A People United In The Lord
Re-Translated In April 2000
1. In chapter sixteen beginning with verse one which I read to you today, there are individual messages of greeting recorded. When we compare them to the cases in other epistles, the words of greeting in this epistle are written with a lot more detail. Some think Paul couldn't have had as many acquaintances as this in the church at Rome which he had never visited and that this section was not a part of the original composition. They would conjecture that a part of the epistle addressed to the church at Ephesus, which had a deep relationship with Paul, might have been inserted here. However, it is possible that through various courses Christians acquainted with Paul had migrated to Rome the center of the [mediterranean] world at that time. Or, we don't need to think that all the people used as an example here were personal acquaintances of his. At any rate, if the Roman church as a whole was mostly strangers to him it will suffice us to consider that he deliberately needed to emphasize the presence of his acquaintances.
2. Well, at first glance this passage seems more tedious than any other section in this letter, yet, as we read it carefully, instead, in a section like this the church at that time is depicted as lively. We can know through a passage like this how Paul and the other Christians took their relationships with one another in the church. Reading a passage like this is a good opportunity for us living in these modern times to focus in on our church.
An Awareness Of Solidarity In The Lord
3. So what is the first thing we should read out of this passage? It should probably be the true solidarity among them.
4. First of all Paul introduces Phoebe a servant of the church at Cenchrea. Cenchrea, where Phoebe used to be, was a port town at a distance of about eleven kilometers from Corinth. It is generally held that he had entrusted this epistle to Phoebe who was living in this town which was a strategic commercial center. The church at Rome was unfamiliar to Phoebe as well. Therefore, Paul was giving them an introduction to Phoebe.
5. The style of this introduction is very interesting. Paul implores the Roman church to please welcome her in and give her any necessary assistance. She no doubt was in need of the assistance of the church at Rome for the long journey she was making and for the completion of the work she had to do. However, the interesting thing is his way of writing those reasons. The basis of Paul's seeking assistance for Phoebe was that she had been a helper of many people and that she had been an assistant for Paul in particular.
6. The idea of "paying back a favor" exists the world over. Anyone who has gotten help would try to help someone back in turn. However, the person who received a favor is not necessarily able to return the favor to one's benefactor. In that case I suppose it's possible to show our thanks to someone else for the kindness we received. At my home church in Tokyo I was prayed for and nurtured by a lot of people. Eventually I went to seminary to become a pastor and still I was supported by many people at that time both mentally and materially. How could I ever pay back all my debts to them? It has to be by my service to the church where I have been sent as an evangelist and as a pastor. The place where I show my thanks to the many people who prayed for me and supported me since my childhood is not at my home church, but is at this church, The Osaka Nozomi Church, where I have been sent now.
7. In the same way, we are familiar with this idea of paying back with thanksgiving for the things we have received to our benefactors or to some other persons. However, what Paul says seems to go one step further than that. The reason he wanted them to assist Phoebe was that she was a helper to many persons and particularly to Paul himself. We would not normally use a phrase, "Since this person has helped me, I want you to give her help," with people we had no first hand relationship with. If somebody were to talk like that, it would be assumed that there were some deep ties there between them. For example, let's consider a child talking to its father like that. [The child might] put it like this, "Father, please help him. Because he helped me."
8. "That you and some others were helped by Phoebe has nothing to do with us." Was the Roman church saying anything like that? Paul believed that they would not have. The one thing we really see in this expression of Paul's is the kind of awareness of an extraordinarily deep solidarity such as they had. The church at Rome was one with and deeply linked to Paul and to the many people aided by Phoebe. Paul spoke assuming this as fact. That others were helped by Phoebe means more specifically that the Roman church was helped. That Paul was helped means also that the church at Rome was helped.
9. As we read this we are forced to focus on the way the modern individualized church ought to be, which has gotten so it couldn't even quite naturally write words like these. The church [has slipped to the point where] it is only considered as a group of individuals who have some faith. I recently saw a TV commercial1. where some kids repeat, "You've got nothing to do with me!" Well, I suppose the same thing is in the church too. We say, unconsciously aware of it, "You've got nothing to do with me!" As long as someone is not too particularly familiar to us, we think it doesn't really matter to us what happens to them. It's the same even in relationships among church folks. Our church doesn't have anything to do with the other churches. What goes on in other churches has nothing to do with what goes on in mine. What ends up happening is that "Paul's getting help from Phoebe has got nothing to do with [us] in the church at Rome!"
10. So what in the world was the basis for this sense of solidarity that Paul had? Now, I would like for us to fix our attention on the relationships between Paul and those who are listed as examples here in this text.
11. The relationships between these persons and Paul are expressed in various ways. If there were persons like Phoebe who assisted Paul, there were also persons like Priscilla and Aquila who would risk their lives to save Paul's. There were also persons like Andronicus and Junias who had been imprisoned with him. There were also co-laborers in specific works. There were persons like the mother of Rufus of whom Paul even said, "She was a mother to me, too." We can see the deep interrelationships in this text between Paul and these persons.
12. But, the first tie between Paul and them was neither that they had assisted Paul nor that they had risked their lives to save Paul's. Nor was it that they did the same work. So what was it then? As we read this passage something strikes us right away. In this portion of scripture we have translated in several different ways phrases like "united in the Lord" and "for the Lord" but, when translated literally we have the phrases "in the Lord" and "in Christ" repeated over and over. They appear ten times in this short passage. Paul's mindset is clearly apparent to us in this text. The tie between Paul and these persons was primarily in their relationship "in the Lord." It is the spiritual truth that together they were both united to one Lord. It was not after Aquila and Priscilla saved Paul's life at risk to their own that they were united to Paul, but that they were "united in Christ Jesus" and then became collaborators with Paul.
13. The foundation for [interpersonal] ties in the church is not in the things we do together. Nor is it in assisting someone or in receiving assistance. It is not even in [our] conversations with one another, nor in [our trying] to understand each other. These are not the root, but they are the fruit produced on the branches. Of course fruit is important. But, unless there are roots, fruit will not be produced. We often say, "Hey, let's start something [new]" in order to build relationships with each other. But, in truth they do not begin from there. They begin from recognizing each other as "people in the Lord." We are not to look at each other in our direct personal relationships but we look through the Lord. He affirms that it is a mutuality we have which is united by the Lord. It begins from that.
The Eschatological Nature Of The Church
14. Secondly, what we ought to see here is the eschatological nature of the interrelationships in the church. We are truly to look at the relationships which come to be not by humankind but only by the Holy Spirit.
15. Several things are clear as we look at the names inscribed here. First, there were Jews and Gentiles there. With reference to the Jews, we understand [they were present] when Paul dared calling them "my fellow countrymen and women." For example, there were Andronicus and Junias. It says [people like] Herodian. It doesn't say in the text that they were fellow countrymen, but Priscilla and Aquila were a Jewish couple. On the other hand, they think that Epenetus was a native of Asia Minor and that he was a Gentile. The others, where the text doesn't say they were fellow countrymen, were probably mainly Romans and Greeks.
16. Secondly, we can picture from that text that there were persons who belonged to the various social classes back in that time. The kind of language used here with reference to Priscilla and Aquila is given as "the people of the church who gathered in their house." This language says, "a church in a house." Not limited to the church at Rome but through out the land, the homes of mostly prosperous Christians were offered as places of worship. It is believed that even the home of Priscilla and Aquila, who moved to Rome, was such a house church. There are examples offered up in the Bible of such Christians, for instance, like Philemon who was the master of the slave Onesimus, (Philemon 1:2). On the other hand, among the names listed some typical slave names can be found. It has [slave] names like Ampliatus, Persis, and Phlegon. We know from a letter directed to the church at Corinth that in the early church there were quite a few slaves. "Furthermore, in order to make those with any social standing as powerless, God chose the nobodies in society, those in the lowest classes of people, and those who are looked down upon," (First Corinthians 1:28).
17. Thirdly, we can see in this text masculine and feminine names together. First of all Phoebe is given as the first example. Priscilla along with [her husband] Aquila is given as an example. Mary's name appears. Junias was probably a feminine name. [Persons like] the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus are even mentioned. When I think of the male-centered patriarchal society back then, I suppose this was by no means a light thing. It's that way even in today's church, but this brings to mind that in the early church as well both men and women together did abundant works in the Lord.
18. As we look at these statements, we recall to mind the sermon that Peter gave to the audience at the time of the descent of the Holy Spirit. He quoted Joel chapter three as a promise of the end time hope. "God says. At the end time, I will pour out my Spirit on all persons. Thus, your sons and daughters will prophesy, the young will have visions, the aged will have dreams. On both my men servants and maid servants, at that time, I will pour out my Spirit. Thus, they will prophesy," (Acts 2:17 through 18).
19. God did not promise that it would be a world where everything was uniform and the same. There are men in it. There are women. There are also young people and old people. There are servants, male and female. All kinds of people are in it. The different people stay different. They don't become the same. But, when the Spirit of God is poured out on all persons those differences won't have any substantial significance because they then become people who tell the will of God and praise him. They will prophesy together.
20. The fulfillment of this promise for the last days has already begun! Peter saw its inauguration in the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. What we see in chapter sixteen is none other than a fulfillment of the promise of this such hope. Of course, the church is not an earthly paradise or some utopia. There is sadness in it. There are troubles in it. There is hard work. There are wounds from people's sins. Paul frequently acknowledges this. To be truthful, the word "hard work" is repeatedly used in this chapter. But, the matter has already begun. Thus, Jews and Gentiles exchange greetings with each other by a holy kiss. Masters and slaves exchange greetings with one another by a holy kiss.
21. It is certainly so that when we look out across this world, it is still a world torn up and tattered as ever. It is a world broken up by human sin. The real world we see is one where because of sins against one another, whether on a large scale with nation against nation and race of people against another race or on a small scale going all the way down to within one household, [nations and persons] inflict wounds on one another and bring harm to themselves. That's the world we are dead smack in. So, it's easy to see why, we at least want the place where we're at to not have such suffering as that. So, it is a small homogeneous world that we are looking to have. We are seeking to be with the same kind of people. That way, at least, when we're there with people like us, we don't get to see our sin gushing all over. At least, when we're with people like ourselves, we don't hurt anyone and they don't hurt us. While we tell ourselves this, we look for a small homogeneous world.
22. That's so true. Unfortunately, I suppose all churches are likely to be that way. But, we need to know that when we have this type of desire for ourselves we turn into persons who relinquish the promise of God. God promised to pour out his Spirit on all persons. Christ already hung on the cross. Christ already rose from the dead. Christ already ascended to heaven. Christ already received and poured out the promised Holy Spirit from the Father. The matter has already begun. Because God started it, he will complete it. As we embrace this hope we want to seek for the kind of church that exchanges greetings with love for one another [though] we are all different. While getting encouragement from this message in chapter sixteen we [should] want to seek in prayer among ourselves for this model of the church to which the Bible is pointing.
1 TV commercial: It is the commercial for the Nippon Gaishi Ltd, a manufacturer of porcelain tubes. The children in the commercial say, "You've got nothing to do with me!" But, a whispering midget pops up, "But, we have something to do with them!" Likewise, the Holy Spirit whispers to us, "But, they have something to do with you because of your union in Christ!"