Grace Presbyterian Church
September 24, 2017, Pentecost 16A
What Is This Place? Who Are These People?
I don’t know how it was for you, but when I was growing up we children were given “illustrated” Bibles – that is, Bibles with pictures in them. Usually the pictures were reserved for the “big stories” – Noah and the ark, the Exodus, maybe Jonah, maybe a prophet being all fiery. In the New Testament you’d get something from the birth of Jesus, maybe the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, one or more of the miracles like the feeding five thousand or walking on water, the crucifixion and the resurrection. In Acts, you might get something for Pentecost, and a few scenes from the missionary journeys of Paul. As I remember it, though, the pictures tended to become a lot less prolific after that. A really adventurous children’s illustrated Bible might throw something in from the book of Revelation.
There are obvious reasons for that, of course. The remaining books in the New Testament don’t necessarily suggest obvious pictures. How do you draw a picture of one of Paul’s letters (or any other epistle, for example)? After all these weeks in Romans, does anything stand out to you as being easily summed up in a picture? Jay, what do you think?
Anyway, about those pictures that did exist in those Bibles, one thing that seemed so pervasive as to go unnoticed, was that all the stories were illustrated with bunches and bunches of … dudes. Men. Guys. Obviously there were some exceptions – you can’t do a Nativity picture without Mary, for sure, and Jesus at Martha and Mary’s home might have been an illustration – but between twelve disciple dudes and crowds of Pharisees and Sadducees and such, there were a lot of dudes in those picture Bibles.
Here’s the thing; I was pretty impressionable at that age, and in a time when the denomination in which I was raised was not friendly towards women in leadership roles (except for children’s Sunday school classes), it was pretty easy for me to come away from those pictures with the distinct if unspoken or even subconscious impression that church was “men’s work.” The pastor was a man; all the deacons were men; even the music director was a man. The girls didn’t get to preach on Youth Sunday, even. Men’s work.
Clearly, Romans 16 wasn’t a text that informed such decisions.
As has been noted earlier in this series, Paul had not yet been to Rome when he wrote this letter, but that didn’t mean he was totally unfamiliar with the church or churches there, and these final greetings (a typical part of all of Paul’s letters) were much longer and more elaborate than was typical of his epistles, both to extend genuine greetings to his friends and comrades among the Roman Christians and to make clear to the others reading or hearing the letter that he was less unfamiliar with these churches than it might seem.
The first name in this extensive list, though, is not one of the Roman Christians; rather, Phoebe was one of Paul’s fellow laborers in the faith, and probably the one who was delivering the letter to the Romans personally. Paul also calls Phoebe (who is mentioned nowhere else in scripture) by two distinct Greek nouns: διακονος (diakonos) and προστασις (prostasis). The former is indeed the root of the modern English word deacon, as it is translated in your New Revised Standard Version pew Bibles. The term represents an official title or office in the early church, unlike other possible translations such as “minister” or “servant,” although those are valid translations in some contexts. At any rate the term denotes leadership. The latter term, prostasis, also connotes a leadership role, in this case one that involved patronage and official representation. For example, if a member of the community at Cenchreae were called to appear before the local court or government, Phoebe could appear as that person’s representative.
Now those whom Paul greets among the Romans are also an interesting mix. The only ones we know appear elsewhere in the scriptures are the first ones mentioned, Prisca and Aquila, Paul’s fellow evangelists. They first appear in Acts 18 (Prisca is called “Priscilla” there), as among those who minister both to Paul and to Apollos, an eloquent and passionate, but ill-educated, young evangelist who becomes their student, learning the Way of the Lord more accurately from them. Greetings go out to Prisca and Aqulia in 2 Timothy, and they are among those extending greetings along with Paul in 1 Corinthians. Paul goes so far as to indicate that he even owes his life to them, and that’s not a metaphor in this case.
Another interesting greeting goes to Andronicus and Junia, whom Paul calls “prominent among the apostles” and “in Christ before I was.” At minimum this suggests that these two (possibly husband and wife like Prisca and Aquila) had been converts before Paul, and possibly eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. The title “apostle” also denoted a form of authority as well. These two, like Paul, appear to have been traveling evangelists or what we might call “church planters” today, and had apparently been in prison with Paul at least once.
Later in the list, three women are singled out by Paul as “those workers in the Lord”: Tryphaena, Trypohsa, and Persis, who Paul says “worked hard in the Lord.” While no specific title is applied to those women, their work has been enough to be singled out by Paul along with the work of Urbanus, “our co-worker in Christ,” although it is possible from their position in the list that Paul is not as acquainted with them as with those named earlier.
One other interesting name is that of Rufus. Back in Mark 15:21 we are introduced to Simon of Cyrene, the man who was compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus when he (Jesus) had collapsed. For reasons known only to Mark, the gospel identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” While it is impossible to know if the son of Simon is the same Rufus greeted by Paul, there is some logic to the possibility, not least that both Mark and Paul feel compelled to single him out: Mark as an identifier to his possibly-Roman audience (if his readers didn’t know Simon’s name they’d know his son’s), and Paul as one “chosen in the Lord” (or the word could even be translated “outstanding in the Lord”).
One more note on names, some of which suggest a particular role in life for their bearers. The names Ampliatus (which means “ample”), Narcissus (a name taken from mythology), the aforementioned Tryphaena (“dainty”), Trypohsa (“luscious”), and Persis, and possibly Hermes and Hermas (more names from mythology) were all common names for slaves in the Roman Empire. This does not mean that all of them were actually slaves at the time Paul writes, but it is quite possible – even likely – that some or all of these persons were either slaves, former slaves who had been granted or able to buy their freedom, or children of slaves or former slaves (whether freed somehow or even born free).
I don’t know how I’d have reacted, with all those illustrated-Bible pictures in my head, had someone taught me this chapter in my childhood. The deacon/minister Phoebe, the evangelist Prisca, and the apostle Junia would have caused a great deal of cognitive dissonance in my small mind up against the pictures presented to me every Sunday in church. (Over the centuries some have also experienced that cognitive dissonance, to the point that some scholars over the centuries have tried to take away Phoebe’s office, calling her only “servant,” or to suggest that “Junia” must really have been a male, “Junias,” because obviously a woman can’t be an apostle – even though in all that we know of that era, the name “Junias” does not, technically, exist.) The degree to which Paul made no accounting for class – slaves or former slaves jostling right up next to the wealthy, or even nobility, wouldn’t have fit very well into my brain either.
And yet this is the church.
Where all are called to use their gifts to the glory of God, no matter their gender or class or anything else, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,” this is the church. This is the body of Christ, and everyone members of it.
What probably looked like a motley crew to the Romans around such a church or group of churches was something glorious for Paul to see, and indeed a collection of followers of Christ with much to teach us even if we know almost nothing about them. Let’s face it, folks: without women to serve as elders we’d have a severely difficult time comprising a session around here, just to name one example.
And yet even today there are churches and pastors out there today that would utterly dis-fellowship that Roman church if they came upon it today for all the ways they “violate” what scripture says about the church. Of course this would be pretty ironic, since if we take scripture seriously Romans 16 is what scripture says about the church, or at least part of it.
The church at Rome is kinda all over the place, and yet the body of Christ. Maybe that sounds or looks familiar to us. So, like the church at Rome that Paul so commends, our job is to do the work of the church with those who are here, no matter what anybody else has to say about it.
For our mothers (and fathers) in the faith, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #4, Holy God, We Praise Your Name; #361, O Christ, the Great Foundation; #404, What Is This Place; #300, We Are One in the Spirit
Image credit: The Harbour at Cenchrea
© V. Gilbert and Arlisle F. Beers (Source: Visual Bible Alive) (remember, Phoebe was the deacon of the church there)