter Jeffery the importance of aiming at the fifty-five non-professionals. If you consider the men who were church leaders in centuries gone by then their jobs were blacksmiths, farmers, sailors, rope-makers, weavers, cobblers, fishermen and the like. Very few were intellectuals. They were the people who knew and loved the Authorized Version of the Bible, the metrical psalms and the great hymns of Wesley, Watts, Toplady and Bonar. They are the people who have felt it the most when church leaders took from them a version of Scripture they knew as the Bible and replaced their hymnody with contemporary worship music in order to attract outsiders who couldn’t care less about Jesus Christ and his church. So what lessons can we learn from the passage before us?
THE GOAL OF CHRISTIAN LIVING IS COMMUNITY.
God made men and women for fellowship. It is not good for man to be alone. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live in community and the same must be true of us. We have a Father in heaven; Paul tells us he had a ‘mother’ and ‘brothers’ and ‘relatives’ in the church in Rome. A consciousness of the importance of others is something we see exemplified beautifully in the life of Christ himself. He surrounded himself with people. You turn over the pages of ‘sacred writings’ from other religions. They consist of long meditations, mystical, intense and devotional. They are always hard going as you try to understand what they are musing about. You turn to the gospels of Christ and they are about a man surrounded by other people, both male and female, young and old, and his encounters and conversations with them. Jesus related spontaneously and easily to children. He chose the Twelve to be with him. He had an inner circle of three especially close friends. He had a home where he felt especially secure in the family of two sisters and a brother. There was one man with whom he had a particularly close bond; John was someone Jesus loved and yet John was someone whose mother itched for him to sit at Jesus’ right hand in glory, a man who was angry with a Samaritan village which had rejected them, wanting Jesus to fireball it, a man who ran away and deserted him when soldiers came to arrest him. This was the man for whom Jesus felt a particularly close affection, not someone who was very pious and moral.
Doesn’t our society need Romans chapter sixteen with its description of loving relationships? Today so many people try to find fulfillment in ‘independence,’ as if they could be themselves only if they could escape from relationships. Both boys and girls will move out of the family home and into a flat to live with other people of their age a few streets away. Others will seek the anonymity of a city just like the prodigal son did but without his money. They prefer a bedsit to the family table. We see lovers who refuse the commitment of marriage, in fact, our generation often gives the impression that it is terrified of lifelong devotion in marriage. Relationships are casual and open-ended, with clear escape routes. But here in Romans 16 Paul describes his relationship with the members of the congregation of Rome in terms of a family. These people are his brothers and sisters. You cannot divorce your brother or sister; they will be your siblings for life. When a person becomes a Christian he accepts the inevitable loss of ‘independency’; you share with fellow believers your property, your income, your joys and sorrows, your friends, your ambitions and your decisions. But this loss of ‘independence’ is not an impoverishment. It is an enrichment as you go through life with other people with whom you have the strongest bonds of affection. It is a life of mutual love and service. You become helpers of other people’s joys. Rufus’ mother helped the apostle Paul. Phoebe nourished and strengthened many people, including Paul.
The church is a family of faith with shared privileges, shared experiences, shared resources, shared commitments and shared problems. The church is a gathering of friends. Paul never seems to have traveled alone but was always accompanied with one or other of the men he mentions in his letters, Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Luke, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus. What Christian would not long to have accompanied Paul on his journeys? Paul constantly makes clear the debt he owed to these men, and to the women also who “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel” (Phils 4:3). These friendships were not a form of sinful self-indulgence. They were in the best sense of the word, natural, meeting a need which God has implanted at the very depths of our natures.
A life lived apart from community is a life that violates human nature. We need the nearness and sympathy and counsel of our own kind. Without it we become neurotic. To refuse it is to show that we are already neurotic. Here is a list of individuals and Paul is zealous in mentioning their individuality; Phoebe stands as a helper of a great many people; Priscilla and Aquila are unique in risking their lives for the sake of Paul; Epenetus has the special distinction of being the first convert in the province of Asia; Andronicus and Junias are uniquely the relatives of Paul and they went to prison with him; Rufus’ mother became like a mother to Paul. Gaius gave hospitality to Paul (verse twenty-three); Erastus was the city’s director of public works (verse twenty-three). We don’t have a sheet of postage stamps here with every Christian identical to the next Christian, and the leaders afraid to mention any differences between them. When you see that you know you are meeting a cult. Here is an extraordinary blend of individuals but there is also provision for all kinds of sharing, participation and interaction. I was at a conference this past week and was sad to realise that the main speaker was not eating his meals with the rest of us. He didn’t line up and talk to all kinds of people as he waited, shuffling along to his place at the tables. He did not find five strangers sitting all around him anxious to fire questions at him. This man went back to his hotel to eat; he also was absent from most of the talks given by the other speakers. That attitude says, “I am a busy man.” I am sure that is true. It said also, “I can teach you but there is little I can learn from you.” And that is not true. We can learn from Phoebe, from both Priscilla and Aquila, and especially from Apelles who has been “tested and approved in Christ” (v.10). Let me sit and listen to a man who has got through what he had come through.
The implications are clear, that we need one another, that those who lead the church keep the rest of the church fully informed of what they are doing, of the people they meet in the fraternals and conferences they attend by reports and letters, and in illustrations as they preach. Let those who have a surplus share with those in need, and that in church meetings we talk to one another about the fellowship and how we use the money we all have in abundance which all belongs to the Lord. We are all fellow servants. If we don’t get our way in a congregation we don’t parade our unhappiness by refusing to attend a service every week. Jesus Christ submitted himself to a sinful family, a sinful father and a sinful mother and sinful brothers and sisters for thirty years. Then when he began his ministry with his disciples he served them, and they were full of ignorance and prejudice when he took them on. As a servant he was subordinate, answerable and dependent. The whole glory of the love of Jesus Christ is that he was willing to take such a position, to make himself nothing, as Paul puts it.
2. THE COMMUNITY IS TO BE A UNITED LOVING FELLOWSHIP.
The greetings of Romans chapter sixteen are an enfleshment of the longing of Jesus in his prayer in John seventeen and verse twenty-one “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus was not asking God for some politico-religious organization like the Anglican Communion agreeing in very little, with constant bickering and divisions, but a gospel fellowship showing a oneness that the city of Rome in the first century could see, and which would convey to the community something of the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ. The harmony of mankind has been broken by sin; the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ heals it. In all the Roman Empire there were barriers, between Jew and Gentile, between Greek and barbarian, between the slave and the free man, between men and downtrodden women. Today things are little better; marriages are as fragile and short lived as an icicle. Broken homes, divided communities, gangs and ghettos seem stronger than ever.
Paul is describing here the visible alternative. Here is a society within which the dividing walls have been broken down, where men and women are not judged ‘according to the flesh’, that is, according to the colour of their skin, their IQ, the school they went to, their accent, the car they own, their sun-tans, their degrees, their titles, the land they own, where they went on holiday. In a church like this Roman congregation rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, young and old sat down together, shared the same cup and ate the same loaf at ‘communion,’ listened to a slave preaching the Word of God with authority. They respected a woman like Phoebe giving her any help she needed, and they welcomed one another into membership on the basis of spiritual realities, not human characteristics. Here the feeble-minded found acceptance, the easily tempted found strength and the homosexual was helped to put his past behind him.
How is this fellowship made? It is like a wheel in which every spoke must be fixed in a hub and the hub of the church is Jesus Christ the Son of God and the personal Saviour of every believer, their teacher, their great high priest and their Lord. As they are rooted in him so they grow closer and closer together. But we are not simply worshippers of Jesus, we also worship the Father and the Spirit who are also the one true and living God. We are one in the Father who created us and chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world; we are one in the Spirit who illuminated our minds and convicted us of our sins and regenerated us making us new creations. We are all one in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are bound together by the trinity, in fact part of the very meaning of being a Christian is that the triune God has taken up residence in all these people mentioned in Romans sixteen as well as in our own congregation. We have the life of God in our souls. That is the explanation of the self-giving of Phoebe, the risk taking of Priscilla and Aquila, the hard work of Mary, the imprisonment of Andronicus, the mothering of Paul by Rufus’ parent, and the holy kiss. Jesus Christ lived in them all. They were filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Father, Son and Holy Ghost do not simply command us, “Be one!” They do not say, “Copy our example.” They actually make us one by indwelling every true Christian. How can a slave hate his Christian master when he sees Jesus Christ living in him. How can a Jew despise a Gentile in whom his own God and Lord resides? How can he denigrate him and say despicable things behind his back mocking him?
Because God indwells these people they are all partakers of the divine nature. They share the same primary instincts. All these Christians in Romans sixteen were hungry and thirsty for righteousness, they were pure in heart, they were peacemakers, they desired the nourishing milk of God’s word, they craved fellowship with God as the deer panted after the water brooks. They all had a melody in their hearts to God.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (v. 16), says Paul. What is that? It is the ardour of their love. They loved one another with pure hearts fervently. We do not kiss one another because we have abandoned our first love. This absence has little to do with cultural practices. If we love God, whom we have not seen, we will certainly also love our brothers whom we see day after day. We cannot love God if we don’t love our brother. In fact God provides the standard for this love. Before this love ever existed in mankind it existed in God, in the love the Father had for the Son and the Son for the Father and the both for the Spirit. We are to love one another with the same sort of love, as Jesus prayed to his Father, “that the love you have for me may be in them” (Jn. 17:26).
As Donald Macleod says, “That, surely, is awe-inspiring enough. Do I love other believers the way God the Father loves God the Son? But there is something even more awesome: we are to emulate the depth of love that God the Father showed for the world when he gave his only Son for it (John 3:16). Even when our fellow Christians are disappointing, even when they are hurtful, we are to love them in such a way that no sacrifice is too great and no kindness too extravagant. This is not a counsel of perfection or an ideal which is utterly unattainable. It is what Paul had in mind in his great hymn on love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. No matter how deep our knowledge, how great our gifts, how stupendous our experiences, if we do not show this sort of love our Christianity is mere posturing.”
THE MEMBERS OF THE GROWING FELLOWSHIP MUST ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER.
Aren’t these first sixteen verses wonderfully encouraging, not merely to the people mentioned but to the whole church? Paul went to these lengths to let the congregation know that he knew and appreciated what all these individuals had done and were doing, that he was mightily impressed by all he saw and heard. He greets each one of them, as an apostle, no less than seventeen times. He was not ashamed of his repetition, “Greet so-and-so, greet so-and-so, greet so-and-so.” This is what God the Spirit told him to write. Paul is simply mirroring the God he served, the one who said in the opening words of Isaiah 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” Paul too is upholding these Christians in Rome, those fellow believers in whom he delights. “Stick at it!” he is saying. “Go on! Don’t give up! You are doing a great job! I love to hear about you. I thank God for you all the time. Go for it! Be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord!”
You see this divine encouragement at the baptism of Jesus when the Spirit descends on him and the Father speaks to him and tells him how pleased he is with him. Then at every point of his ministry God is there encouraging his Son, after the temptations, and later after his agony in the garden he sends angels to comfort him. Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry in his transfiguration God again commends him, “I am so pleased with everything you have been doing. You all listen to my Son.” That is why Paul also commends all these Christians naming each of them in this loving way. It is a ministry of inspiration and encouragement and in this ministry we are all called to participate. We may not be able to go to the same lengths as Paul went to here, but this encouragement must be part of our ministries. We’ve got to recognize one another by saying, “My brother! My sister!” as the Father said on a couple of occasions, “My Son!” We should express our affection for one another. Maybe they’d been failing to greet one another in Rome, they had been taking one another for granted, they had grown rather peremptory in their relationships, and Paul in his greetings is telling them how remarkable their lives and labours were. We need to greet one another, to tell one another that it is good to see their faces again when they have been away. Too often men speak to one another only when the occasion calls for criticism. The account we have of the relations between the Son and the Father and the Spirit in the Godhead during our Lord’s earthly ministry indicates that they were totally involved in one another’s ministries and fully committed to one another and that this is how it should be between the various members of the congregation. This is the great motivational energy of Paul’s list of greetings here in Romans sixteen.
Consider the persons of the trinity, how they are beside one another, and with one another, and towards one another, and they even dwell in each other. Donald Macleod says, “We see this in John 14:11, ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ It also occurs in John 17:21, ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you’; and again in John 17:23, ‘I in them and you in me.’ Words such as these suggest a kind of union and interpenetration which is incredibly close and intimate, far beyond anything we can experience as human beings. This is why in John 14:9 Jesus can say to Philip, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ It is obviously impossible for us to have such a close relationship with any other human being. Yet in the Christian church, conceived of as the body of Christ, there must be something more than mere sharing. There is such an involvement with one another and such a depth of affection and sympathy, that ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). Similarly, if one Christian is not performing his proper function, all are affected, because the church is a body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, and it can grow only when each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16).
“We have no right to be in each other’s way and even less to be in each other’s hair. Yet the passages we have just quoted from the New Testament reflect a degree of commitment, concern, involvement and intimacy far beyond what we usually find in churches today. The fact that Christ and the church are ‘one flesh’ (Ephesians 5:29—32) indicates not simply a close bond between him and each of the other members of the body but also a very close bond between the various members themselves. They, too, are one flesh, deeply involved in each other, and they must express this in their collective life-style.” (Donald Macleod, Shared Life, Scripture Union, 1987, p.59)
THE ENCOURAGEMENT COMES FROM THE RICH DIVERSITY.
What a range of personalities and characters are found in this chapter, and that must be the case if each one is made in the image of the triune God. How different the Father, the Son and the Spirit are to one another. Only the first person of the godhead is the Father; only the second person of the godhead is the Son, and only the third person in the godhead is sent by the Father and the Son into the world. Each one is distinct; each has his own unique quality which gives him his personal identity. Our congregations reflect the life of the trinity and so each one displays his or her own diversity. We say, “All Christians are different.” We say it usually in the context of confessing we don’t understand how some Christians can do the things they do – “How can he behave like that?” “Well, we are all different,” comes the reply. But that is an important truth. We insist on the difference of Christians; we revel in the difference of Christians; we take pride that no two Christians are alike. Cult members are; the new Mormon missionaries who have arrived from Utah and Arizona in Aberystwyth look and talk like every other Mormon missionary which has been sent here, but Christians are as different as chalk and cheese.
Similarly the worldwide congregations of the people of God, though they possess one gospel, one Bible, one Saviour, one message of eternal life through faith in the Saviour, one ethic of loving God with all one’s heart and loving one’s neighbour as oneself, one Lord, one faith and one baptism, yet each reflects an astonishing variety of nationalities, cultures, intelligence, insights, temperaments, aptitudes and experience. The church of one age differs from that of another. Each has its own character, each reflects the circumstances in which it came into being, its history, its environment and its leadership. Look at the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation chapters two and three. How different each is from the other.
How different each Christian is. One sees it in a family, the father, demonstrative, witty, extrovert; the mother, shy, modest and quickly embarrassed; the children all different from one another. In just one Christian family there is a tapestry of personalities and characters existing. Then multiply the families coming together in the church. Those personalities must never be absorbed into one indistinct religious personage. Notice the way the apostles identifying themselves when they wrote to the early churches. They didn’t begin their letters saying, ‘This is the master speaking,’ nor even, ‘This is the apostle speaking.’ They said, ‘Paul is greeting you . . . this is Peter speaking . . . this is James.’ They were themselves, different in their style and manner, John even refusing to begin his letters with his name and Luke also not saying the he was the author of his gospel and Acts – what different men. And these men and women in Rome were themselves, and we must be ourselves, and our service in the congregation will reflect what we are and what we are capable of. For some of us, to equal others would be impossible. For others, it wouldn’t be enough. From each of us, God wants our whole life: a sacrifice which expresses what we are by heredity, by environment, by education, by the experience of grace and by the gifts of the Spirit.
In the same way, the various churches of the New Testament, at Philippi, Rome, Corinth Thessalonica and Ephesus all had different needs. So it is today; some are strong theologically, others are strong in missionary gifts and yet others strong in the patient endurance of suffering. It is for God himself to weave these various threads into a common tapestry. But no tapestry can come out of bland uniformity. Our national and cultural distinctions give colour to our Christian service. We must be careful not to set this unity and this diversity over against each other. The church is not one despite its diversity; it is one because of its diversity.
Think again of the body. Each of us has one body, but it is made up of many different parts. It functions as a unit only if it has the necessary bits and pieces, and only if each does its proper job. The same is true of a car; it wouldn’t be much use if it were all clutch or if the gear-box tried to be a carburettor. Of course we cannot press such illustrations too far. Tonsils and oesophaguses, clutches and carburettors, don’t have the perverseness and stubbornness of many church members! It remains true, however, that the unity of the godhead results from the Father being the Father, the Son being the Son and the Spirit being the Spirit. In the same way, the unity of the church results from each one of us being himself or herself and doing what God has designed us for. What destroys Christian unity is not lack of uniformity but the absence of what we may call ‘unifying power’: love for God, love for each other and shared concern for the world. If we lack these, we turn in upon ourselves destructively. If we have them, we forget personal needs and interests and get on with expressing in our own distinctive way our obedience to Christ, just as this great congregation in Rome over 1900 years ago.
29th April 2007 GEOFF THOMAS