Romans 16

In a previous post, I wrote about the easy-to-miss names mentioned in Paul’s New Testament letters. But I can’t leave this topic without highlighting the one letter that has more unknowns per square inch of ink. It’s Romans, where Paul essentially takes all of chapter 16 to name names in the family.

Now, it would be easy to skim through Romans 16. There is so much in the first 15 chapters, where verse after verse is full of insight, wisdom, and gospel. But the final chapter of Romans isn’t just a conclusion – it’s a picture of what the gospel looks like, lived out. Romans 16 puts names and faces, flesh and blood to what Paul has been writing about in this letter. If the gospel is true, THIS is what it looks like. This is WHO it looks like.

Paul starts by commending Phoebe. This is her only mention in the NT (making her what I call a “one-hit wonder”). Even so, there is so much we learn about her in just two short verses. She’s definitely a Gentile, for her name comes from a description given to the goddess, Artemis. She’s a deacon, so she has a leadership role in the church in Cenchreae. And she is the carry-er of this letter, which means Paul entrusts to her, not simply the delivery of the letter – but likely its reading, as well.

In other words, it looks like Phoebe was the first person to read, and proclaim, the message of the most important theological treatise ever written.

How about Andronicus & Junia, likely a husband-wife team? Paul calls them apostles – of the “little a” version, I would say – missionaries, emissaries, ambassadors for the gospel.

Then there’s verse 13, where Paul writes: Greet Rufus the chosen in the Lord – and his mother, and mine. Paul mentions a woman, not naming her, because apparently he sees no need. To Paul – she’s simply, “Mom.” What do you think she must have done, what must she have meant to Paul – for him to think of her as his mother?

Paul, take your extra tunic. There’s a chill wind tonight.

Here, take this little lunch I made for your journey.

Make sure to get your rest, dear. You work too hard.

And please, please try not to get thrown into prison again. You know how I worry.

There are very few people in a person’s life who are known, not primarily by name, but by title; by relationship. And this unnamed, unknown, never-talked-about woman in Romans 16.13 is one of those for Paul. For apparently when Paul talked about her – when Paul talked to her – he simply said, Mom.

One more we should mention: Tertius. All we know about him is what we read in Romans 16.22: I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

What kind of name is Tertius? Well, it’s not really a name – it’s a number, for his name means “Third.” Now, who would name their kid “Three”? Some not-very-creative parents, perhaps? Ok, we’ve had one kid; over there is #2. So I guess that makes you Three – Tertius it is.

No. It’s not that simple – or funny. Instead, the writer & speaker Andy Crouch points out that this is the kind of name that owners would use with their slaves. As property, they didn’t even warrant a real name – just a number.

And yet, this “Number 3” finds a place in the family of God. This “Third Slave” becomes the first person Paul turns to when he is looking for a brother he can trust to pen the words of the most important theological letter ever written.

Think about it this way. Paul speaks his letter to a Gentile slave, and then entrusts that same letter to a Gentile woman named after a pagan god —- and through Tertius’s pen and Phoebe’s sharing, Paul’s magnum opus reaches the most important city in the ancient world. And that letter would change their world, and ours – forever.

Because, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female – there is neither rich nor poor, black or white or brown, native-born or immigrant, old or middle age or young – for in Christ, for IN CHRIST – we are all one.

In fact, who else can do this, but Jesus? Who else but Jesus can bring us together, with all our differences? Who else but Jesus can heal our brokenness? Who else but Jesus can fill us with the grace and the courage to be the people he calls us to be – to become a family where everyone has a place?

Ephesians 5: Submission, Slavery, & Siblings

Last year, I did a 2-month interim preaching gig for a nearby church. I decided to use our time together by walking through Ephesians. Using a tree as a metaphor, I started by talking about our foundations – the roots of our faith, as found in the first 2 chapters of Ephesians. We then went into the “trunk” – what holds us together in unity.

But there was a final section – one that we didn’t reach during the time I was with them. It was “fruit” – what we produce when we’ve got healthy roots and a strong, united body. And a big part of the fruit that we read about in Ephesians comes in chapters 5-6, where Paul addresses the household: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves.

Honestly, when I planned this series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle that section. As an interim preacher, did I really want to talk about wives, husbands, and submission? Wouldn’t it be easier to stick with non-controversial passages? On the other hand, I’m just the fill-in guy – maybe I was the one to talk about something that isn’t as simple as we sometimes make it.

As it turned out, I never made it into Ephesians 5. The church found a permanent pastor just in time – right before I got to that section. I’m glad for that congregation, and excited about what God has in store for them. Even so, it leaves me chewing on what I would have said – what I still would say – about Ephesians 5 & 6.

And then I began reading God and the Crisis of Freedom by Richard Bauckham – where, in chapter 1, he dives into this section of Ephesians. And while he doesn’t say much about husbands & wives, he does say this about masters & slaves: “…The way the master-slave relationship is here transcended is not by making everyone masters.” In a easy-to-overlook statement, Bauckham points to a profound interpretive key to this passage: Jesus came, not to raise us all to be “masters of our domains,” but to be servants of each other. He came to set us free – and to use that freedom to love and serve others.

As Bauckham points out, Jesus moves us from the category of “ownership” – of who is “in charge” – to the place of “belonging.” In the family of faith that is inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ, all are gifted by One Spirit in One Body, as servants. And where servants are involved, it’s not a matter of power or privilege, but opportunity.

Which means, it’s simply not true that the New Testament treats slavery as acceptable; instead, Paul undercuts it at its very root, which is all he and his fledgling community could do. Paul completely upends the Roman structure of power, by saying that in the Church, no one truly owns or controls another – not slave master, not husband, not parent. Rather, in the Church, we all belong to each other, and we mutually submit to each other (which is where he starts, in Ephesians 5.21). Deeper than husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave – the label we all carry in the Church is sibling. In Jesus, we are first brother and sister – equal in our need for him, and equal in our opportunity to serve.

So, if I ever get an opportunity to teach on Ephesians 5 & 6, I think I’ll say something like that. Because there is nothing more transformational than the revolutionary grace of Jesus Christ that calls us to serve one another in love.