The Communion of Saints
Scriptures: Romans 16:1-16; Romans 1:7-12
Before I read our second scripture, I need to share a story.
One of the fathers at the church I served in Potlatch, Idaho, was a reporter for the Lewiston Morning Tribune named David Johnson. He had a weekly column in the Lewiston paper called "Everyone Has a Story." Each week he would pick a name at random out of the Lewiston phone book, call the person up, and ask to come over and interview them for a story with a picture to be run on the front page of the newspaper. Over 75% of the people he called accepted his request for an interview, and what he discovered is that every one of them, without exception, had a fascinating story. He tells some of them in his book No Ordinary Lives. One couple he interviewed were bootleggers in Orofino, ID, during the depression. Another couple operated a farm southwest of Clarkston on land deeded to their family by President Benjamin Harrison. Another person he interviewed, a man named Travis, was with the allied troops that landed on Omaha Beach on D-day.
My favorite story, however, was his interview with a woman named Nancy
Elsburg. Nancy was a quality control engineer for the Potlatch Corporation in Lewiston-in the toilet paper division. She did quality control tests on toilet paper. David said he struggled to keep a straight face during the interview. He writes,
Before taking me on a tour of Potlatch's multimillion-dollar toilet paper complex, Nancy summed up what experience had taught her about the human race. "I've found that the world is divided into two kinds of people," she declared. "Crumplers and folders.". Dilating on the technical aspects of her job, Nancy pointed out that cedar trees make the softest bathroom tissue. . Chipped, soaked, and aged just right . [which makes it sound like she is talking about wine rather than toilet paper] . the molecular structure of cedar lends itself to the qualities most sought in bathroom tissue, like softness (p. 147).
What David Johnson learned is that the phone book is not just a list
of names. It's a list of people, every one of whom has a fascinating story.
I share this because you might skip over Romans 16 thinking it is just
a list of names-a kind of first century church directory. But there is more to it than that.
Now we are ready for our second scripture lesson. Instead of reading
the whole scripture straight through, I am going to read a few verses at a time, stopping to tell you some of the stories behind these names. Verse 1: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae." Interestingly, the word translated "deacon" in this verse can also be translated minister. In fact in II Corinthians 3:5-6 the apostle Paul says, "Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant," and in Greek the word translated minister is the same word used of Phoebe. Paul clearly emphasizes her authority in verse 2: "so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and may help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well." This is the only reference to Phoebe in the New Testament, but clearly she is a very important leader in the church, not just a name on a list.
The same is true in verses 3-5: "Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work
with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house." Prisca and Aquila are mentioned several times in the book of Acts. They are a husband and wife team who started a church in their home in Ephesus. We know this because at the end of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians he says, "The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly." Now in Romans 16:5 we discover that Prisca and Aquila have a house church in Rome. This couple has started new churches in two of the most important cities of the Mediterranean.
Continuing with verse 5 and verse 6: "Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who
was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you." We don't know anything else about Epaenetus or this particular Mary, but Epaenetus was probably a Gentile name, and Mary is much more likely a Jewish name, which means that in this list we have a concrete examples of Gentiles and Jews who are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Going on with verse 7: "Greet Adronicus and Junia, my relatives who
were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." In the oldest Greek manuscripts Junia's name is spelled Julia. In all likelihood Adronicus and Julia were another husband and wife team. They were Christians before Paul was, which means they may have heard the gospel directly from Peter or one of the apostles. In any event, Paul considers them "prominent among the apostles," which means not only that they are well known by the apostles but that Paul considers them like apostles themselves to him and to others.
Verses 8-9: "Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus,
our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys." We don't know anything about Ampliatus, Urbanus, or Stachys except that in the Roman Empire these were common names for slaves. These three men were probably slaves, but in Paul's church they are beloved.
In contrast we have verses 10-11: "Greet Apelles, who is approved in
Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodian. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcisus." In the Roman Empire, these names were all associated with the aristocracy. In fact the Herodians were the descendants to King Herod, the ruling family of Palestine.
Here embodied in this list of names is the truth Paul proclaims to the
Galatians: "There is no longer Jew or Greek"-in this list there are Jewish names and Greek Gentile names-"there is no longer slave or free"-in this list are slave names and the names of aristocrats-"there is no longer male and female"-in this list both men and women function prominently in the leadership of the church-"for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
There are many more names on this list, but I think we have made the
point. There are no ordinary Christians. According to Paul we are all saints. If you remember in our first scripture lesson, Paul addresses the letter to the Romans in these words: "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints." This week Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, but Paul applies the term to the whole church. Open the church directory in Rome, and you will find a list of saints. And the same is true if you open a directory for Southminster Presbyterian Church.
I have shared this story before, but it bears repeating. In
C. S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce, he describes a visitor to heaven witnessing a great parade. A procession of people walk down the street singing, dancing, and throwing flower petals into the air. At the end comes a beautifully adorned woman who appears to be like the grand marshal of the parade. The visitor says to his guide, "Who is that?" The guide replies, "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green." The visitor comments, "She seems to be . well, a person of particular importance." "Aye," says the guide. "She is one of the great ones" (p. 107).
That is the communion of saints. It is the phone directory
of the church in Rome and the church at Southminster. It is all of you who come to this table wanting to belong to Jesus, wanting to be part of God's unexpectedly fascinating story in your life.