The Extraordinary from the Ordinary

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on September 25, 2022.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:1–16).[1]

A number of years ago I visited with a young woman shortly after a remarkable recovery in her health, perhaps miraculous. Fully recovered, she now said she wanted to do “big things for God,” an expression she used repeatedly. I did not doubt her zeal; it was apparent. And had I been deathly ill and regained my health, I would imagine I too would have a renewed fervor for serving the Lord. But what gave me pause was not her zeal but its disconnect from the ordinary means of grace. She wanted to do “great things for God” but neglected the ordinary things of the Christian life. I thought to myself: Perhaps before you attempt the so-called extraordinary learn to be faithful in the ordinary. In the end, she did neither.

I don’t think this is an isolated example. In the age and culture in which we live, it would seem that mere Christianity has been translated into “Go big or go home!” Even pastors now are encouraged to consider their “outreach” and “influence,” adapting to a new digital public square with social media engagement. (How many followers should a pastor have in the Twittersphere?) Such antics would be funny were their impact on the church not so sad.

This is not to say that we all have this perspective, but still I believe many of us undervalue our gifts and their necessity in the church. We may value the beautiful ordinary aspects of Christian service but simultaneously consider our service of no value, not big enough to note. To confront this fallacy, if I could, I would write a list, like Paul, of all my fellow workers in this church. Perhaps I would say more, perhaps less than Paul, but the list would be long and varied in detail. Some of you would be surprised you made the list, thinking of your service as far too ordinary to be recognized. Yet, your service to the Lord is vital to the health of the church.

This is what we find in our passage today: a list of Christians just like you and me, some serving the Church at large, some serving the local church. Some are listed by name, others by family, and others as brothers, all saints. In a portion of Scripture so often skipped over, full of unfamiliar names, and missing much of the tidbits we’d love to know two thousand years later, we learn a little about those serving in the Roman church and a lot about how God uses the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.

Ordinary People

In an age of electronic communication, we must remember that in the ancient world letters were not transmitted by email but carried by hand, often including a letter of commendation. Who was sent was significant. He, or she as is the case here, must be trustworthy and readily accepted by those receiving the correspondence. Such is our introduction to Phoebe, a sister in Christ, probably a Gentile, and from the seaport city of Cenchreae. Writing from Corinth, a neighboring city of Cenchreae, Paul undoubtedly knows Phoebe and trusts her with his epistle. She is a woman, a sister, and a fellow-servant of Christ.

Because Phoebe is referenced as “a servant of the church at Cenchreae,” using the same word (diakonos) also translated “deacon,” some argue that Phoebe held the office of deacon. Whether she did or not, I don’t know and don’t think this passage is the proof text to know. What we do know, however, is beyond speculation: She is actively engaged in serving the church; she has gained Paul’s trust; she has supported many in Christian ministry including Paul, likely from her own financial resources and status; she is worthy of the church’s welcome “in the Lord”; and she is deserving of their help. What Phoebe needs is likely the basics of food and lodging as well as the welcome of Christian fellowship. Arriving in Rome, she is not a stranger but a sister and as such a saint.

In the unique aspects of vocational and pastoral Christian ministry, servants and helpers like Phoebe are a real blessing. As a minister of the gospel, Paul can depend upon her to deliver such a precious package as the Word of God. But he can also describe her using two terms we may pit against each other and rarely pair together: servant and patron. Scholars believe that Phoebe was likely wealthy and perhaps of high social standing, and yet she was willing to assist Paul and serve the church. We too are called not only to serve the church but support her as well. Blessed is the church with women (and men) willing to serve the Lord with time, talents, and treasure, like Phoebe.

Transitioning to the local church specifically, Paul offers greetings…a lot of them. In fact, Paul begins each sentence with the plural imperative, “Greet…,” beginning with the husband-and-wife missionary team, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila, tentmakers from Pontus (Acts 18:2-3). Why the couple is serving the Romans, we do not know. What we do know is they had served with Paul in Corinth and then Ephesus (Acts. 18:18; 1 Cor. 16:19), and now they are serving in Rome. They are “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” with Paul and even “risked their necks” for his life, possibly in the riot of Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). Whatever the case, Paul is thankful for them, directing the church to give thanks too.

In the historical accounts of Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians, we may assume a deep friendship between Prisca, Aquila, and Paul. They not only share a common trade (tent-making), they also share a common passion for advancing the gospel and serving Christ’s church. For those willing to invest themselves by serving in and through the church, it should not surprise us to see beautiful friendships blossom. When you share the same Savior and Lord, enjoy serving him together, and align under the truth of God’s Word, relationships form and flourish in the fertile soil of true fellowship. In the common bond of Christ, we may enjoy friendships that transcend the temporal and carry on for eternity.

Ordinary Service

From Prisca and Aquila, Paul moves on to greeting an assortment of saints. In all, Paul greets twenty-seven individuals, two households, along with Jewish and Gentile brothers, sisters, families, all saints, who are to be greeted with a “holy kiss,” a common greeting in the ancient near-eastern world. But like the kiss, this passage of Romans can seem archaic, historically intriguing but seemingly irrelevant. Does such a passage applicably translate to us today? I think it does; perhaps not with a kiss but in two notable ways.

First, note Paul’s use of the title “fellow worker,” or coworker. Paul was not an island unto himself. Though the breadth of his ministry was extraordinary, it was dependent upon the ordinary service of many. He was not, as one commentator puts it, a “lone ranger” in Christian ministry.[2] As Paul readily admits, his fellow workers, even the unnamed, labor with him for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This should serve as both a caution and a model for us as well. A church’s strength is not in a solo minister but in the variety of its members’ gifts put to work for the sake of the gospel and the edification of the saints. One person’s gifts may be great, but greatness in the church is not measured by one but many to the glory of God the giver of gifts to Christ’s church. By God’s design, he uses our ordinary service to accomplish the extraordinary.

The second thing we may note is Paul’s list includes men, women, couples, and individuals. Some are Romans some transplants, some Jews some Gentiles, some married some single, some new to the faith some not. We all come into the church with our own gender, ethnicity, marital status, unique background and situation, which God uses in his sovereign construction of the body of Christ, stone by living stone (1 Pet. 2:5). Life in the church then is not egalitarian but complementarian: we are lovingly dependent upon one another. But sometimes Christian service is stymied when we focus on what we can’t do rather than energized by what we can.

Your role and gifts have been given to you specifically, not your husband, wife, brother, sister, or friend. Fretting over where you can’t serve (or where someone else should) is a waste of time and a disregard of God’s providence. Embrace who you are in Christ, where you are in this life, even your season of life, and how God may use you to bless his church. Although not everyone is a minister, everyone has a ministry. Whether your gifts align with Phoebe’s or Urbanus’s, or as a couple like Prisca and Aquila, Christ’s church needs the ordinary yet faithful service of fellow workers like you and me.

Extraordinary Results

In the introduction of his letter, Paul writes, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (1:8). Of course, we may narrow Paul’s “world” to the known world at that time, but still the scope of his statement is remarkable. The Roman church was “world” famous for its faith. Furthermore, historians now believe that the church began as an organic assembly of Jewish and Gentile converts without personal visits from the apostles.

This is not to say there weren’t problems. Get more than zero sinners saved by grace alone through Christ alone together and there will be problems. Yet, the saving righteousness of the gospel unites, as one commentary puts it, “personally, communally, and socially—in the body of Christ as the new people of God.”[3]

As the people of God, we must never forget how extraordinary the gospel is. Through the ordinary preaching of it, the Holy Spirit mysteriously and miraculously opens blind eyes, quickens lifeless hearts, and brings new birth to one once dead in sin. This is extraordinary! Through simple faith, one once condemned to eternal death is reckoned as righteous and promised eternal life. This is extraordinary! Though unseen by the mortal eye, the true believer is indwelled by the Spirit of God himself, who through the ordinary means of grace molds and makes him ultimately and gloriously into the image of Christ. This is extraordinary! And all of this in and through the brilliantly ordinary church.

How often we take for granted what God has done, through churches like the Roman church, and is doing, through a church like us. While God calls every one of us to ordinary service, what he does through us is truly extraordinary. So, let us give thanks for what he has done and is doing, through saved sinners and saints like you and me, that perhaps our faith too may be proclaimed in all the world, to the glory of God. Amen.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 927.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Ed., The Reformation Study Bible (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015), 1974.

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