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The Good Good-bye
Series: The Book of Romans 'Called to Belong'
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Romans 16
Date: Feb 19th, 2023
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“‘I think’, wrote Chrysostom, ‘that many even of those who have the appearance of being extremely good… hasten over this part of the epistle as superfluous … Yet’, he went on, ‘the gold founders’ people are careful even about the little fragments … it is possible even from bare names to find a great treasure.’ “ Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner went as far as to call Romans 16 “one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament because it encourages personal relationships of love in the church.”

I would add that chapters such as this one remind us that in Christ we are part of something larger than ourselves.  To feel the need, or to feel purpose and fulfillment in belonging to something larger than ourselves Is widely known, and widely sought in many different things and places.  I would maintain that these things are true because this is how God has made us.  It can be good to be pointedly reminded of being part of something larger than ourselves and our own joys/sorrows triumph/struggles. 

In 2018 Nicole and I got to visit Ireland. In Dublin we had a chance to see the Book of Kells, which is an illuminated or illustrated copy of the Gospels which was made around the year 800.  I bought the guidebook and the poster (though not the tshirt) which gives you an idea of what it looks like, and it’s beautiful.  It’s beautiful to think that in the middle of what they call Europe’s Dark Ages, scribes and artists were working away on this.  Each day, Trinity College (where the Book of Kells is housed) will put some pages on display in a glass case.  On the day we went, they were from the Gospel of Luke, specifically Luke 3 which is the genealogy of Jesus.  A fairly long list of names.  Not only did I feel connected to the monk or whomever had copied these words (they’re in Latin), but I also felt a connection which transcended time and geography with the people listed in Luke 3.  I’ll never forget this and was moved almost to the point of tears (and definite choked-upness).

Paul believed in and promoted the good greeting, and we see here that he also believed in and promoted the good good-bye.  Paul is calling these people to mind, and he’s calling them to heart and he wants to make sure they know it.  There is a significance in being named and being recognized.  How often do we see people at awards shows who start to thank people and don’t want anyone to be left out?  One night at one of our Bible studies I began to name people around the table for some reason.  As I got to naming about half of us, our brother Peter who was sitting beside me said “Might as well go ahead and name everyone now!”  These were wise words.  There is a significance in being named.    

There is a significance to being remembered by name.  I encourage all of us to spend time with this chapter, to sit with this list of people who Paul has named here.  For those of us who are in the autumn or winter of our years, may it bring to mind those who are alongside us in the faith and those that have been alongside us.  For those of us in the spring and summer of our years, may it call to mind those alongside us and how we might look back on them one day.  Paul looks back in this chapter, he looks around at his present, and he looks ahead too.  There’s no reason we can’t do all three simultaneously.  Look at the names, starting with our sister Phoebe, a deacon/servant/minister/leader of the church at Cenchreae (and likely the deliverer of the letter).  A benefactor of many and of Paul himself.  Twenty-six people named plus two (Rufus’ mother and Nereus’ sister).  Five groups which are considered house churches.  Men and women holding positions of leadership and apostleship (!).  Singles.  Couples.  Names that generally denoted slaves or freed slaves.  Households of persons of distinction like Aristobolus – possibly the grandson of Herod the Great and friend of Emperor Claudius – and Narcissus – thought to be a well known freedman who was part of Emperor Claudius’ inner circle.  All of these brothers and sisters living in the capital of the Empire.  Gentiles.  Jewish followers of Christ like Andronicus, Junia and Herodian whom Paul calls “relatives.”  Brothers and sisters in Christ who had worked hard, fellow workers, dear friends, beloved, first convert to Christ in Asia, fellow prisoners, outstanding among the apostles, tested and approved, been like a mother to Paul.  Rufus’ mother.  Could this be the same Rufus who was the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross – making his mom Simon of Cyrene’s wife?  We’ll know one day.

What we have here in this list of names is a picture of a family of faith united in the love of God.  Paul uses the description “in Christ” four times (3,7,9,10).  We see “In the Lord” five times (8,11,12,12, 13).  Paul has no problem describing people as “beloved” or “my beloved” (5, 8, 9, 12).  Paul describes two activities which lend themselves to bringing us closer.  Working together (3, 9) and suffering together (4,7).

What we have here is a picture of a church that is reflective of the vision that was given to John in Revelation 7:9-10 – “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  The family of faith praising God with one heart rooted and grounded in the heart of God, and with one voice!  Christ has broken down dividing walls.  Too often we want to reconstruct them or put up new ones.  Let unity in diversity in Jesus be the mark of the church – this church and every church.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the churches of Christ greet you.” (16)  There is a Zulu greeting which is “Sawubona.”  It means “I see you.”  I acknowledge you.  You’re important to me.  I value you.  The response is “Nghikona.”  I’m here.  The greeting speaks of the importance of directing our attention to another person.  Acknowledge one another.  How vital is this for us in a culture where all too often people are unacknowledged, particularly in the city?  I saw a news item recently.  It was a police traffic stop in rural Michigan.  A young man was behind the wheel of his car, alone.  One officer said to him “Are you doing ok?  You don’t seem like you’re doing very well.”  The young man replied, “I could use a hug.”  The officer said “Well come out here.”  The young man began to break down.  By the time he was in the officer’s arms he was sobbing.  People are longing for connection.

Greet one another with a holy kiss.  A culturally appropriate, chaste, affectionate, greeting.  John Bertram Phillips, an English Bible translator and Anglican priest, put it this way: “Give one another a hearty handshake all round for my sake.”  Of course these days even British soccer managers are hugging each other (bro hugs at least).  Bro hugs all around!  Eugene Peterson said “holy embraces all around!”  What is the appropriate response to this call from Paul?  It will vary.  For me and little Isabelle, we greet one another by me lifting here as high above my head as I can.  The appropriate response will vary.  Let us be discerning as we follow Paul’s call here to greet one another.  Paul calls on the Christians in Rome to continue to be discerning.  The last “I urge you brothers and sisters” in the letter comes in v17.  I plead with you.  I urge you.  Be vigilant.  “Keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.”  How does this go with “Welcome one another?”  Our acceptance is never to be simply blind.  Paul is calling here for vigilance, for separation if necessary, and discernment.  Someone has described what Paul is getting at like this:

“In particular, he wants the church to grow up and learn how to understand, in love and good sense, that there is an ever-present danger of false teaching in the church. Coupled with this there is, of course, an ever-present danger that people will imagine false teaching where there is none, or will label as ‘false teaching’ something which just happens not to coincide with the particular way they are used to hearing things said. Recognizing these wrinkles and possibilities is part of learning to be both wise and innocent. But noting the dangers of wrong analysis doesn’t mean there isn’t after all such a thing as false teaching. There is, and it matters.”

Be wise in what is good, guileless in what is evil.  Be wise as serpents, gentle as doves, as Jesus put it.  We are not called to naivete, and neither are we called to boundless cynicism.  Let us continue to ask the questions “What does ‘the good’ call for here?  What does the love of God and the love of one another and the love of ourselves call for here?”  Remembering that we are called to do this discerning as we are called to do everything – together as members of one body in Christ Jesus, in Christ and belonging to one another.  Looking around and looking ahead as Paul reminds us that “the God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet.”  How can we speak of a God of peace crushing something?  Is this not too much of a paradox even for us?  This is a reminder that is only through the destruction of evil and the father of lies (the deceiver, the accuser) and the evil which is brought about by his lies (self-interest, oppression, self-indulgence, injustice, self-worship) that peace is attained.  The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet.  We cry out “How long O Lord?” with assured expectation that while the victory is won, the victory is yet to be won.  While the victory has yet to be won, the victory is won.  While we await the renewal of all things, we see signs of new life and reconciliation and victory all around us. We see these things in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – may this grace be with us.

Just as the grace of God was with Timothy, who greets them, along with Lucius and Jason and Sosipater.  We then hear from Tertius, who’s been writing everything down for Paul.  I wonder what their editing process looked like?!Gaius, who hosts not only Paul but the whole church says hi, and we’re thankful for those among us with houses big enough to host everybody.  Erastus, the city treasurer and our brother Quartus, greet you. So we come to the end, and we end with praise.  “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”  Let us remember and be reminded always of our centre dear family.  He alone is able to strengthen us, to establish us.  We can’t do it on our own and thanks be to God that we don’t have to.  Then this aside about the good news – one last one!  Paul ends where he started, with news of God’s delivering, reconciling, saving, reconciling plan – announced by prophets, fulfilled in Christ, open to all.  “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 Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…”

This is the God in whom we trust.  1-3)  

Do we believe this?  This is our Lord.  This is the God to whom we belong.  This is the God whom we serve.  This is wisdom.  “Now to God, to the only wise God…”  Among many wisdom claims, here is wisdom.  There is only the wise God, who created all things, and understands how all things work.  This God knows and loves us.  This God walked among us and understands who we are and what we think, along with what has gone wrong.  This God has acted to make things right.  This God is acting to make things right, and will one day act to make all things right, at which point all creation will leap for joy.

How else should we respond but to love and serve and praise together?  The Christians of Rome were part of a tiny movement, and we can identify.  It was an exciting movement, full of all the possibilities of God for whom nothing is impossible.  Dangers and challenges were all around, and we can identify.  Their togetherness in Christ reminded them day after day that they were part of, as someone has said, “a family whose love and faith and hope would win the day.”

To the only wise God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit of God, be the glory forever!  And all God’s people said,