A Diverse Family
One of my favorite TV series is the Chicago series of TV shows. They’re the work of the same brilliant television mind that has been bringing us the Law and Order series of shows. It started with Chicago Fire, now in its 9th season. And during its first season, several colorful, well-developed characters from the Chicago police department make several appearances, and the next year Chicago P.D. ran its first season, and is now in its 8th season. That’s the one that really got me hooked. And during that season, several characters from a Chicago hospital started making appearances on both Fire and P.D., and then Chicago Med, now in its 6th season, launched. Aubrey is the one who introduced me to it, and I used to tease her, wondering when a fourth show, Chicago Sanitation, was going to make its debut. But then she got me sucked into them and now I think I would probably watch a show about Chicago’s sanitation workers.
The fun thing is that the characters from the three shows often appear in episodes of one of the other shows, and they sometimes follow a single plot line through all three in a single night. They’ve even incorporated characters and plots with Law and Order SVU, which is set in New York City. The Chicago series runs on Wednesday nights, which is why youth group never runs late and I kick the kids out right after we dismiss. In fact, P.D. reruns were on in the background as I wrote this sermon. NOT while I studied earlier in the week, but while I was writing on Thursday.
So I this spring I started watching the old seasons of Chicago Fire. Actually I started binge watching them several at a time. And I stumbled upon one really cool plot arc that I didn’t realize started with Chicago Fire, and then went to New York City through an episode of Law and Order SVU, and then came back to Chicago for its conclusion in Chicago P.D. I’ve seen the final episode of the arc in P.D. several times, but I’d never followed the whole thing through all three shows, so I did that this week.
There’s a similar kind of an arc, a plot-line, running through Paul’s letter to the Romans, but we miss it when we skip around and pull passages out of their larger context. Even if we preach the text accurately, we often miss the connections within the Biblical book it’s a part of. Kind of like I missed connections and major plot points in the Chicago series I love to watch.
Love is the defining element of this arc running through Romans. It begins with God’s great love for us, love that God has lavishly poured out upon us, “while we were still sinners” Paul tells us (5:5,8). Sin separates us from God, demolishes our relationship with God, but it does not, cannot, destroy God’s love for us. It was the love of God that sent Christ to the cross. And nothing, absolutely nothing, even death itself, cannot separate us from God’s lavish love (8:28-39). And as people who have been touched by, who have experienced the lavish love of God, we are to share that love with one another. Our lives are to be marked primarily by love (12:9-10). Love for one another in the body of Christ. Love for those outside the body of Christ, inviting them to join us in a community marked by God’s love (13:8-10). Love for those whose conscience convicts them about things our conscience doesn’t (14:15). Even love for our enemies (12:14-21). God’s lavish love for us transforms us into a people who respond to God’s love in faith and belief and who are transformed into a people, a community, marked by love.
Romans 16:1-16 is one of those passages that is often passed over when we’re choosing passages to preach from. But when we’re preaching through a book of the Bible, or a part of a book, we don’t skip anything. It’s the next text up. And if Paul reminder to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) is true, and it is, then this text has something to say to us too. It’s basically a list of names. The names of people Paul wants to greet. Turn with me to Romans 16:1-16.
Now remember, there are three great movements, or acts, in Romans. Act 1, in the first part of the book, is the depth of our sin and depravity as human beings, the impact of sin on the human heart. Act 2 is the grace and the mercy God showers upon us because of his great love for us. It’s a love that sent Jesus to the cross in our place and on our behalf. Act 3 is the transformation that happens in our hearts and minds and lives as the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins to remodel us. And the strand the ties those three acts together is the love of God for us and in us. That transforming love involves a transformation, a remodeling, of our lives that impacts every part of us – our thought patterns, our relationship to our emotions, our words and the way we speak, the way we act, the decisions we make, the way we treat people, our worldview – everything.
So if Paul is explaining and expounding on that in the first 15 chapters of Romans, we now get to see it in action, with words from the heart of Paul for his friends. Friends that he mentions by name. So believe it or not, there is a lot for us to experience in these seemingly innocuous words.
The names themselves tell us a lot. Because names meant more then than they sometimes do now. Some names today have family significance, especially middle names, but we also tend to choose names that are popular at the time our kids are born or names we like the sound of, things like that. But in the time Paul was writing this letter, names said an awful lot about a person. For starters, we can often determine the social and economic status of people based on their names. Some of the names, like Mary, and Andronicus, and Junia, and Rufus, are Jewish names. Well, Andronicus is a Greek name, but Paul identifies him a being a Jew, so he’s a Jew who was born outside of Palestine, like Paul was. Epaenetus is a Greek name, and he isn’t identified as a Jew, so he’s really Greek, a gentile. And then we have Ampliatus, Urbanus, Tryphaena and Tryphosa, who were likely twins, and Hermas. Names that would have belonged to slaves or former slaves. The lowest classes of people. At least five of these people, Prisca, Phoebe, Mary, Junia, and Julia are women. The two families mentioned, the family of Aristobulus and the family of Herodian, were influential families. Aristobulus was a prince, a relative of Herod the Great, the Jew who ruled over Palestine on behalf of the Romans. And Herodian would have been another family associated with the household of Caesar and also of the highest families in Judaism. The point is, there is great diversity here. Men and women. Rich and poor. Influential and well-connected and also slaves or former slaves. People from different cultures and backgrounds and races, with different experiences and backgrounds, with different perspectives and world views. Co-existing and working together.
Phoebe, a woman, is commended in the first few verses of this chapter because she would have been the one carrying this letter to the church in Rome. She wasn’t in Rome, she was traveling to Rome. She was a woman of some wealth and influence who was able to travel to Rome, probably on business. But she didn’t just carry the letter to Rome. She would have read the letter aloud to the church there, using her voice tone and inflection and gestures to get Paul’s point across accurately to the hearers. She was the first expositor of the book of Romans, long before male scholars and theologians got ahold of it, Paul entrusted it to the protection and care and interpretation of a woman who labored alongside him for the Kingdom of God. And Paul calls her a servant in the church. The word he uses for servant is the word from which we get the word deacon.
With the husband and wife team of Prisca and Aquilla, Pisca’s name is almost always listed first, as the primary identifier of the ministry team. She and her husband had lived in Rome, and were expelled from Rome under Emperor Claudius. So they went to Corinth, where they met and began to work with Paul, and then went with him to Ephesus for some time, mentoring the great Christian leader Apollos, before returning to Rome upon the death of Claudius.
Another husband and wife team, Andronicus and Junia, are called apostles. Not in the sense that Peter and James and John and the other original apostles who knew Jesus when he walked this earth were apostles, but they were both leaders in the church.
You see, the people Paul mentions here, 26 individuals, 2 families, and the leaders of at least 3 household churches, are all leaders of the church in Rome. This is a diverse leadership team. It isn’t just wealthy business owners and strategic leaders. It also includes slaves and former slaves. It isn’t just men. It also includes women.
We also need to notice that all of these people are known to Paul, either personally or by reputation, even though he’d never been to Rome himself. The ones he knew personally he’d probably met on his trips through the Greek world because they’d been expelled from Rome under Claudius. And Paul didn’t have Facebook and Instagram and text messages to stay in touch with people. It took months, sometimes more than a year, for a letter to be delivered. One back and forth correspondence could be a two year deal. And yet Paul knew where his friends were, what they were doing, and how hard they were working. He knew how to stay in touch with people.
Paul was a brainy guy with a massive intellect. Perhaps the greatest intellect the church has ever known. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he wrote most of the New Testament, but he had risen to prominence in Jewish religious circles IN JERUSALEM, not out in the backcountry, long before he placed his faith in Christ. Sometimes we think of him as a man who was all brain and no heart, but that isn’t the case. He had a brain. A really good one. But he also had a heart. And we see his heart here, beating with love for his friends and coworkers in Christ. So much so that in a world where communication over distance moved at a snail’s pace, he knew where they were. He knew who his friends in Rome were. Prisca and Aquilla, who had labored alongside him for years, were there, back in their home. Andronicus and Junia were there. They’d been imprisoned with him at some point. The twins Tryphaena and Tryphosa were there. Names so similar, and they mean “dainty” and “delicate,” and yet when Paul calls them “workers in the Lord,” the word he uses for workers describes labor to the point of exhaustion. They may have been described by their parents as dainty and delicate, but Paul knows they are anything but.
Paul calls these people beloved, chosen, kinsmen, brothers, and saints. His heart beats not just for Christ, but also for them. And he knows so much about them. In a world that so often treats people like numbers, Paul knows these people deeply. In 1 Thessalonians, he reminds the believers in Thessalonica that “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (2:7-8). Does that sound like an arrogant leader who is all brain and no heart. A great theologian and scholar, tough under fire, who cares nothing for people, who sees them as numbers to be won, not people to be loved? Absolutely not!
The great observer of American culture Charles Reich says “America is one vast terrifying anticommunity. The great organizations to which most people give their working day, and the apartments and suburbs to which they return at night, are equally places of loneliness and alienation …. Protocol, competition, hostility and fear have replaced the warmth of the circle of affection which might sustain man against a hostile universe.”[i] He wrote those words in 1970. How much more true are they today, 50 years later? How important is it for the church to be countercultural in this regard. Being countercultural isn’t wearing only certain kinds of clothes and avoiding certain kinds of places. It isn’t saying “we don’t drink or smoke or chew, or run around with those who do.” Which really isn’t true anyway. We just hide it. For the church to truly be a counter-culture, as we are supposed to be, we have to understand the reality of our culture, as isolated and lonely with people alienated from one another, more focused on protocol and competition, marked by interpersonal hostility (think road rage, or grocery line rage) and fear. And we have to allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into a refuge that is different than that. A culture marked by connection and community and relationship, with warmth, where we see people and use money, instead of using people to make money. We love people, we cherish them, we don’t use people to achieve our ends.
Paul’s heart beat for people because God’s heart beat for people. He understood theology. His brief letters are the heart of most of our theology today. He had a towering intellect. But he wasn’t lost in a world of ideas. Because he understood that at it’s core, God’s great love for us is practical. It’s real. It’s incarnational. God put skin on and joined us in our mess, and provided for us a way out where there was none before. He did that in the person and work of Jesus. And because Paul followed Jesus, his love was real and practical too. He didn’t just talk about God’s love and describe and define God’s love. He lived in it, and he shared it with others.
The great preacher Chuck Swindoll says, “Of all the words used to describe our finest organizations, several are inappropriate when attached to a local body of believers. A church may be large, but “mega” is not a compliment. A church should always hold open its arms to welcome any who wish to learn about Christ for the first time, but it should never exchange its identity for a “seeker-friendly” persona. A church should always stress the “good story” of Jesus Christ (“gospel” in the Old English) and should always engage people on the cutting edge of society and culture, but no church should deny its apostolic heritage or shun theology in order to “emerge.”
Furthermore, a church should be organized and would be wise to apply the best tools of management and to employ the latest technology, but the local church must never become an efficient corporation with a cross stuck on the roof. The first words that come to mind must not be “efficient,” “driven,” “focused,” or even “expanding” – at least not for the people crossing the threshold. A church is supposed to be like a family, in which older people train and encourage the younger, where everyone is accountable and finds security, acceptance, hope, and help. The church must be a place where words are reliable, worship is meaningful, faith is invincible, grace is noticeable, and love is tangible.
The church must be a warm, welcoming body, not a well-oiled, slick machine.”[ii]
[i] Charles Reich, The Greening of America, (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 8, 9, 182.
[ii] Chuck Swindoll, “Insights on Romans,” ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) pg. 323.