Early Church

Honored Servants of Christ

Romans 16:1-16 (NLT)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.


It takes people to make a church, and each person has a story.

As Paul commends and greets several people near the end of of his letter Romans, it is possible to find the outlines of a few of their stories. In the process, we can learn quite a bit about their social status and how they liked to gather. Paul’s words also give us some critical insight into the role of women in the development of the church.

We begin with Phoebe. Now, Phoebe is the one person we’ll talk about today who is not a member of the Roman church. Paul is “commending” her, essentially establishing her credentials so the Romans will accept her when she arrives in Rome. He calls her a “deacon,” using the word in a formal sense, indicating he sees her as a servant leader in her home church in the Greek port town of Cenchrea.

Scholars who focus on word studies also note she is described in Greek as a prostatis, meaning she was a “patron” or “benefactor.” All this seems to indicate she was a wealthy businesswoman, using her money to support the church and its missionaries. Why she was traveling to Rome, we don’t know. I wonder if she carried a copy of her commendation, or maybe even the very letter we have been reading!

Following this recommendation, Paul begins to greet people in Rome, and compared to other such letters, the extent of his greetings is remarkable. At a minimum, Paul has spent a lot of time with a few people from Rome and has learned of others there, taking an interest in their lives.

As I mentioned last week, Paul also knows he is going to need their support later, and mentioning key people by name certainly won’t hurt his cause. Paul certainly was a loving Christian, but he also wasn’t afraid to do a little politicking to accomplish his mission.

Priscilla and Aquila are known to be a couple, wife and husband. We know from Acts 18 they had to flee Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews for a time, but by now had returned home. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade, and worked with him in Corinth and Ephesus.

They also clearly had a strong grasp of Christian theology. We’re told in Acts 18:26 that they helped bring Apollos to a better understanding of the faith at a time when his basic doctrine had a few gaps. It’s possible this couple directly impacted Scripture; Apollos is one candidate in the ongoing debate about who authored the book of Hebrews.

We also can assume Priscilla and Aquila were at least somewhat wealthy. We hear they hosted a “house church.” That means they owned a place big enough for a significant number of people, maybe a few dozen, to gather in worship together.

Skipping over some people we know little about, we next  have “Andronicus and Junia,” the latter name dropping us into the center of the centuries-old debate regarding the role of women in the church. Junia is female, but she also is described as having a relationship to the “apostles.” Some translations, like the one we are using today, make it clear the apostles at least had enormous respect for her, but another strong possible reading of the Greek is that Paul was actually calling her an apostle.

There’s no way to settle the controversy to the satisfaction of all denominations, but one thing becomes clear as we work through Paul’s greetings. Women were extremely active in shaping the early church, leading either by example in ministry or in formal roles.

I personally am very comfortable with women in professional ministry; it seems a natural progression from the radical inclusion women were finding in the early days of Christianity, a time when women seldom had much in the way of status in society.

Next in the list of identifiable people, we hear references to the “household of Aristobulus,” to “Herodion,” and to the “household of Narcissus.” These are likely people who were freed slaves, or their descendants. They were associated with or took on the names of powerful families they had served.

In this, we’re reminded that early Christianity was enormously attractive to those on the lower end of the social spectrum: the slaves, as well as the outcasts, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. Yes, as we’ve seen, rich people understood Christianity, too, but the best of them, the ones we remember today, imitated Jesus in reaching out to the people on the edges of society. Their wealth simply became a tool to better include those in need.

The last one we know anything significant about is Rufus. I wish we knew more. He likely was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

As we read in Mark 15:21: “A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)” Did the father’s story of bearing the cross alongside the bloodied Christ contribute to Rufus’ conversion?

There also is this matter of greeting each other with the “holy kiss.” When we pass the peace in worship, greeting each other “in the name of Jesus Christ,” we are practicing a vestige of what Paul is referring to here. In early Christianity, men kissed men and women kissed women on the lips in greeting. (Men and women were separate during worship.)

I guess we’re just more comfortable shaking hands in our culture. Plus, it’s getting near cold and flu season.

As we better understand these people, we see a deep, intimate connection. We see people filled with hope despite lowly circumstances. We see people with resources using them for the benefit of the kingdom. We see commitment to core Christian principles, and a willingness to correct each other in love as they all grow together spiritually.

As we look at them, I pray we see ourselves.


It’s impossible for me to develop a sermon with this much historical context unless I have some scholarly help. This week, I’m particularly indebted to Douglas J. Moo’s “The NIV Application Commentary: Romans.”

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Weak and Strong

Romans 14 (NLT)

As Paul begins by encouraging tolerance of “weak” believers, he implies that other Roman Christians are strong in their faith. What may surprise some readers is that the strong, himself among them, are presented as being less concerned about rules.

This teaching is very much in line with Jesus’ ministry. A regular Bible reader can think of many situations where Jesus broke or bent the rules of his day because something larger was at stake, often irritating the very rules-oriented Pharisees in the process.

Paul is by no means encouraging a libertine lifestyle. (Neither was Jesus!) We have to keep what Paul says in context with the rest of Romans, where he often is clear about particular sins that must be avoided. It does seem, however, that there are rules, written or unwritten, in church life that may create discord.

Paul seems to be aware of division in the early church in Rome, but it is not completely clear to us what issues caused the division. There’s a strong possibility the Christians were debating whether it was okay to eat meat; most meat in the urban marketplace came from animals slaughtered during sacrifices to pagan gods.

There also seems to have been some dispute over the best day for Christian worship, possibly because Jewish Christians still saw Saturday as the Sabbath, while Christians not of Jewish descent figured any day would do. A second kind of food dispute also is possible, this one between Christians who wanted to follow Jewish dietary laws and Christians who saw no need to do so.

Again, note that as Paul deals with the divisive matters, he tends to cast those rigid about the rules as weak, in danger of starting disputes or even falling away from faith because they see others breaking what they perceive as a firm rule.

Paul’s solution, however, is not to tell those of weak faith to change. In fact, he’s careful to repeat earlier teachings about the importance of leaving judgment to God. Instead, he encourages a basic goal for the Roman church, and really, for any church. Without abandoning his call to holiness found in the rest of Romans, he calls all of us to strive for harmony. To accomplish harmony, we need tolerance and forgiveness for each other.

In the process, we lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. We grow stronger in the faith together. Such a process also causes us to emphasize the importance of the person before us, rather than the issue vexing us.

As Christians, we know the Bible doesn’t encourage situational ethics, but we do believe similar situations can call for different responses, assuming we’re not falling into or tolerating ongoing sin in the community.

In modern Western churches, we don’t have much of an ongoing debate regarding the consumption of meat. We do sometimes have strong differences of opinion about alcohol consumption, particularly among churchgoers in the Southeast United States.

For the record, I try to live by the Bible, and I cannot find any prohibitions against the general consumption of alcohol in Scripture. The Bible has much to say about drunkenness—what I would call a loss of control endangering self or others—but little about abstaining from drink, unless you’re taking a vow of some sort, along the lines of a Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. (In that case, you also cannot cut your hair.)

As a Christian, I’ve found myself employing different tactics around the issue of alcohol depending on the people involved.

In my pre-clergy life, I had a co-worker who was a serious alcoholic and very prone to succumb to drunkenness. The problem was we worked in a field where alcohol consumption was prevalent at cocktail parties, conferences, dinner meetings and such. Having no tendencies toward alcoholism myself, I felt free to drink in moderation, but I and some other Christian co-workers chose to abstain when around our friend. We hoped to keep him from feeling socially isolated, and perhaps we even altered to some degree a culture that was dangerous for him.

A few years later, I had to approach the use of alcohol in a different way. By then, I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The school at the time had an ethos statement asking students not to drink alcohol, in deference to some of the seminary’s participating denominations that had strict rules about such things.

While traveling, I ran into another former co-worker who wanted me to sit down and talk at a restaurant he liked. In part, he was wanting spiritual advice. He also really, really wanted me to try a beer that had impressed him. I declined a couple of times, but I began to sense my reluctance was shutting down an otherwise important conversation. I think I was signaling to him I had somehow become less accessible in my transition to professional ministry.

I decided to have the beer. (Forgive me, Asbury Seminary.) The conversation opened up again, and as we sat there, I began to realize the beer was acting like a form of communion.

Paul also tells us we individually need to grow into a special kind of Christian, one confident in his or her faith. This is not false confidence or bravado. There’s a difference between being blindly assertive and truly confident. Paul points us toward a quiet confidence that comes from a strong prayer life and a deep knowledge of the Bible.

When we reach such a state, we can in good conscience say we have identified what is right and what is wrong, and then live accordingly, glorifying God with our lives as best we can.


The featured image is a photo of an ancient Roman marketplace, by Venanzio Cellitti, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How to Bless a Nation

Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Scripture for today is sometimes known as “Ezekiel’s call.” God is summarizing what he would have the prophet do—go to a people who have forgotten God’s word and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God.”

Leading up to this call, Ezekiel has a truly ethereal vision, filled with images of heavenly creatures, wheels in the sky and a sapphire throne, all rattling him to the core and reminding him of who rules over all things. The vision initially stuns him, but it also strengthens him and equips him to go to the severely lost and broken nation of Israelites, whom God has turned over to their enemies as punishment for their turning away.

It is difficult to read Ezekiel so near the anniversary of our nation’s founding and not make some connections to our own situation. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we in recent decades have been uncoupling the nation’s values from traditional Christian values. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling a little over a week ago allowing homosexual marriage is just the latest evidence of how times are changing.

This disconnect between the secular and the sacred began long before this particular ruling, however. Where human sexuality is concerned, we’ve been creeping down the secular slope for about half a century now, becoming more accepting of promiscuity and divorce as part of the so-called “sexual revolution.” Pornography is now more accessible than the “I Love Lucy” show was in the 1950’s. Almost as a side note, abortion has become so acceptable that we hardly speak of it anymore.

There are other areas where we ignore the Bible. We have tolerated all sorts of abuses by business and industry in the name of free markets, even using our astonishing power to make war where we see our energy interests threatened. We prop up our economy with artificial economic “bubbles” that create short-term gain for the market savvy and long-term pain for the average person on the street. Occasionally an Enron or a Bernie Madoff draws a little confused outrage from the general public, but the system endures.

None of this is spiritually smart, of course. I say that as a Christian who believes the Bible is by far our best guide to God’s will. We pray for new revelations from God, but even those have to be tested against our best understanding of what God has already revealed. As you might expect, I don’t like the unbiblical direction we are headed as a nation.

At the same time, I have great hope regarding the direction American Christianity can now more easily go. If you have spent most of your lives conflating Christian and American values, my optimism is going to be a little confusing or challenging.

I used to watch (for a few minutes, anyway) a local televangelist in Upper East Tennessee who preached in front of a graphic rendering of a Bible morphing into an American flag. He probably is very agitated right now about what is happening in the good-old USA. I’m not. I believe American Christians are on the cusp of a great opportunity, assuming we can learn to separate the Bible and the flag in our minds.

Using our best hindsight, I think we have to admit the church makes a huge mistake any time it begins to rely on the secular world, particularly the political world, to carry out God’s will. Going to the polls and voting a certain way becomes a weak sacrament. Post a political rant on the Internet, write a few letters to our representatives, fund a lobbying effort or two, and we think we’ve done our part for God.

When the church functions this way long-term, the government eventually takes over many of the church’s God-ordained roles. The government becomes the primary caregiver of the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. It educates; for a time, we expected public schools to teach our kids about the Bible and how to pray, and I still hear church people complain this no longer happens. The government officially marries people. I can marry a couple before God, but if they want the marriage recognized in any official capacity, I or someone else has to sign a state document. How did we let all that happen?

Christians also manage to offend those we are most called to reach when we use the government to execute our mission. Be it the old “blue laws,” Prohibition or the Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts of the 1980’s, the unchurched don’t like to have someone else’s version of morality forced upon them. When they sense this happening, they are less open to the grace-centered relationship God offers through Jesus Christ.

So, if we are not primarily voters, political activists or Facebookers, what are we? I think we need to become what we once were, builders of deep spiritual community, an escape from what is worldly. Other than voting our consciences like any good citizen, let’s forget politics and simply treasure the freedom of speech, religion and assembly we currently enjoy.

The early church and its best successors through history have offered what the secular world could not, an environment where all people can enter with their sadness, brokenness and sin. There they can grow in their understanding of their worth to God—he did, after all, find them worth dying for—and what it means to be holy before God.

The best democracies speak of the pursuit of happiness in this life. Christianity at its best tells you about a relationship that gives happiness now and for eternal life. The best of the secular world provides freedom to move about and chase economic success. Christianity at its best helps you to find roots in a community and the love of a people you never want to leave.

Christ offers us big-picture joy, an experience transcending this nation, this world, even this universe. As these deep Christian communities grow, our nation will be blessed through the expansion of God’s kingdom from within, no lobbying, lawsuits or votes required.

Such a shift in thinking begins with you, Christian. Are you ready to take your faith seriously, placing Christ above all things? What will you do to make your church a true Christian community, one open to anyone wanting to enter the kingdom of God and its life of holiness and joy?

Beatitudes IV: Reviled

Matthew 5:10-12

So, let’s say for a moment we’ve managed to engage with God in such a way that we begin to live out what we hear in the Beatitudes. Through the grace of God, we embrace poverty of spirit. Our mournfulness over sin includes the brokenness we see around us every day; we meekly humble ourselves before God, which gives us perspective.

We hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness like starving, waterless people in the desert. A purity of heart grows in us, thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. Peacemaking becomes our primary occupation, regardless of how we earn a living.

Despite the joy we would experience in connecting so closely to God, we must understand that none of this is the path to what the world would call the good life. If we become the kingdom citizens described in the Beatitudes, we no longer are citizens of this temporal world. We will be in conflict with the world, and we will at times be reviled for standing with God.

Early Christians discovered quickly that Jesus accurately used “when” and not “if” while talking about being persecuted for following him. It was hard to be a Christian; you had to give up a lot in this world.

At work, you constantly encountered situations where you might be in or near buildings involving emperor worship or worship of the Roman gods. Rigid adherence to the idea that Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar or some idol, could keep you from earning a living.

Friends tended to socialize at banquets, which usually were dedicated to particular gods. Even the meat served at these banquets usually came from sacrificial offerings to pagan gods. What was a Christian to do?

And unless you were blessed to be born into a Christian family, your newfound beliefs could even divide you from your parents, siblings or spouse.

There also was the constant slander a Christian had to face. Ugly rumors were spread about this new religion. Because of the references to the body and blood of Christ during communion, people on the streets began to say Christians were cannibals. Christians also were seen as sexually immoral because their gatherings were called love feasts and they greeted each other with a kiss.

As bad as all that was for a Christian, the real problem was political. Even before Jesus came, the Roman Empire had devised a loyalty test for its subjects. Once a year, citizens were expected to burn a pinch of incense in a temple dedicated to the “Spirit of Roma” and, later, the emperor, who had taken on the role of a god. Those who refused to do so were considered rebellious, a danger to society, and of course Christians regularly refused, knowing they could not declare any human or made-up god to be Lord over Jesus Christ.

Most of us have heard how some Christians even experienced martyrdom, choosing to die in often grisly ways rather than denying Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A good example is the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and a one-time disciple of the Apostle John.

How could people suffer so and persevere in their faith, even dying for Christ? Well, the answer is pretty simple. They had spent significant time living for Christ.

Let’s also not forget the promised reward. Not only do those persecuted and reviled for Jesus get to go to heaven, their reward is great in heaven. True faith in an abundant afterlife has sustained persecuted Christians for centuries.

I cannot predict whether anyone reading this will ever face such trying circumstances. We are already blessed in that such events rarely occur in the developed world, where freedom of religion is usually respected to at least some degree. But at the same time, circumstances can change very quickly. Just ask our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq or Syria, assuming you can find some who have not had to flee.

How would any of us face such a challenge? Well, I hope. We would stand with Christ regardless of the circumstances, I pray.

I am sure of this. The true answer lies in how firmly we live with Christ today, tomorrow, and every day of our lives leading to such a moment.

Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported the church financially in any way. Those of us who lead the church don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support the church’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s text, read without much context, sounds like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe¹ and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what drives me to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predates the law—probably the best example is in Genesis 14:17-20, where the future patriarch of God’s chosen people shares a tithe of his possessions with Melchizedek, the mysterious “priest of God Most High.”

Tithing also doesn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly enters the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had, Acts 2:43-47 tells us, having “all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in learning to give to support God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Frank Buck spoke earlier in worship of how the church budget is designed to reach out to the world with the message of Christ. And I hope you got the point—one way or another, all those wonderful accomplishments that occur through worship, nurture and outreach ministries require money. How much money you give sets the thermostat for how hot our ministries can be.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, the average household in this congregation gave about 4 percent of income to the church’s work in 2011. That’s an average covering every active household at Cassidy UMC, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.²

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if we would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our ministry budget would jump by 25 percent—that’s more than $80,000.

And obviously, if we ever were to become a tithing church, with an average near 10 percent, our budget would more than double.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is power in tithing, the kind of power that helps change the world. It’s not about obeying some law; it’s about participating in the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However we might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.


¹I should explain what tithing is; it is only in recent years that I’ve discovered a lot of Christians don’t fully understand the word. Tithing is giving 10 percent of your “harvest” toward God’s church. For most of us, our harvest now amounts to cash income from work or investments. Offerings are what we give beyond this basic commitment.

²This average is a little hard to calculate because I don’t know what each Cassidy UMC household earns, so I have to rely on reports of what the median household income for the 37664 zip code is. And that number varies depending on which agency does the reporting. But 4 percent is a reasonable estimate.