04 November 2014

Sermon – “All the saints” (Romans 16:21-27)

It is now nearly five months since we first dipped our toes into that vast ocean of Christian teaching contained in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. While I cannot speak for those who stepped in and so ably carried us forward during my absence—Mary, Judy, Dave and George—I know that in my own preaching I have only skimmed the surface, or perhaps more accurately the surface of the surface. When we began way back in June I made the statement that Romans is in some ways a thesis, Paul’s clearest and most complete statement of his theology, of his understanding of Christ and the church, of the human condition and the gospel. Yet this final chapter, from which we have read this morning, reminds us that Romans is more than that. It is a letter, written by a real person to real people, women and men with daily lives and families, jobs and relationships. And so on this All Saints’ Sunday we have an opportunity to meet face to face with some of the saints who peopled the church in Rome.
It was four years ago, during Karen’s and my unforgettable trip to Libya and Turkey, that this reality struck me in a new way. There, as we wandered through ancient ruins, we were able to see with our own eyes the marks left by individual Christians: baptismal fonts where new converts were initiated into the faith; a pulpit from which the gospel was proclaimed to a congregation of believers (and evidently a very large one); Christian symbols scratched into stones; and even the theater in Ephesus into which Paul’s co-workers Gaius and Aristarchus were dragged by an angry mob. 

Handley Moule, one of the great scholar-bishops of Durham in England, gave an imaginative perspective on this last chapter of Romans in his commentary of 120 years ago:
Hour upon hour has passed over Paul and his scribe as the wonderful message has developed itself, at once and everywhere the word of man and the word of God. They began at morning, and the themes of sin, and righteousness, and glory, of the present and the future of Israel, of the duties of the Christian life, of the special problems of the Roman mission, have carried the hours along to noon, to afternoon. Now, to the watcher from the westward lattice, [the sun slowly sinks into the horizon.] The apostle, pacing the chamber, as men are wont to do when they use the pens of others, is aware that his message is at an end, as to doctrine and counsel. But before he bids his willing and wondering secretary rest from his labors, he has to discharge his own heart of personal thoughts and affections which have lain ready in it all the while…[1]

The People

In the course of this chapter Paul singles out 26 members of the church in Rome (24 by name). He also draws attention to seven who were with him in Corinth at the time of writing. The first to be named is Phoebe, whom he identifies as a sister in the faith, a deacon in the church in Cenchreae and “a benefactor of many”. From all of this it seems that Phoebe was a woman of means, who was able to give generous support to the church and to travel freely. It is evident that Paul put great store by her, as he entrusted her with the delivery of this letter into which he had poured so much prayer and careful thought.
Having introduced Phoebe and commended her to the congregation in Rome, Paul moves on to give his personal greetings to some of the members of the church. First on the list are Prisca and Aquila. They were a couple with whom Paul had had a long association. We meet them five times in the New Testament. The first occasion was when Paul was in Corinth. Originally from Rome, they had been forced to leave when the Emperor Claudius issued an edict in AD 49 expelling all Jews from the city. Like Paul they were tentmakers and were able to establish a new life in Corinth, where they hosted Paul in their home throughout his time there. They also took a new convert, Apollos, under their wing and helped him to understand the faith more accurately. Some years later, presumably after the death of Claudius, they were able to return to Rome, where their home became a place where one of the many house-churches regularly met. Paul also tells us that they risked their lives for him, but that is an incident that we no nothing more about.
Next Paul singles out Epaenetus, who was the first to give his life to Christ in the Roman province of Asia (what is now modern Turkey). I think it’s appropriate to stop for a moment and remind ourselves that some of the places where Christians are most under persecution today are where there were Christian believers even before the time of St Paul. Perhaps the prime example is Antioch (modern Antakya) in Syria, where the name “Christian” was first given to the followers of Jesus. Yet today Christians have been all but driven out entirely. We need to pray for those brave brothers and sisters who remain—and for the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to blow over the people of those ancient lands.
Another husband and wife team that Paul introduces us to are Andronicus and Junia. He describes them as his kinsfolk, by which he probably means his fellow Jews, and that they shared with him in one of his imprisonments. Besides this, Paul had two other reasons for respecting them: they had known Christ for longer than he had and were prominent among the apostles. The notion of a woman among the apostles is controversial to some today. Yet more than sixteen hundred years ago John Chrysostom specifically drew attention to Junia as being a woman apostle. He wrote, “Oh how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”
We know nothing about the next people in the list: Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, and Apelles. Next Paul asks twice that his greetings be passed on not to individuals but to whole households—those of Aristobulus and of Narcissus; and here we can say something. “Household”, or “family” as our NRSV Bibles translate it, most likely means household servants or slaves, and so we are talking about wealthy or prominent families in Rome, of which there were many. The Aristobulus Paul was referring to may have been the grandson of Herod the Great. A friend of Emperor Claudius, he had retired to Rome and died there. It is likely that he was already dead at the time of Paul’s writing. According to custom his household would have been taken over by the emperor with its members continuing to retain his name. Tiberius Claudius Narcissus was one of Emperor Claudius’ most important officials. He was put to death at the beginning of Nero’s reign and all his possessions, including his slaves, were taken over by Nero. In either case we may have an instance of the church penetrating all the way up to the imperial court.
More individuals follow: Heriodion, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus and Olympas. However, we might stop at Rufus, a name we do find elsewhere in the New Testament. It is in the Gospel of Mark, also written for the Christians in Rome. As Jesus is being led to Calvary, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that a passer-by, a man named Simon from Cyrene in Libya, was pressed into carrying his cross. But it is Mark alone who stops to inform us that this Simon is the father of Rufus and Alexander. Could it have been that these two men were known to the members of the Roman church? And could it be that this was the same Rufus? Most scholars think it likely. Add to this Paul’s greeting to Rufus’ mother (presumably Simon’s widow) and his singling her out as one who was like a mother to him, and we can see Rufus had the privilege of being born into a noble heritage of serving others.
And so you have the Roman church, a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, merchants and slaves, new converts to the faith and seasoned Christians, all worshiping and serving Christ together. New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett has described them in this way:
A mixed company, these first century Christians, just as we are; but they all have their place in Christ, and in his church… There is no suggestion of hierarchy among them, except the hierarchy of service… They are a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers; not an institution.[2]

Paul’s Blessing

It is on this wonderfully diverse and sometimes problematic collection of people that Paul now confers his final blessing:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
In these last fifty words Paul concentrates half a dozen of the themes that have driven the sixteen chapters of this long letter. There is the gospel, the good news that centers in Jesus Christ, the good news of which Paul is not ashamed because he knows through his own experience confirmed again and again that it has the power to bring men and women into a living faith in Christ.
There is the wondrous truth that God, who revealed himself through the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, has fully and finally revealed himself in Jesus Christ—and supremely through his death and resurrection. These are events that took place in a historical context, but whose consequences reverberate right through our own time and into eternity.
There is the glorious recognition that God’s favor is not restricted to the Jews or to any one race or people, but is for all, that no one is excluded from God’s grace. And added to that, once we have accepted God’s love in Christ there is nothing, not even the devil himself, that can separate us from him.
There is the acknowledgement not only that God loves all people, but also that he calls each of us into a relationship of faith in him. Just as Abraham trusted God and was justified, so it is not merely our standing before God, but our very lives that are changed as we place our faith in Jesus.
There is the amazing wisdom of God, whose ways still remain in large part hidden and mysterious, yet whom we may trust to the uttermost.
And there is the unspeakable glory of God, a glory whose brightness immeasurably outshines all the tragedy and suffering of this world and in whose fullness you and I and all who put their trust in Christ will one day share.
Like Abram looking up into the vastness of the starlit sky, it is more than we can take in. We stand amazed that the God who created the universe in all its infinite complexity should set his love upon the likes of us, should send his Son to die for us. But he has. And all that is left is for each of us to join with Paul in adding our own personal Amen. Amen!

[1]     The Epistle to the Romans, 421,422
[2]     Reading Through Romans, 85

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