Delivered July 14, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Community in Christ

Sermon Text:
Romans 16:1-16
and I Chronicles 29:10-18

Romans 16 is not the normal kind of passage that we read from scripture. It’s towards the tail end of one of the greatest treatises on salvation ever written and on God’s grace to human beings. But it moves from theology to relationships in a very deep way and so listen to the people that Paul was thanking for being partners with him in the gospel from Roman’s 16, Verses 1-16.

“I commend you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord and 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. Greet Priscilla and Aquila my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epaenetus, who is the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the Apostles and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Amplias whom I love in the lord. Greet Urbane, our fellow worker in Christ and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodian, my relative. Greet those in the household of Narcissus, who are in the lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, who those women who work hard in the lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the lord and his mother, who has been a mother to me too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes and the brothers with them. Greet Phililogus, Julia, Nereus and his sister and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.”

A can of tuna, I cannot open a can of tuna without thinking of my grandmother. To you a can of tuna may conjure up many other images, but to me it conjures up an image of a woman about 5’3″, whose long hair was up in braids, standing at a counter with a hand held can opener, turning it, squeezing out the oil, putting it in a bowl, picking out the pits from the lemon that she squeezed in to it and then a touch of mayonnaise. Then she would mix it and take some lightly browned toast, put the tuna on it, cut off the edges and then make as even squares as you have ever seen on a piece of toast and she would set it in front of me. I can’t think of a can of tuna without thinking of my grandmother, because there in her kitchen, her name was Anna, in her warm kitchen I spent many warm moments knowing that somehow, not only she loved me but through her care, and through her love and through the details, God loved me too. Even though she rarely said the words, “I love you”, I know that she did. I felt valued. I felt loved and accepted in her presence. And again, I understood that somehow God loved me too through her.

It’s this reality that I sense is being communicated from Paul to his friends in Rome. At the end of his letter, this is more than just a list of names. It’s a peek at relationships. You see the Apostle Paul is ending his treatise to his friends in Rome and he lists their names. You know he didn’t have to do that, he could have just tied it up in one nice neat package, but he lists the names of people. And he recounts each one of them in a particular way and reflects on how they had blessed him. The very distinct impression that we get from this list is that everything that has come before, all the rich theology, the rich explanation of the gospel was communicated and transmitted through the appreciative relationships that the people of Rome and Paul shared together. At the top of his list for example are Priscilla and Aquila. He says that they risked their lives for him. What an incredible thing to do, to risk one’s life for another. And he goes on to say that not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to God for them. And so they must have done many, many acts of love and care, so that not only was Paul saying, “Yes they are my friends, yes I love them and they love me”, but thank God that through these relationships the message of the gospel has been communicated so that other people know God’s love as well.

So what would your list look like? People who have blessed us on our way and more than that, people who have helped be partners in the gospel. Well this is Paul’s list of people in Rome and he is saying in affect, thank you for showing God’s love to me and to others and in so doing, fulfilling the mission that God has given us to proclaim God’s love in Jesus Christ. It’s the way I feel today. To thank you all for partnering, and doing more than just being a nice cozy fellowship, but in communicating to many people the love of God in Jesus Christ. But, there is even more here than a list of people or a thanksgiving roster. As we read between the lines, we start to see what could be classified as the central dynamics of a healthy congregation. As Paul signed off with his friends, we can read between the lines to see how he emphasized three foundational realities of Christian community and if these three are in place, then a congregation will be strong. If they are not, then the opposite will be true.

So let’s look at the first one. Again, it’s in Verses 1 and 2 and actually represented by a word that Paul uses 19 times in these 16 verses. He says, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” “I ask you” (listen to how he asks the Romans to receive her) “I ask you to receive her in the Lord, in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help that she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.” And then 19 times Paul goes on to say, “Greet” someone. Here is the first principle – In a strong, healthy body the members must stay connected to one another. What happens in our physical body when the connections are not strong? When the circulation stops flowing? Well the extreme is amputation and nobody wants that. You see, Paul is saying through this repetition of the word “Greet” and through how he asks the Romans to receive Phoebe, to stay connected to him and to each other. This long list is unparalleled in the New Testament and it’s probable that Phoebe was actually delivering the letter to the Romans herself and she had this list from Paul so that she would know who to make contact with as she entered that part of the world. As he says, receive her, help her, connect with her. The word greet in Greek is more than just “Paul says hey”. We have all probably said to someone who is going to see a mutual friend before we do, “Please remember me to them.” Re-member me to them. Reconnect me to them. Greet means literally to be fond of, to cherish, to be devoted to, to be deeply welcoming like my grandma was to me.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of answers we would get if we truly asked newcomers or even not so newcomers in our midst, do you really feel welcome here? I mean do you really feel welcomed here? I know many would say yes, by all means. But I wonder if all would. You know it’s the blessing of blessings to just be welcomed, to be received, to be loved, to be accepted. For no other reason, than just for whom you are. And we all know that people struggle their whole life long when they haven’t received that genuine heartfelt welcome, even from people who are closest to them.

You know there are a lot of babies being born around Central these days and a lot to be born and sometimes I wonder why is a baby loved? Sometimes I take a little baby in my hands and I will say, “Why are you so loved?” And I will say, “Because you just are.” Certainly it can’t be because of what you do. What you do is crank out dirty diapers, you spit up, and you wake people up in the middle of the night. It’s just because you are that you are loved.

Lyle Shaller said, “the biggest challenge for the church at the opening of the 21st century is to develop a solution to the discontinuity and fragmentation of the American lifestyle”. We are a lonely people. We are an isolated people in many ways. And so the call from Paul today is to not to wait or to hang back. I know that personality traits enter into all of this, but ask God to help you to get beyond yourself and initiate greetings that are beyond superficial. Make people think that you want their vote, just because they are. And so I give you a mini challenge. You can make a mini commitment. How about you pick the number of weeks. One week. Two weeks. Whatever you think is best for you. To meet and truly greet another person for the next number of weeks, the way Paul is talking about it. To welcome them, to try to get beyond just a hello and try to discover a little bit about whom they are. A healthy body has to stay connected.

Secondly, Paul teaches through his communications with the Romans, that not only do we need to stay connected, but we need to stay involved. If you look at Verse 6, 9 and 12. In Verse 6, “Greet Mary” and by the way that name is probably the simplest on the list. Look what he said about Mary, “who worked very hard for you.” In Verse 9, “Urbanas, our fellow worker” he says. In Verse 12, “Tryphena, Tryphosa, who are the woman who worked hard in the lord and then Persis, another woman who worked very hard in the lord.” This reality says that a strong, healthy body will not go couch potato. It must exercise, it must exert energy, it must work. A healthy body works out. And Paul is expressing his appreciation for those who are working hard for the gospel, because for him active membership in the church is responsibly participating with others for Christ’s sake. Every obedience, every service that we render is a participation in the gospel, in the mission of moving people toward Christ. Everything. So for example, if you are assigned or you choose to work with the infants in the nursery or the toddlers, don’t just say I am just down here with munchkins, not doing much of anything. But rather, I too am supporting the work of Christ because I am showing my love and God’s love to these children and plus their folks are able to be in worship and able to study in church school, because of my efforts. You know its tough on other people in the body when we don’t hang in there.

A church choir director story, Tom will appreciate this one especially. It talks about a church choir director who is being driven out of his mind at rehearsals because of the Christmas concert. It seemed like at least one or more members every single week was missing the rehearsal and breaking up the continuity. Finally they reached the last rehearsal and he announced, “I want to personally thank” and this was kind of an underground way of chastisement, as well as encouragement, he said, “I want to personally thank the organist for being the only person in this entire church choir who has made each and every rehearsal that we have had”, the organist rose and bowed kind of kiddingly, kind of taking in all of the praise, and he said, “Well it’s the least I could do considering I won’t be able to be at the concert tonight.” Well Paul says, stay involved. This is so important because in transitional times the temptation is to pull out. Paul is saying, stay involved, work hard for the Lord. I wish you could have been at session meeting last Monday. I know that you don’t, because it ended at 11:00, and an encouraging aside by the way, we had to meet at Brenda and Richard Ames-Ledbetter’s home, because every space in this church was being used for a different ministry. The session’s effort is fantastic. The elders have been holding two meetings a month for the past 4-1/2 months. You know that is almost a whole year’s worth of meetings, because usually session meetings are monthly. Bold decisions are being made. The new ministry model is trying to be worked out. If you walk around to the old part of the church building, you will see that that area which was once a gym, now is being reshaped and renovated for youth ministry, and not just for youth ministry, but for all ministry here. We have been talking the last few weeks, it’s been interesting, we have listened to a carefully thought through presentation on why it’s important to go to a fourth service sometime in the next year or so, probably a weekend evening, a Saturday or a Sunday night. And just this past Monday, a decision was made to look in to a feasibility study to start to build Phase II out on the back lawn there, whether or not that is the best thing that should be done based on a vision of the congregation. Basically what they are saying collectively, is we are moving forward and I hope that just knowing that will in some way inspire you, not just to hang in there, but to ratchet up your involvement, to pray seriously and say, “God, how am I to use my gifts in these next months to express love for God and strengthen the body of Christ?” So stay involved, stay connected and then there is one further reality, which also is repeated frequently by Paul in this text.

It’s the most important and it’s the reason for our connection and for our involvement. A healthy body has to stay connected to its head. Nine times in this text, Paul states that he and his friends are in the Lord. His call to connection and involvement isn’t based on general kinds of things that cause people to be homogeneous. He didn’t say, “Boy I am all glad that we are in the Olympic Rotisserie league together.” He didn’t say, “I am glad we are all in the Italian Food Club there in Rome.” It’s not NASCAR or bridge or the Orioles, or being Irish. We are the company of the committed and the appreciative because we are in Christ. We are in Christ. We are in the Lord. And if God has put you in Christ by virtue of repentance and faith, and he does so with me or anybody else, that puts us in the same boat together and calls us to row to the beat of Jesus who is at the helm. If you row in one direction and somebody else rows in another direction, what happens? Circles. Who wants to just go around in circles? Or if everybody pulls his or her oars in, you just drift. God is calling the church to stay connected to its head, to hear the one drum beat of Christ to love and to reach out to others. Think of the historical, ethnic background in this text. Paul by his own admission was a Jew of Jews and when you look at this list of names you see they are all Greek, they are all Roman in ethnic derivation. They are as Gentile as you can get and Christ made Paul and them into one body. You know maybe that’s where the grandmother illustration breaks down. She loved me because I was her grandson. Paul advocates that our love is expressed to others, first and foremost because we belong to Christ and he’s our head.

Consider this story from Elaine Ward. “Do I have to go alone?”, she asked her grandmother. “I will come back after church school,” her grandmother quickly left her standing inside the room beside the door. The teacher with a record in her hand smiled, “Do you like music?” she asked. The girl shook her head, no. Today, music would make her sad. The plants need watering, would you water them for me please? Again, the girl shook her head, no. Today she did not feel like helping anyone. Would you like to paint, or build, write or read? Again, she shook her head no. Today she did not want to communicate in any way. The teacher put a chair by the door where she could sit. As the other boys and girls entered the room, she told the girl their names and they smiled at the stranger. Today however, she did not want to smile. When they came together to sing, the teacher told them a story about Jesus loving and healing, the lonely, the sick and the stranger. God cares about you, the teacher said. When the boys and girls had gone, only the girl was left. Again, she was along and the teacher sat beside the girl. “God loves you”, she told her. “I know”, the girl replied. “How do you know?” The teacher asked. The girl looked up in to the eyes of the loving teacher and said, “Because you love me” and it was true.

Ultimately, we know that God loves us. When we look at the cross, when we look at our Lord Jesus and say, I know that God loves me because you love me. You showed me Lord when you stretched out your arms and died for me. But also, we come to know the love of God because people express that love to us in simple or great ways. And so today, recall people in your life who have loved you with God’s love. By all means find ways to appreciate them, but even more stay connected to one another. Stay involved in the work of Christ, in the knowledge that we are all stayed in Jesus Christ. Amen.

I would like to end my sermon in a little different way today. It is sort of a sermon extension, before we sing our hymn of thanks. Dave and Maureen Patton are making their way up here to the pulpit. Many of you have kept track of their challenges over the past few months and its an amazing thing that they come here today and share the goodness that God has showed to them and the appreciation not only to God, but to you for partnering with them.

(Dave) First of all, we need to thank you all for your prayers that have gone up on my behalf and on our behalf. Maureen and I know that God does miracles today, just as he did in scriptural times, biblical times and down through the ages. Our experience in this started in Italy where we were vacationing with friends. I had a major heart attack, but there weren’t many outward symptoms, until it was difficult to walk. I had shortness of breath and I began to gain weight, totaling about 15 pounds. Right or wrong, we made a decision to come back to the States. And so God’s hands were in our travels from Venice to London, London to Miami, and then to drive from Miami to Naples, Florida.

(Maureen) This part Dave asked me to share with you of his 45 days in the hospital, because he really does not recall this part. We entered the emergency room in Naples Community Hospital on April 16th, where he was diagnosed having had a serious heart attack. Timing was amazingly good. It was not in season. People had gone home. Care was available and exceptional doctors were available to us. After many tests and a catheterization, it became very clear that bypass surgery was his only option. Surgery was performed on April 26th, a dual bypass. Dave’s second bypass, which they referred to as a redo. After surgery, he was kept deeply sedated for three days. There was no progress. He was continuing to fail. He was flooded with fluids and medicine to help his injured heart. Kidneys failed. Fluid created lung and breathing issues and a great need for oxygen. Six days after his surgery, during dialysis he suffered cardiac arrest. The use of paddles failed and he flat-lined for three minutes and then his heart started beating on its own without any medical care. A team of doctors standing by him greeted my stepson Jim and I and we were told it would most likely happen again in the night and that Dave would not survive. Conference calls were made to our family, the cardiologist joined that call and our close friend, Dr David Hungerford. The family came the next day and we all prayed and very slowly he started to turn around. Dave was on more prayer chains than I knew existed, from the East Coast to the West Coast, to Bangladesh and Kenya.

(Dave) Many people have asked me if I saw the white lights. The answer is no, but what I did hear was the physicians assistant for the cardiologist who said, “It’s beating, it’s beating” in an increasing crescendo. When I was back conscious again, and out of the critical area, I asked her, “Danielle, did you say this?” And she said, “Yes, I came over and saw the heart beating.” There were many times when crisis occurred. I had a blood clot. We had a build up of fluids and a number of events like that, but in each one the proper doctor just happened to walk through the door to take care of it. We know that that timing is not accidental.

(Maureen) Dave and I have just been married 3 1/2 years and out of many difficult situations, there is always good and in our case, our 7 adult children became one family and we are ever so grateful and thankful to them for their love and support.

(Dave) Each one of the doctors, four major doctors said to me in their way, “This was a miracle. Do you understand that this was a miracle?” Two of them actually used those words. The other two said, “It must not be your time”, or “This is a totally unique situation.” Without a doubt all seven of our families and all 21 of our grandchildren understand the crisis that I went through. They were there first hand. They saw it. They had a chance to be a part of it. And we have encouraged them to tell others about the miracle that happened to their grandparents, especially their grandfather. After 45 days in the hospital, they had to teach me a lot of skills that I thought I already knew, walking and things like that. Not talking, I already had that one. This experience has a dual affect on me. It is unsettling in that I was chosen for this when so many of my friends and others had not been. And yet it is exciting to realize that God has given us this life, it’s truly a gift and Maureen and I will cherish it.

Just one more thought, as Dave just concluded. Sometimes when we have been through the difficult straits, we haven’t had a yes answer from God, we have had a no answer. I just want to remind us that the Lord shows mercy for reasons that we don’t understand, to one and perhaps not to another, but whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s and Paul said, I want my life to glorify God in life or in death and so as Dave has shared, this opportunity that he has is a witness to the kingdom of God that he can share with others and it calls each of us to witness in our own way to the great love of Jesus Christ. Let us continue in our worship to Almighty God and with the same spirit of David in 1st Chronicles, lets sing with understanding and with a spirit of thanksgiving the hymn that is printed in your bulletin – Give Thanks.