I have been preparing a Bible Study talk on Romans 16… have you read Romans 16 lately? It is a list of names, most of which I cannot even pronounce. What do you do with a list of names?! Okay Lord, you are going to have to surprise me with something to share here!
So I sat with these names, I read them, and re-read them. Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Andronicus, Junia… all 26 of them. And the first thought that came to my mind was, Who are these people?! Here they are mentioned once in Scripture, and then never heard of again.
Then, as I kept reading and re-reading, I was struck by the way in which Paul names them… compatriot, co-worker, fellow prisoner (you mean Paul wasn’t the only one imprisoned for his faith?!), beloved. We can view Paul as a bit of a lone-ranger… THE GREAT APOSTLE who did all these amazing things for God, wrote half of the New Testament, who started church after church… Paul who converted the Greco-Roman world for Christ… that’s how we can view Paul.
Romans 16 helps correct this view… Here we see that Paul simply saw himself as one among many “workers in the Lord,” one among other apostles, (one of whom listed here as an apostle is a woman, Junia in vs 7!!!) Did you catch that phrase that Paul uses… “workers in the Lord.” NOT Paul, the ONE great worker in the Lord! When it comes to Paul’s ministry we just happen to have this really full picture of all he did because his letters were the ones preserved in the New Testament, but his work, here in Romans 16, is set in the context of the much larger work of the people of God. Paul is one among many.
Like the Oscars or Golden Globe Awards… all we know are the famous actors or actresses who get up to receive their award, but then they unfold this list and read off all these names of people we don’t know, but the one receiving the award, they know… the work they have done, they have not done alone. The movie they got Best Actor or Actress for, well, it never would have been possible without the 100s of names that are listed in the credits. The credit names we never know like we know the starring names, but that does not diminish their work in making the movie a reality.
Paul lists 26 people, a group that comprise at least 5 house churches. This is a huge list of names, compared to the greetings in other NT books, people we don’t know… but each name he mentions, they have a story, a place in the history of the kingdom of God. Paul, we know his story… most of these names we cannot even pronounce let alone remember, but in Paul’s mind, and more importantly in God’s economy, their lives were significant. And they weren’t all leaders in the church. Some were, but most were just members of these house churches, husbands and wives, a set of sisters, mothers, workers in the homes of wealth non-Christians, ordinary people doing day-to-day things, but in their life and connection to this community, they were having an impact in the kingdom work of God.
This section in Romans 16, reminded me, it reminds you, your work… what you do in your life as a Christian, those not so seen places where you exist, where I exist, THEY MATTER! Your life as caregiver for an aging parent, your life as a mom wiping poop from your baby’s bottom and spit up from their mouth like a billion times a day, your life spent in the car running kids here and there, your life behind a computer at work, your life cooking meals, scrubbing toilets, these are the not so impressive things we do in life… but in these hidden spaces of life, in these not so seen places where we live most of the time, these are in fact the places in which God is working bigger things than we can know! Here Paul celebrates the hidden, not so showy, but significant work of the ordinary, not-so-well-known people of God.
Paul’s life seemed pretty impressive, and in the world, we are wowed by the impressive and showy. We are all too often caught up in big names, even in the Christian world… those who have their name on a book, have been written up by Christianity Today, who have done impressive things, started movements, established non-profits that have done enormous good. And we can measure our life and significance against these.
But here’s the deal, it is not that this work that is out there and known by others doesn’t matter… but it also does not rate as more important or significant than your work, work that is hidden and unseen most of the time! What you do day in and day out, it matters in God’s economy.
What ultimately matters, what makes anything any of us do, well-known people or the unknowns in the world, of any significance is that it is work done “in the Lord,” as Paul repeats over and over again in these verses. Elsewhere Paul says in Colossians 3:17 “Whatever you do whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through him.” This is the way that we live as “workers of the Lord.” Our lives, what we do day in and day out, if we are doing it as followers of Jesus, seeking to please him, seeking to be attentive to his Spirit, this not only is pleasing to God, but it also has an impact in the work of the kingdom that we may never know until we are on the other side of eternity.
Romans 16 has helped me reflect on the fact that I think God has a whole different way of assessing significance than the way we do it. I think we are going to be surprised at some of the people who are highlighted in the Hall of Fame in the New Heaven and New Earth. Unlike our Halls of Fame that are filled with people who have made a name for themselves, whom every knows, God’s Hall of Fame will probably be filled with a whole lot of unknowns to us in this lifetime. Moms who made sacrifices day in and day out no one else but Jesus saw. Men who kept their integrity in hard situations at work, character choices that were never seen. Children who in their simple faith, say prayers for a homeless person and rocked the world of Evil in that moment.
This list in Romans 16 reminds you and me that our stories, our lives, even if they go unnoticed and unknown to most people in this lifetime, like these names mentioned here, they are mentioned once and that’s it, but their lives… your lives… they matter!
N.T. Wright had this to say, these individuals listed here, “not heard of anywhere else; like many others before and since, simply have been good though obscure Christians. [They] stand here for the multitudes of whom we know nothing, but who were lights of the world in their several generations.”
What we do in our day-to-day life as people seeking to be faithful followers of Christ holds significance, even if the annals of history, or the walls of Facebook never know. Even if we don’t get a single “like” here, God, he sees, he notices you.
Like Paul did here with these Christians, God sees your work in the Lord in your day to day life, and, friends, he is more than pleased.
You are doing significant things, even if the world never sees or recognizes it!
N.T. Wright The New Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary on Romans 16:21-24, 766.