Scripture: Romans 16:1–16
Our guest preacher today is Rev. Dr. Bob Johnston.
This morning I want to look at a passage in the Bible that we normally skip. You
understand, there are verses all over like that, the lost passages of the Bible, lost in the
sense that we don’t know much about them and we aren’t sure we want to know. That
might be an interesting sermon series, looking at verses like that, we might go places
we have never gone before! Of course, we might also say each week, “Oh no, not
Our passage is a little bit like that, it’s in the book of Romans. I talked to Matt
about it when he was making his way through Romans not long ago, and he said, “you
ought to preach that when you fill in for me”—and so, that’s what I’m doing today.
Let me read the passage—Romans 16:1-16 (NIV):
1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [literally, a deacon as in NRSV]
of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the
saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.
3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their
lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.
Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the
province of Asia.
6 Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me.
They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
8 Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord.
9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.
10 Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ.
Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus.
11 Greet Herodion, my relative.
Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.
12 Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord.
Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the
13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to
14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with
15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints
16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.
And there you have it—isn’t that a wonderful text? You were with me every moment, weren’t you! I know, the only thing you wanted to see is if I would stumble on those names!
What a text to preach from—it’s nothing but a list! Just a bunch of names. You
are probably wondering why in the world I would even risk embarrassment by reading all those names, let alone think that there is a sermon there.
And I understand—that is how I felt about this passage for many years. I love
the book of Romans, but when it comes to this chapter, I normally just skimmed over it. I thought it was just the ending to Paul’s letter, like the closing credits of a movie, not many stick around for that. But then I read some insights into this text by a preacher and professor and writer I admire, Fred Craddock. His thoughts and his way of dealing with the text opened up the meaning and impact of this passage to me and blessed me in a special way—and I want to share the blessing with you this morning.
What is it that Paul is doing? It seems like he is calling the roll. You’ve been
places where they called the roll—as a student in a classroom, or at a professional
meeting, there is the calling of the roll. A list of names, who’s present, who’s absent.
But this seems a little different. Paul is writing to a church—and he starts through a roll call. I have never worshiped in a church in which anyone got up and called the roll. It might be interesting to see who’s here and who’s not—but it could also be very dull. Going through the names, one at a time—nothing but a list.
But it is more than just a list.
Think about it for a moment—how did Paul know all those people? He makes it pretty clear that he had never even been in First Church of Rome, and yet he names one after another. He must have known them, come in contact with them at some point in his ministry.
One thing that is interesting about this list is it gives you something of the make-up of the church in Rome. That is one way we can think about this—it is something like a membership directory.
I don’t expect you to remember, but in that list there is a husband and wife, Aquila and Priscilla. There’s a man and his mother, Rufus and his mother. There is a brother and sister, Nereus and his sister. There is another husband and wife, Andronicus and Junias—Paul calls them apostles, perhaps eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. There are sisters, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. There is an old man, Epenetus. Isn’t that an interesting profile of the church? There’s a single woman, Mary. There’s a single man, Herodion. Their names tell us they come from different backgrounds and cultures, not a lot in common except as Christ has called them together. It’s an interesting list if you want to know what a particular church or group of churches looked like.
But, again, for Paul it’s not a list. It is not a snapshot of a particular church. Think about what Paul is doing as he concludes this letter to the Roman church. He’s packing his stuff. He’s in the home of Gaius in Corinth who is host to Paul and host to the church in Corinth. Paul is getting ready to go west to Italy and to Spain. He’s about to move to a new church field, one far away.
How old is Paul now? Probably about fifty-nine or sixty years old. He feels he has one more good ministry in him. Most churches don’t want a person fifty-nine years old. But those churches had no choice because Paul started his own, and he wants to have one more ministry.
He doesn’t have much to pack—his coat and his books and a few other things.
And while he is throwing things away to trim down the load for packing and moving,
Paul comes across some notes and some correspondence. He sits down among the
boxes and begins to remember. Don’t call this a list. He is remembering people,
people that he knows and who know him—important people—influential people—loved people.
Haven’t you done that yourself? You pick up a photo album, and you begin to remember. Or maybe something hooks your memory, and you sit back and enjoy the
flood of memories that come.
From that real or mental photo album you look at the pictures—and you remember.
I did a little of that in preparation for today—I thought about where my ministry began, back at Latham’s Chapel Baptist Church in rural Tennessee, some 47 years ago now. I was a youngster, 22 years old, green as I could be.
I sat down and I remembered.
There was Paul Nichols. Paul was the chairman of the deacons, and the chairman of the pastor search committee that called me, and the local funeral director. He introduced me to the community—took me up every road around—there were a few times I just knew we had to be at the end of the world. Paul was there to help me,
encourage me. My first funeral was his mother—during my first Lord’s Supper he stood
beside me. What a faithful servant!
There was Miss Opal Replogle—what a sweet lady! No one was a better Bible teacher than Miss Opal—and no one could make better peach cobbler. We still have her recipe somewhere, and I remember those times when we would have a Bible study in her home and she would serve fresh peach cobbler. I can still taste it!
There was Opal’s daughter-in-law Vicky. She had grown up in a different church, and was uncertain about the Baptist church until I came as pastor. God used it all and she opened her heart to Jesus—Vicky was the first person I ever baptized. Probably not even ninety-five pounds, I began lowering her into the water only to discover that she floated! She didn’t go under, and her feet came up! You have to push a person down to get them all wet, and they need to bend their knees! When she came out of the water she looked at me like I was trying to kill her! I learned my lesson the first time—I remember Vicky.
And there was Miss Betty Caviness. Betty wrote a column for the paper every week, always telling everybody what a great sermon I preached—she was especially kind—and then telling where everyone was if they weren’t in church. She lost her husband years earlier to terrible disease, and she was afflicted with arthritis—but it never dimmed her spirit. “How are you doing, Betty,” I would say. And she would reply with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face, “I’m doing alright for the shape I’m in!”
And there was Ben and Margaret Steward—two of the patriarchs of the church. Ben was probably the oldest member—knew more about everyone than anybody else did. A dedicated soul, he never missed a service. Margaret didn’t either, but she had a problem—as a child, she had been a Methodist. When she married Ben, she went to
the Baptist church with him—she raised three kids with him, all of whom served vocationally in churches—but she never joined a Baptist church. Why? She was
terrified of water—she didn’t even like to get in a bathtub, she couldn’t bring herself to get in a baptistery. And so for fifty or sixty years she came. We would have a business
meeting and I would ask for discussion, and if she felt strongly about something she would begin to speak—and then she would slap her hand over her mouth and say she was sorry, and everyone would smile and some gentle soul would say, “Go ahead Margaret—what do you think?”
I thought about my first place of ministry—and I thought of others from other churches I pastored.
I thought about my first Sunday in my third church, a church that had a ton of
problems before I got there, some strong divisions, a split, people at each other’s
throats. About the only thing they could agree on was asking me to come as their
pastor. I preached my first sermon there, and at the invitation up came Tyree and
Louiza Barnett. They came during the invitation, and before I knew it, the aisles were
full of people—in fact, everyone from the congregation, they all came to the front. I was perplexed, and I asked Tyree, what are you doing? And he said, we are coming
forward to support you—to tell you we will pray for you—love you—serve with you.
There was no benediction that day—we just walked away as a church family, with hugs and handshakes and commitment and determination that changed the life of that church—and I never have forgotten that Tyree and Louiza led the way.
I’ll stop there—but you understand—this is not a list, not to me. I could go to every church I have been blessed to be a part of—and I could name names—I could remember faces.
And that is what Paul is doing. Don’t call it a list. Paul didn’t call it a list.
Listen to Paul as he remembers:
Aquila and Priscilla, they risked their necks for me. Andronicus and Junias, we were in jail together. They are great Christians.
There’s Mary. Mary worked hard. She was there when everybody else quit. She’s
the one who always said, “Now, Paul, you go on home. I’ll put things up. I’ll put the
hymnals away, and I’ll pick up all the papers and straighten the chairs. You go on. home. You’re tired.” “Well, Mary, you’re tired too.” “Yes, Paul, but you’ve got to ride a donkey across Asia tomorrow. You go on. I’ll pick up here.” Mary worked hard.
Epenetus, the first person converted under my preaching, and I didn’t sleep a wink that night, saying, “Thank God finally somebody heard.” The first one to respond to
the Gospel. What a marvelous day that was.
Tryphaena and Tryphosa, obviously twins. You hear it in the names, don’t you? Tryphaena and Tryphosa. They always sat on this side, and they both wore blue every
Sunday. I never knew them apart really. One of them had a mole on her cheek, but I
didn’t know if it was Tryphaena or Tryphosa. I never did get them straight.
And Rufus. Tell Rufus hello, and tell his mother hello because she’s my mother,
too. Can you imagine it, some woman earned from this apostle the title, “mother.” Can’t you see her, this woman able to be mother to Paul? He probably stayed in their home. A rather large woman, always wore an apron. Lots of things stuffed in the pocket of her apron. Hair pulled back in a bun. Fixed a good breakfast. Paul said, “I’m sorry. I can’t stay. I have to be on my way.” “Sit down and eat your breakfast. I don’t care if you are an apostle. You’ve got to eat.” Tell my mother hello.
You see, this is not a list.
I remember seeing the famous list in Washington D.C. There walking on the green grass of the Mall near the capitol building and the long reflection pool and then a big group of people. A long black vertical slab was there, block after block, forming a long wall of names.
The names of our soldiers who died in Vietnam.
For some people it looked like just a list of names. So many of them you couldn’t take them in. But others went closer. Some walked slowly, quietly, beside the wall. There was a woman who went up and put her finger on a name, and she held a child up and put the child’s hand on a name. There was a woman there who kissed the wall at a name. There were flowers lying beneath the wall.
Those names are not simply a list—not at all. We know that.
Don’t call these names in Romans 16 just a list. It’s not a list. In fact, these names here in Romans 16 are, for Paul, very precious because even though he says, “Hello,” greetings—what he is really saying is “Good-bye.” He’s on his way to Jerusalem, to bring the offering he has taken up for the relief of the poor saints in First Church Jerusalem. He is going into a nest of hostility, and hopes eventually to make it to Rome. And he will—but not as he thought. “Pray for me,” he says in chapter 15. “Pray that I will make it to Jerusalem and I won’t get killed and the saints will accept the money and I will finally get to come and see you. Please, pray.”
These are not just names. You know that now, right? You know that!
I would like you to do something this week. I want to give you an assignment. I want you to write some words on a piece of paper. Take a pen and paper, use your worship bulletin or whatever else you can find, and I want you to write these words: “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.”
Can you remember that? “I thank my God for all my remembrance of”—and then write a name. You choose the name. You remember the name. Write another name and another name and another name. I thank God for you—what names do you write?
What’s on the list—but its not a list, is it?
I think of the account of a blind man who was sitting, listening to a family member read the Bible. The member came to a genealogy, a bunch of “begat’s” and started to skip over them all. “Read them, please, I want to hear the names.” Perplexed, the family member read the names, stumbling here and there, but finally making it through. When she got to the end of the list she looked at the blind man, and noted that there was a smile on his face and a tear running down his cheek. She was silent and he spoke—“Just think,” he said. “God knows every one of those people—He knows them by name. Every one.” And then looking at her with sightless eyes he said, “I guess that means He knows you and me, too, doesn’t it. He knows our names. He knows all of our names.”
And He does—we could do a roll call right now—but to God you are more than a list of names. You are more than that to each other.
Have you thought about any names? “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.” Do you have a name or two? I hope so—I hope you have a long list.
I want you to write it down! I like what Fred Craddock says about a list like this—keep it! Keep the list because to you, it’s not a list. Tuck it away. Keep it with you. And if you move away, hang on to the list. Even if you have to leave your furniture or your car behind, take the list with you. In fact, when your life is over and you leave the earth, take it with you.
I know, I know. When you get to the gate, St. Peter’s going to say, “Now look,
you went into the world with nothing. You’re going to come out of it with nothing. Now what do you have there?”
“Well, it’s just some names.”
“Well, let me see it.”
“Now, this is just some names of folks I worked with and folks who helped me.”
“Well, let me see it.”
“It’s just a group of people that, if it weren’t for them I’d have never made it.”
“I want to see it!” Peter says.
And so finally you give the list of names to St. Peter, and he smiles. He says, “I know all these folks. In fact, on my way here to the gate I passed a group of them. They were painting a big sign to hang over the street, and it’s got your name on it, and it says, ‘Welcome Home.’”
“I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.” It’s not a list, don’t you dare call it a list—it’s your family, your brothers and sisters in Christ.
“I thank my God for all my remembrance of you”—and you should!