It’s typical of Paul to greet various people at the end of a letter, but nowhere else does he greet so many. It makes sense; the church as a whole is unfamiliar with him, and so he sends greetings to everyone in the whole church that he does know—which is to say, all the people who can vouch for him. That’s an ulterior motive, though, merely a reason the list is so long; it isn’t Paul’s primary purpose here. You can see that by what he says about those whom he names: his focus isn’t on himself, it’s on them. We don’t know much about most of these folks; for most of them we can’t even guess much; but from what we do know we can be sure there are some great stories behind this passage.
Phoebe was a Gentile convert from the church at Kenkhreai—the eastern port for the city of Corinth—and apparently the person carrying the letter to Rome. Paul calls her a deacon; the formal structure of church offices was only beginning to develop, but it seems safe to say that Phoebe was a recognized leader of the church with responsibility for visiting the sick, caring for the poor, and quite likely helping manage whatever money the church there had. She was clearly wealthy and socially prominent, since Paul names her as a benefactor or patron to him and to many in the church. This probably means that the church met in her home for worship, but there’s more than that here. The word Paul uses was actually a technical term for someone who came to the aid of others, and particularly foreigners, providing them with financial and legal assistance. In a busy seaport like Kenkhreai, this would have been especially important, and it seems likely that Phoebe took up this ministry on behalf of visiting Christians—including Paul. Now, he says, she needs the Roman church to serve her as she has served so many others.
After commending Phoebe to the Roman church, Paul greets his old friends and co-workers Prisca and Aquila; you probably know Prisca better by her nickname, Priscilla, since that’s how Luke refers to her in the book of Acts. They were Jewish Christians whom Paul first met in Corinth—they had been expelled from Rome along with all other Jews by Claudius—and they played a major part with him in the founding and growth of the church in Ephesus. By this point, Claudius has died and they’ve returned to Rome, and are no doubt among the chief leaders of the church there. Paul notes that they risked their necks to save his—we don’t have that story, but it was most likely during his three years in Ephesus; for that reason and many others, he isn’t exaggerating when he says that “all the churches of the Gentiles” give thanks for them.
In verse 7, we have greetings addressed to another pair of Greek-speaking Jews. This verse has been made a point of argument over the ordination of women, but it shouldn’t be. The text is clear: Paul greets a husband and wife, Andronicus and Junia—just like Aquila and Prisca, or Philologus and Julia—who he says are “esteemed among the apostles.” Which is most likely to say that like Prisca and Aquila, they were a married couple who traveled, and who used their travels to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The fact that they had been imprisoned for the gospel, like Paul, bears this out.
Of the rest, we can say much less. Epainetus, the first Christian convert in Asia, must have come to faith through the work of Prisca and Aquila, and perhaps came to Rome with them. Herodion, and the household of Aristobulus—we can’t be sure, but this is likely Aristobulus the brother of King Herod Agrippa I, who killed James the brother of John and tried to kill Peter. Aristobulus was dead by this point, but it appears the church had spread even into his family and their servants. Rufus may well be the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ part of the way to Golgotha; we don’t know for sure, but there’s good reason to think so.
Obviously, we don’t know much, and we can’t even guess much. There’s one thing we can say for sure about every person greeted here: Paul considered them worthy of honor. Just look what he says about them. “My fellow workers in Christ”—“my fellow prisoners”—“my beloved in the Lord”—“approved in Christ”—“chosen in the Lord”—“workers in the Lord”—“Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you”—“Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.” He values these people for their faithful service to the Lord and his church, including in many cases to Paul himself; he greets them because he wants to honor them, and to hold them up for the church to honor.
And you know, he succeeded, far beyond anything he could have imagined. Even with those for whom we know nothing more than their names, we at least know their names; we’ve at least heard of them. Everyone they knew, or almost everyone, has been forgotten for nearly two thousand years—but their names are still remembered, and with them, Paul’s approval. And more than that, this may be just a list of names, but it’s still Scripture, it’s just as inspired by God as any other passage in this book. If Paul honored them for their faithfulness, I think we can safely say that Jesus honored them, too.
This matters. I preached a sermon last week basically promising you blood and pain and strife if you follow Jesus, and you know, I won’t take back a word of it; but you could be excused for wondering, if that’s what following Jesus gets you, why bother? This world values comfort, ease, material wealth, security (financial and otherwise), physical pleasure, and that’s just not what Jesus promises his people. Oh, you might get those things, but you might not—and if you do, it might not really be a blessing. So, if not any of those things, what do we get out of this gig, anyway?
There are several parts to that answer, many of which we’ve talked about before; one of the most obvious, of course, is eternal life. Part of this, too, though, is honor. It’s not about reputation, which is ultimately in the world’s hands. Lois McMaster Bujold, in one of herVorkosigan novels, has the protagonist’s father tell him, “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.” A little later, he adds, “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will.” From a Christian point of view, the only thing I’d add is that honor is ultimately what Jesus knows about us—which means it’s rooted in the truth that he has redeemed us and paid the penalty for all our sin, and is transforming us by his Holy Spirit.
As such, reputation may come and go, but in Christ our honor is solid; as we follow him, he is making us people of integrity, faithfulness, and true character, worthy of respect, in and through whom he can do his good work. We don’t need the world’s approval, we have the Lord’s; we don’t need the world to validate us or vindicate us, because he will. And because we are worthy of honor in his eyes, we will be honored by those who also give him honor.
The flipside to this is that, like Paul, we should honor those who serve the Lord with honor. This morning, I think especially of those who were here last night doing all the work of a funeral dinner for Deb Eberly’s family, after the death of her sister. I won’t make them stand, but I honor the service of Sue Gunter, Marilyn Rice, and Alice Seiman, Pam Chastain, and Mary Ann Cox. We had two craft shows going yesterday, selling peanut brittle to support local missions, and Mom’s Day Out; we had a lot of people busy in service yesterday, some doing more than one thing. And of course, beyond the activities of the church, we have people serving Christ in many ways—in the health-care system, in the schools of our community, through involvement in mission to other parts of the world, and so on.