July 10, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Paul was in the city of Corinth, thinking, as always, of the things he wanted to do and the places he wanted to go next. He needed to go back to Jerusalem to deliver an offering he had been collecting for some of the poorer churches but after that he dreamed of going to Spain, of taking the gospel to the farthest reaches of his world, and on his way, he thought he would try to visit the Christians in Rome. Several of the friends he had made on his missionary journeys had hailed from Rome so, though he had never been there himself, he felt a kinship with the communities in the city. He knew some of the members personally while others he knew of by reputation, through conversations with his friends, and through the regular gossip channels that exist in any small church network even ones where the gossip travels by foot and mule instead of telephone and texts. And we know these people as well because Paul carefully names them all at the end of his letter before he hands it over to Phoebe to deliver on his behalf.
Phoebe was a deacon in the Corinthian church, a leader and minister, and was apparently a woman of means since she had already generously supported Paul’s ministry; perhaps she was traveling from her seaport home near Corinth to Rome on business and Paul decided to send his letter with her, knowing that the Roman church would recognize her as a trustworthy emissary. So, Phoebe sets off by boat sailing west down the Gulf of Corinth and across the Adriatic Sea to reach the eastern coast of modern day Italy, where she then has to walk another 230 miles to the city of Rome. Google says that today it would take 90 hours to walk from the port at Bari to Rome and we can assume that it would have taken Phoebe about the same amount of time since the empire’s road system was well constructed and fairly safe, so even if Phoebe walks just ten hours a day, before two weeks have passed, the members of the Roman churches will be listening to the words of Paul’s letter.
There were a number of house churches in Rome in Paul’s day but the total population of Christians was still small, perhaps as few as thirty people or maybe as many as 100, so Paul is careful to name all of the households in the city in his final greetings as well as a number of people individually. The ending of Paul’s letter, then, is for us like a snapshot of the Christians in Rome in the late 50s AD, faces frozen in time when the church was still less than thirty years old. It is likely that Paul’s letter was passed among the Roman churches but for the sake of our imaginations, let’s pretend for a moment that all of the people he mentions are gathered in one room to listen to Paul’s words and a photographer captures the event. What might we see in the resulting picture?
There in the front of the frame, sitting right next to Phoebe as she reads, are Prisca and Aquila. How anxious they are to hear from Paul. They are his dearest friends having toiled alongside of him in Corinth when he was making tents to earn money, and accompanying him on some of his journeys. They have just recently returned to Rome, their home of origin. They had been forced to leave the city a decade or so before when the Emperor Claudius expelled all of the Jews from the city, Jewish-Christians included, but they returned as soon as the new Emperor Nero dropped the ban. The couple listen to Paul’s words of gratitude for their friendship and think how much they miss him as well.
We see over to one side of the room Epaenetus who is smiling as he hears his name mentioned. He was the first person in all of Asia to be baptized into Christ, and though he tries not to boast of it, he is pleased that Paul remembers. The woman next to him is named Mary, one of so many Mary’s in the Bible. This Mary’s head is bowed in prayer as it always is — Mary is a hard worker, Paul says. She is that church member who prays for others constantly with both her heart and her hands. In the photo, we see to one side Andronicus and Junia, leaning on one another as they listen. Man and wife? Brother and sister? We’re not sure but we can see from the respect on the others’ faces that they are held in high regard. They have been Christians longer than anyone in the room, longer than Paul himself. They were among the very first witnesses of the risen Christ, and consequently among the first apostles, and it was only some years later, when they were thrown into prison for a night, that they discovered that Paul too, a relative of theirs, had discovered Christ as well. They took different paths, but came to the same place in the end.
Sitting in our photo near Andronicus and Junia are other old friends of Paul’s — Ampliatus, Urbanus, and Stachys — fellow Jews who had embraced the gospel and worked with Paul while they were exiled from Rome but have returned home now that the ban has been ended. Paul was sorry to see such good friends leave and he hopes they are well. And next to them, sitting with her son Rufus, is an older woman: our photographer captures the moment when her hand covers her heart in tenderness as she hears Paul say that she has been like a mother to him.
As we continue to scan the room looking at this snapshot in time, we see other people’s faces, perhaps more dimly but there nonetheless. Here in the room are the slaves and servants of Aristobulus and of Narcissus. There was a Narcissus who was secretary to the Emperor before Nero had him executed — perhaps these are his workers, but if not that Narcissus, then they are certainly the workers of some other Roman master who himself is off worshipping in the caverns of a mystery religion while his workers come here to the young church to find a freedom that they can’t experience in their daily work lives. We see also in our photo Nereus and his sister, one undoubtedly persuading the other of the truth of this new gospel for that’s often how Christianity grew in those days — one family member excitedly sharing the good news with another. Tryphaena and Tryphosa bring the number of women in our picture to nine: daughters, sisters, widows, wives, some here with family, some coming alone, and some, Olympia for example, leaders of some of the house churches in the city. And Paul names all of the men who head households in our portrait — Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas; Paul is careful not to leave a single family or fellowship out of his commendation, and as Phoebe reads this litany of names, look closely at the people. See on their faces a look of quiet pleasure and conviction as they recognize that each one of them has a role to play in the Church, the Church with a capital C. The great apostle Paul knows of their work, they think to themselves, and not a single one of them is left out or unimportant.
Look at their faces in that photo as Phoebe reads Paul’s concluding words: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.” Their faces radiate confidence, wholeness, and peace because this moment is for them a transcendent one. In Paul’s words they hear the message that each one of them is part of something bigger than themselves. By carefully naming and compassionately commending each of the people and the households of the Roman church, by encouraging them to greet one another with a holy kiss, and by giving them greetings from “all of the churches of Christ,” Paul has lifted them from the grind and mediocrity of their ordinary daily lives into a worldwide communion of a most holy enterprise. This moment is transcendent.
The dictionary defines transcendence as going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding the ordinary human experience. A transcendent moment is one that allows you to escape the limitations of your individual existence to enter into something beyond yourself, bigger than yourself, better than yourself, something not even available to you normally as a singular mortal entity in the world. On ordinary days, we walk around trying to do the best we can but we are all too aware of our limitations. We want to work in the garden all day long but our human bodies eventually tire and ache, so we do the best we can and can enjoy the pleasure of the work but we know that the quality of our experience will be limited by the boundaries of our physical selves. Or we want to be compassionate people and so we are as generous and as helpful as we can be but then other people’s personalities keep interfering with our intentions and we get irritated and the quality of our love is limited by the limitations of our mortal existence.
And even when we are able to get it right for a minute, for a day, for a week, we are still only one person and our tiny bit of love poured out in our tiny part of the world feels so impotent in the face of the overwhelming brutality of the day. We are so painfully aware of our moral limitations.
And so we seek transcendence. All of us search for the means of becoming, for even just a moment, hitched to something bigger, something more powerful, more moving, and more complete than this one life can ever be. We seek to be more than ourselves.
Those of you who went to the concerts at the MostArts Festival this week discovered the transcendence that we can experience in music. Last night, as the festival orchestra was playing Beethoven’s symphony, every musician on that stage was lifted out of their individual mortal bodies to become fused with the music streaming out of the whole, and we in the audience left the bonds of our physicality as well to become part of that music. All of our spirits fused momentarily in the music: there was nothing in that room but music. You could see it in the faces and the bodies of the musicians as they became the notes and the sounds; you could see it in the faces and the bodies of the audience as they sat riveted in their seats, all thought forgotten, all cares, personalities, ailments, worries — all individuality swept away in the music. Why did the audience erupt into applause when the piece was over? Sure, we respected the talent displayed on that stage. Sure, we were impressed by the quality of Beethoven’s composition. But that’s not why we jumped out of our seats in a standing ovation — we erupted in applause because for that moment in time, we forgot who we each individually were and simply became one with the music.
We crave transcendence. We want to — we need to — be transported out of the limitations of our daily mortal existence to become part of something so momentous and large that we lose ourselves to it and become one with it.
We crave transcendence and so we go looking for it, but too often we go looking in all of the wrong places. We want to feel that we are part of something bigger and so we hitch ourselves to new and bigger identities becoming not Laurie DeMott but “Democrat,” “Republican,” “American,” “British,” “Black Lives Matter” supporter, “Blue Lives Matters” supporter, Catholic, Bible believer, cat lover, or dog person. We try to fill our craving for something bigger than ourselves by throwing ourselves vehemently into our ethnic identity, our family identity, our professional title, or our political affiliation, and while these larger identities make us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, it turns out that they are still not big enough.
Paul carefully named all of the households in the Roman churches because they, like us, had sought their transcendence in the wrong places. Like so many of those early congregations and like Christians today, the Roman churches too had developed factions among their members. The Jewish-Christians faced off against the Gentile Christians; the wealthier members scorned the poorer members; men and women debated proper gender roles; slave and free eyed one another suspiciously. They wanted to believe that they were part of something bigger than themselves but they hadn’t reached high enough, being satisfied with a group or doctrinal identity, something more than the individual but still grounded in the limitations of human existence. And so Paul carefully named them all — the men, the women, the rich, the poor, the young, the old, the Gentiles, the Jews, the first of the Christians and the newest of the Christians — and then when he had all of their attention and they knew he was talking to them, he directed their eyes higher. He pointed to the infinite, to the holy, to the one Lord, the one body, the one Christ in whom we can all rest.
Blaise Pascal said that we try in vain to fill the emptiness within us with everything around us but we cannot find in these pursuits the help we seek because “this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
When the Christians in Rome heard Paul’s words, they experienced transcendence. All of the human distinctions and empty pursuits fell away as they remembered that they were part of the infinite body of Christ, grounded in grace, lifted in love, and bound spiritually to one another in mystical union. They became more than themselves: they became holy people, serving as one in Christ.
As you seek transcendence from the limitations of your mortal existence, from the impotency of your singular life, from the frailties of your one body and the weaknesses of your one mind, hitch your spirit to the one Lord who is beyond us all, who offers you the possibility of becoming part of God’s infinite grace and eternal spirit.
The information about the people mentioned in here is from an article on Romans 16 by N.T. Wright in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible