You can tell a lot about a place by the people they honour. What do the statues tell you about who's important in London? Go to the National portrait Gallery and look who we've got on the walls – what does it take to get noticed, to get remembered, who are the really significant people in our history? Or look at the papers – who gets the column inches? Who gets the headlines and the main pictures? Who get's interviewed in the Sunday Magazines? And what does that tell you about what's really important in our world?
What would you learn from Saturday paper – footballing skills rank pretty highly in our society at this particular moment, and good looks, money, fame itself. We still have a bit of room for movie stars and pop stars – so we value talent and vacuous good looks, much the same as the footballers!
What would we learn from the recent elections – good looks and youth again…??
In a similar way we can learn a lot about what God values and thinks is important when we look at who he honours, and this morning we've got a chance to do just that as we look at Paul's Roman equivalent of the Queens' honours list.
As Paul comes to the end of the letter he wrote to the Christians in Rome he sends a shout out to the people he knows and trusts there. He starts with Pheobe, who probably carried the letter from where Paul wrote it in Corinth, and then lists off a great number of people who were in Rome.
What can we learn from a list of names like this? Well lots – for instance we get a few clues as to the make-up of the church – There's a few Jews – Priscilla and Aquilla, and the three Paul calls his relatives; and there's lots of gentiles. They seem to meet in house churches – he greets the church that meets in Priscilla and Aquila's house, two groups who belong to different households – which might be a way saying churches that meet in the house of so and so, and he in verse 14 he greets a group of people and the brothers with them; and likewise in verse 15 he greets a group of people and the saints with them – again probably house churches. And Those who've studied ancient Roman names tell me that these names suggest there are a lot of slaves or former slaves among them; and there are also a lot of wealthy types and possibly a few who are known from secular Roman history, that is significant political families, like Thatchers and Blairs and Rothschild's. So we've got both extremes of the social spectrum slaves and kings makers, and we've got Jews and Gentiles and they're all meeting together in small house churches. That's quite incredible, and we haven't even had a close look at the list yet!
In itself this list of names also reminds us that Paul had business to do in Rome – this isn't just a social letter, and nor is it a theological text book – Paul wrote it for a specific purpose. Here we can see Paul working that purpose out even as he greets his friends and acquaintances here at the end of the letter. This list of greetings also functions as a way of marking out the people Paul approves to lead the church. Reading between the lines Paul is saying these are the ones to follow, these are the leaders you should be following. And this personal element also gives us a chance to marvel at God's goodness in ensuring that this letter, particular to these churches and the place where they were and the time they lived in could also be directed to us and useful to us where we live in our time and place!
So let's have a closer look at the specifics of this list of nemes. There's five things that I want us to look a little more closely at.
1) The first is Paul's commendation of Phoebe from verse 1, have a look with me there:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.
Paul tells us Phoebe is 'our sister', a servant of the church, from Cenchrea and a helper of many, including Paul himself. What do those thing mean?
Pick the easy ones first, Phoebe is a sister, short hand for sister in the Lord, a believer, a Christian. She's from Cenchrea. Cenchrea was a sea port just near to Corinth. Corinth sat between two Ports – Lechaeum was the Port to the West, and Cenchrea was the Port to the East, that's what made it an important trade destination. Paul sailed from Cenchrea on his way home from Corinth in Acts 18. It seems there was a church there in addition to the one in Corinth.
So what does it mean that Phoebe was a servant of the church? Well at the very least she was active in service there – there's plenty of people we could name from here in the same way. But the greek word here is deacon, which means servant, and which also had a technical meaning as those who served the practical needs of the church, the deacons, like in Acts 6. Since she is called a deacon of the church it seems likely to have this technical meaning – she held an official serving role in the church – probably not unlike a pastoral care role in a modern church today.
And she was a great help – that again is a translation of a word that had a technical meaning – Paul literally calls her a Benefactress. Benefactors were generally important people in society who used their wealth and rank to look after others – providing hospitality and introductions, meeting needs, and perhaps helping with legal matters etc. It can also have a very specific technical sense of a political and social leader. Paul seems to be using it in a more functional sense here, as it's translated – she's provided hospitality and help to me and others, please do the same for her.
So we get a picture of a woman, probably wealthy and so able to provide for others and travel, who gives her time and money in service to the church. Reading between the lines Phoebe has probably carried Paul's letter from Corinth where he wrote it, and may even have had to gather the various house churches together and read the letter to them. As a visitor to Rome she needs looking after – there's even a hint that she might have other reasons to visit Rome that they may be able to help with. So Paul's word designed to provide an introduction for her, like a form of authorisation or ID so that they will trust her and provide for her while she's in Rome. She's worthy of help and commendable because she's a Christian, and even more so because she's a servant of the church and a benefactor to others.
2) Next let's move on in the list to look at Paul's introduction of Priscilla and Aquila, in verses 3-5a
Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Paul now moves into a list of some 26 people he wants to greet in Rome. I'm sure this is a personal and warm greeting – but it also functions a bit like those birthday honours list, or a bit like the commendation he just gave for Phoebe – those who Paul greets are marked out as specially significant in the church, and none more so that Priscilla and Aquila who come first on his list of greetings. He calls them fellow workers in Christ who risked their lives for him and to whom he and all the gentile churches are grateful.
We know Priscilla and Aquila from Acts 18. There we learn that they were tent makers, like Paul, and that Paul actually worked with them in their business in Corinth. Like Paul they were Jews, but not from Israel – Aquila was from Pontus but they'd been living in Rome. In AD 49 or so the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, so they went to Corinth, where they met and worked with Paul, and then went with Paul to Ephesus, where he left them, presumably in leadership role in the church. Some time after that they instructed Apollos who went on to become almost as famous as Paul as a Jewish Christian Missionary.
While we don't know how they risked their life for Paul we can readily agree that the gentile churches had a lot to thank them for – not just in helping Paul, they were stalwarts in the church in Corinth, Ephesus and now Rome, and they taught Apollos who had a wide ranging ministry –I'm not sure if this is an appropriate comparison, but you could imagine how impressed you might be if you were to meet someone who had personally assisted Billy Graham in his missions, and discipled John Stott, JI Packer or Don Carson – we'd have a lot to thank that person for, and so would Christians around the world. That's the level of influence Priscilla and Aquila have had. They hold a place at the top of the list of leaders in Rome, and rightly so.
3) Let's skip down the list a touch and take note of Andronicus and Junias – Paul relatives and fellow prisoners, in verse 7.
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.
This greeting is worth noticing because it raises questions for us – how are they outstanding among the apostles when we've never even heard of them before? From what we can tell here Andronicus and Junias seem to be a husband and wife team (although Junias could also be a man's name, in which case they would be more like Paul and Barnabas as a missionary team). It's also not clear if Paul means they were in the same prison at the same time, or simply that they've shared the experience of being imprisoned for their faith, but the fact they've been imprisoned for their faith tells us they were prepared to stand up for the gospel even though it cost them, even to the point of going to jail – that's an impressive commitment to Jesus and his word.
So what does it mean that they were Outstanding among the apostles? It could mean that they've impressed the apostles, but it seems more likely that Paul's using apostles in a non technical sense – the NT uses apostles in two ways; in the technical sense they are the men Jesus appointed – the disciples plus Jesus' brother James and Paul. But in addition many others were sent ones, which is what the word apostle means. Andronicus and Junias seem to have been sent ones – presumably then they were missionaries, sent out by the churches to tell others the gospel. Again, presumably that mission landed them in prison, just as it did Paul.
So it would seem that missionaries have begun to be sent out and to take the gospel all over the ancient world. Acts 2 tells us there were Jews visiting from Rome in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, so we'd expect some of them – perhaps including Priscilla and Aquila – to have taken the gospel back with them to Rome. But this something a bit different – missionaries sent out deliberately to Rome, probably to provide back up and support to the work that was already going on there. It's just a few years since missionary work began with Paul and Barnabas being sent out from Anitoch, but already the work is being taken on by others.
In fact looking back over the list it seems there are quite a few who have been involved in missions work – either with Paul or independently of him. We've already mentioned Priscilla and Aquila, and Andronicus and Junia, but there's also Mary 'who worked very hard for' the Romans, Urbanus 'our fellow worker in Christ', Tryphaena and Tryphosa 'those women who work hard in the Lord', Persis 'another woman who has worked hard in the Lord', and possibly, Epaenetus 'who was the first convert to Christ in the provence of Asia'.
So we see that Paul was far from alone in his missionary work. We may not have details of how they were all involved, and we don't hear of them in Acts and the rest of the NT, but there must have been lots of people working with him if this list is any indication. Many were at work labouring for the Lord, serving the church and the gospel. And that leads me to the next observation
4) It's striking how many on this list are women, especially on that list of Paul's fellow workers.
Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus' mother, Julia, and Nereus' sister. Not to mention Phoebe. More than 1/3 of the people Paul commends to the church are women. Almost all of the people he calls fellow workers are women. In a society that was firmly Patriarchal and tended to exclude women from religious and social leadership that's an awful lot of women. And they're actively serving in the church, and receiving praise and cudos from the great apostle to the gentiles. And there's genuine warmth and affection in Paul's greetings – he says that Rufus' mother has been a mother to him, calls Persis his dear friend, and praises many of them for their hard work.
This is the same Paul who some people accuse of being mysoginistic and a woman hater. Paul did write against appointing women to lead and take authority over a man in the church, but he also encouraged and nurtured the ministries of these women. There was plenty of work to be done and plenty of opportunities for all to do it – not just Jew and Gentile, but male and female, there was a new equality and involvement that was unprecedented in the ancient world.
And finally I want you to notice:
5) The great variety of descriptions Paul uses. Have a look back through the whole passage and you'll see Paul calls people variously:
A servant, fellow workers in Christ Jesus, the church that meets in Priscilla and Aquila's house, convert to Christ, one who worked very hard for you, in Christ, one whom I love in the Lord, a fellow worker in Christ, one who is tested and approved in Christ, in the Lord, who work hard in the Lord (lit. exhausted in the Lord), chosen in the Lord, who worked very hard in the Lord, the saints.
This variety of descriptions reflects the great variety of blessings of God, the varieties of gifts and ministries he'd given them, as well as the depth and variety of relationships and connections that Paul has with the church in Rome, even though he's never been anywhere near it.
Looking back through that list it is remarkable how God has provided for the church in Rome, a great wealth of willing servants, able teachers, those who would boldly proclaim the gospel, even if it landed them in prison, those who opened the homes to churches to meet in, and those who worked hard for others benefit.
And notice too the common element to all those things – they are all united, not by their connection to Paul, but by their connection to God – they are in the Lord, in Christ, fellow workers in the Lord or in Christ, tested and approved in Christ, worked hard in the Lord. Because they are joined him they are all joined together – even though it's likely that these house churches didn't meet together very often and many of the people on this list would not have known each other. They come from all different walks of life, cross ethnic, social and gender barriers to form a united whole. In themselves these people embody the things that Paul has been telling the church – they were living sacrifices, laying down their lives for the church, and they were unified by their common relationship with Christ.
So as we look back through that list we see a wonderful testimony to the work that God has been doing in Rome. He's been building a church for himself by transforming individuals and setting them to work in self sacrificial ways for the good of the body. Jews and Gentiles, Men and women, freedmen and wealthy householders, all united to Christ and so serving the body. Praise God for his goodness to the church and remember that the same God is at work among us, and he remains as committed to building the church now as he was then.
And we see those who God honours – not just the rich or the influential, not just the guys with the big reputations, but the humble servants. Rich or poor, politically influential or unknown, anyone can get onto God's honours list, because he honours those who serve him, whatever their service.
And that leads me to a final observation before we finish:
God provided for us in a remarkable way when he led Paul to write this letter to these particular Christians in that time and place. And he did it by making sure that this letter to the Romans would also be useful to all Christians in all times and places.
This of people personalises and particularises this letter like nothing else that gone before. It's so specific that some commentators have concluded it must have been added in afterwards – they argue that Romans is so obviously applicable to all Christians that it must have been written as a theological text for everyone not a letter to a single place.
But that's to forget the remarkable power of God and the brilliance of the Holy Spirit. Because that is a characteristic that is shared by all of the Bible. Not all of the Bible was written as letters, but all of it was inspired by the Holy Spirit to be written for a specific time and circumstance – and to have a relevance that was eternal and universal, for all people everywhere.
For example Dueteronomy was a sermon Moses preached before the Israelites crossed over into the promised land. Or the prophets were moved by God to speak in response to specific historical circumstances, usually when the people of Israel went astray. Numbers, Leviticus, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are historical and political records from a minority people group in the middle east who lost their autonomy 2600 ago. Daniel and Esther follow individual Jews in exile. The gospels recorded the life and mostly the death of a single man. And most of the rest of books of the NT were written as letters to churches or even to individual Christians.
The bible was written across so many different specific situations and of course by so many different human authors. Yet God worked through those specific times and places and situations to unfold his eternal, universal plan. God is remarkably able to work through the smallest events for the largest significance.
And so it is with this letter to the Romans. We're reminded here in Chapter 16 that this is a letter to a bunch of Christians who were living real lives in a real place. They had many of the same concerns as we do – they had kids to raise, jobs to do, bills to pay, a government that sometimes made arbitrary decisions that affected their lives dramatically. But they were in their place and we're in ours. And God directed Paul in such a clever and powerful way that the things that Paul said to them back then have rung down through the ages as God's word to all of us. Isn't that remarkable?
And in a way a similar thing happens here as we meet each Sunday. We're not re-creating the bible, we don't have authoritative teachers like the apostles sent with Jesus' own authority to speak words of eternal significance. And yet, as we expound the scriptures they wrote, as we open them up and read them and explain them and apply them, God does a remarkable work here. Through our feeble and human sermons God speaks to us each week, taking our efforts and using them to mould and shape his church like a smaller version of the way he took Paul's letters and made them eternally significant.
And, in a similar fashion he takes our feeble and frail efforts to serve him and he makes them eternally significant. Just like Paul was able to see God's had at work in the lives of the servants at Rome, so God's hand is at work in our lives as we serve him. So our lives are potentially as significant and important as those of any of the saints Paul lists off from Rome.
Think about that for just a moment - How many of us can expect to see our statue on the spare plinth in Trafalgar Square, or our portrait hanging in the national gallery? How many of us can expect to see our faces looking back from pages of the glossy magazines? How many of us might be honoured in the Queen's list? But anyone of us can have our name on God's honours list, all of us can serve like Mary and Persisi and Andronicus and Junias. So as Paul says in chapter 12 offer your bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord that we might be pleasing to him.